The Unmaking of Stephen Curry
"I'm Kevin Durant. You know who I am."
Those words were said by, you guessed it, one Kevin Durant. The sentiment blended irritation and bemusement in equal parts, as if Kevin Durant was genuinely annoyed that people seemed to have forgotten who exactly he was. It was just over three weeks ago that the Warriors found themselves unexpectedly tied with the Los Angeles Clippers in their first-round series, almost universally projected to be a gentleman's sweep. That possibility was not out of the question if the Warriors ripped off the next three games as they were certainly were capable of doing, but their Game 2 loss – giving up a 31 point lead in around 15 minutes at home – indicated that they weren't focused enough to execute all the way through.
Since that line, Kevin Durant has indeed been Kevin Durant, putting up point totals of 38, 33, 45, 50, 35, 29, 46, and 34, as the Warriors closed out the Clippers and played their nemesis Houston Rockets to a 2-2 series draw. Perhaps it was good that Kevin Durant reminded us that he was Kevin Durant, because it seemed like we had all forgotten that he was, as he said, Kevin Durant. Most people don't call him Kevin Durant, specifically they don't call him Kevin like people call Stephen Curry "Steph" or LeBron James "Bron". They call him 'Durant' or 'KD' or 'snake' or whatever. But he is, unquestionably, Kevin Durant.
Most of the criticisms of Kevin Durant are for his decision to join the Warriors a little under three years ago, ironically on the nation's independence day. Few criticisms existed at the time of his on-court performance – the praise for his hyperefficient all-around scoring was universal, his emotional MVP acceptance speech spawned memes of adoration, and he was lauded for signing an un-publicized extension with Oklahoma City at a time when a Big 3 was forming in Miami. Even when he made his own 'Decision', the questions of the Miami team-up – "whose team is it" and "who takes the last shot" – never followed Kevin Durant to Golden State. He was supposed to be a seamless fit, an excellent shooter on a team historically great at shooting.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say the Warriors struggled during his first season with the team. After all, they finished with an incredible 67-15 record, but something seemed to be off, at least at first. He didn't seem to be Kevin Durant, and the Warriors didn't seem to be the Warriors. The questions that had been absent from the basketball discourse thus far began to pop up – "does Kevin Durant's style conflict with that of the Warriors?" "Does Kevin Durant need to do a better job of fitting in?" After all, isolation was the only style that Kevin Durant had come to know, both professionally from the carousel of incompetent head coaches in Oklahoma City, and personally when facing the endless barrage of criticism for everything he did. It developed to the point that it was considered detrimental to the team when Kevin Durant shot the ball at the end of the game, instead of his much less controversial teammate, Stephen Curry.
Stephen Curry's rise, while notable for being meteoric, is also fairly commonplace when it comes to likability. Everyone is likable when they're on the come-up – just look at how people talk about soon-to-be lottery pick Zion Williamson and future-MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo today. It's when people remain at the top that they face an inevitable backlash, which is why Steph's sustained popularity is an outlier. Among all the league-wide vitriol for the Warriors, relatively little of it is directed at Steph, who remains a lovable goofball with a TV star wife and adorable kids. The Warriors were unquestionably his team despite Kevin Durant winning two consecutive NBA Finals MVPs – awards for which he still receives little fan credit – because he was just that guy.
Since Kevin Durant reminded us that he was Kevin Durant, that dynamic seems to have changed. Perhaps part of it is attributable to the two dislocated fingers that Steph is still nursing, but he has had an entirely average playoff run thus far while Durant has ascended to the upper echelon of NBA talent once again. For once, Steph appeared to be the one having difficulty fitting in. The star who was supposed to have the ultimate plug-and-play game found himself a foreign entity on a team that he still led in a city he still owned.
I attended Game 5 between the Warriors and the Rockets. Having supported (bandwagoned?) the Warriors since I moved to the bay area in 2012, I've gotten to see Steph since before he was an All-Star player. This game was probably the tenth I've been to, and it was a completely different experience than all the ones that came before. Steph was awful – not awful by his standards, but awful by human standards as well. He couldn't hit a shot, didn’t look to be aggressive, had careless turnovers, and was a confused catastrophe on defense. But it was all fine, because the Warriors still had Kevin Durant.
And Kevin Durant wasted no time transforming into Kevin Durant, playing an at-this-point routinely good game for a little over two quarters. And then, on a non-contact play, Kevin Durant came up hobbling. Kevin Durant had to leave the game.
The energy of the crowd at that moment was one that I hadn't felt at any game. It was nervousness. Even during games where the Warriors would play poorly or give up a big lead, the energy swung towards annoyance at the lack of focus, or a cool confidence that they would figure it out because they were just that good. But nervous was something new. After all, the idea of having two MVPs was that surely, one of them would play well. But what if one wasn't playing well and the other got injured? In a close Game 5 at home, that could have been a death blow with a potential series-ending Game 6 in Houston looming large.
It would have helped if, right when Kevin Durant went down, Steph leaned over to the microphone on the scorer's table and reminded us that he was indeed Wardell Stephen Curry. Because just like with Durant, we needed that reminder. Calmly, Stephen Curry controlled the rest of the game, guiding the Warriors to a win and saving their season. It was a tipping point – not just for basketball reasons, but for Stephen Curry as well. No matter that he is a two-time MVP that has three championships and is widely considered the greatest shooter of all time. The narrative is ever-changing, able to steal away accolades that were seemingly set in stone and foist labels upon you that are entirely unfair.
And as we speak, the narrative is still in flux, already having begun to shift in just a few weeks. At first, it was that Kevin Durant needed the Warriors to win, that he was riding Steph's coattails, that they had won without him and would continue to do so if (and when) he left. And despite all the goodwill that Steph has built up over the years, it will evaporate in an instant if the Warriors lose the next two games, or even if they lose in the next round if Durant is unable to go. All of a sudden, the focus will be on the fact that Steph has zero NBA Finals MVPs, that Durant was the one who actually carried him, that he is fragile and that jump-shooting teams actually can't win championships when they're not unfairly loaded with talent.
And maybe the goodwill that Steph exudes will find its way to Kevin Durant. Maybe the stories will be told and the songs will be written about a team that couldn't win without Kevin Durant, that he alone brought them to glory and his departure will return them to the dust. Beware the narrative, for it will un-make you.