Saturday, July 20

Thompson: LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry is still the NBA’s best theater

SAN FRANCISCO — The frustration seethed in Stephen Curry. Until it boiled to the surface. Until he let out a roar. Until he ripped his jersey from the collar to the 30.

He’d scored 46 points on 35 shots, getting the benefit of just three free throws in his 43 minutes. He hit the game-tying layup at the end of regulation. Inside the final minute of the first overtime, he forced a turnover and then hit a massive corner 3, setting up the game-tying 3 from Klay Thompson that kept the Warriors alive. Then in the second overtime, Curry’s final points of the night came on a 26-footer from the top with 4.7 seconds remaining, putting the Warriors up a point.

He left his follow-through in the air as he backpedaled. Too spent for a more elaborate celebration. The NBA’s leader in clutch points delivered 19 more in this double-overtime affair, including 10 in the second overtime. On most nights, it would’ve been enough.

But on the other team was Curry’s partner in magnificence. His most validating and valiant foe. LeBron James. They’ve exchanged heartbreaks and hugs over the years. James, whose Lakers eliminated Curry’s Warriors from the playoffs last year, had more heartbreak to hand Curry.

The 39-year-old James beat a rookie nearly half his age off the dribble, blew past another young, spry athlete and powered up for a strong attack on the rim. He drew the foul and, punctuating his spectacular night, swished a pair of free throws to give the Lakers the win, 145-144. James’ 36 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists in nearly 48 minutes indicted his birth certificate for fraud.

They aren’t winning like they’re used to, both needing all they have just to stay in the race, both hoping to find crucial help to get them back to the realm of the contenders. But Saturday showed Curry and LeBron are still captivating. It will be a decade this coming February since LeBron’s buzzer-beating 3 against the Warriors at Oracle in Oakland debuted “The Silencer” celebration and sparked this duo into must-watch theater. All these years later, when they share a court, it’s still the NBA’s best theater.

“It’s something that you will truly take all in when you’re done playing,” LeBron James said during his on-court interview, “and be able to watch with your grandkids and say that I played against one of the best players ever to play this game. Steph, after the game, came to me and said, ‘How does it keep getting better? How do we keep getting better?’ I think it’s just a true testament to us putting the work in in the game, being true to the game, and the game just continues to give back to us.” 

James, and D’Angelo Russell, made sure another close game slipped through the hands of the Warriors. But this time, it wasn’t so much about what the Warriors didn’t do. This loss wasn’t because of a head-scratching turnover, as was the gut-wrenching loss to Sacramento two nights earlier. Or a questionable coaching decision. Or because they fell apart against an onslaught. Or even because of missed shots.

Still, one of their best efforts counts as but a near-win. A tease. The Warriors are now 15-13 in clutch games with Curry (0-4 without him). They’re five games below .500 and still on the outside of the postseason field. They can play as well as anyone but not win as frequently as the better teams.

“Our whole season,” Curry said, “we’ve had some tough breaks, some self-inflicted wounds. Some games that obviously you should have won and there’s disappointment walking off the floor. … We fought the whole way. Stayed in it even when things weren’t going our way, gave ourselves an opportunity. It goes down to the last possession three or four times in regulation, both overtimes. It just shows that we really want it. We’re playing with a little bit of desperation trying to change the tide of our season and just don’t have nothing to show for it right now.”

LeBron James and Stephen Curry combined for 82 points on 60 shots and plenty of highlights in Saturday’s double-overtime thriller in San Francisco. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

But their peak is still high enough to get intoxicated. Saturday was a gallery of their best.

Curry, obviously. Draymond Green was every bit the difference maker he’s always been, on both ends, and the combustible will that often burns him on this night kept the Warriors firing. Thompson was vintage in the second half after a brutal first half. His defense on LeBron, his shot-making, his competitive spirit. Jonathan Kuminga was ready and impactful. His 22 points and nine rebounds in 43 minutes showed he can play at this level. He should even have a larger role in the offense.

Head coach Steve Kerr is certain a run is coming. His Warriors are ready for a breakthrough. They’ve got one more game on this homestand, against Philadelphia, before a road trip that starts with three losing teams.

It’s only possible if the Warriors’ resolve is stronger than their jersey fabric.

“Our guys were amazing, they were amazing,” Kerr said. “The way they battled, competed, and stayed in the game. Made so many plays. Just felt like we deserved to win that game the way the guys fought. So many plays that could have gone either way. That just felt like a game that we deserved to win. As long as we keep playing the way we played tonight, then I think we’re going to turn this around and have a great season. I really believe that.”

The Lakers are in the same situation, though a little closer to where they want to be than the Warriors thanks to a more stable foundation with James and an elite version of Anthony Davis. Their best, too, looks worthy. The Warriors seem to bring that out of them.

But playing their best in moments, in games, isn’t their problem. It’s sustainability. It’s the consistency and versatility of their greatness that’s lacking. They can’t seem to do it every night. They can’t seem to summon it in multiple ways.

The Lakers and the Warriors.

Saturday conspired to conjure the greatness from both teams. A prime-time game. One of great importance to both middling squads. The Hall of Fame presence all over the floor. The appreciation for the stage, the moment, and to still be on it.

They delivered a thriller. They lived up to their names. Multiple times, Curry took matters into his own hands and delivered like a superstar. But this night, LeBron James had the ball last.

So Curry left the court overcome with frustration. With his jersey in his own hands.

“Actually makes it worse,” Curry said. “Makes, misses or whatever, there’s an energy about what we’re trying to do. So the good news is if we can keep doing that, you would like to think that you could build momentum, and that’s that’s what our hope is. But it’s just a tough … back-to-back games at home that you play well enough to win and just don’t get it done.”


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(Top photo of LeBron James and Stephen Curry after Saturday’s game: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)