In a season defined by inconceivable feats, the Golden State Warriors stayed on brand in Wednesday’s NBA Finals Game 3.

In the worst way possible.

The Cleveland Cavaliers smashed the Warriors by a final score of 120-90, ensuring at least a fifth game in this blowout-ridden engagement. Given the outcomes in Games 1 and 2, in which the Warriors ran up an average winning margin of 24 points, the result was surprising.

But Stephen Curry’s poor performance was a flat-out shocker.

As a result, the NBA’s unassailable darling, the man virtually immune to criticism all year, is suddenly in dire need of redemption.

Don’t be fooled by the 19 points on 6-of-13 shooting. Curry collected most of his buckets after the game was decided. Six turnovers were the result of the oddest combination of malaise and jittery decision-making. It was as if Curry was moving both too fast and too slow.

He picked up cheap fouls early. He defended in a haze all night. Without exaggeration, this was Curry’s most disappointing playoff performance to date. And the repercussions were major. It seemed like every key mistake ignited a Cleveland surge.

Like this snooze on a Kyrie Irving cut:

 Or this forgetful sequence that resulted in J.R. Smith’s wide-open corner three:

The capper was a careless turnover resulting in the highlight of the night:

At one point in the second quarter, head coach Steve Kerr removed his unanimous MVP from the game, sat down next to him and asked Curry, “Are you all right?” precisely the way someone asks that question when they know for certain the answer is no.

Curry wasn’t alone in the egg-laying. Collectively, the Warriors failed to match the Cavaliers’ intensity and hustle. Draymond Green laid it out for reporters, via Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post:

From the outset, the Cavs were the aggressors—which is what a team facing a possible 3-0 hole should be.

Cleveland defended with purpose, denied catches on the perimeter and took great advantage of Golden State’s stubborn refusal to go small. Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli and any other conventional center the Warriors deployed were constant targets on defense and little more than human lane congestion on offense.

Perhaps we should have expected Cleveland to extend its postseason unbeaten streak at home. We might also have anticipated a top-end defensive effort with Kevin Love on the bench because of a concussion. And maybe we should have seen this Dubs dud coming, per Warriors PR:

Credit the Cavs for a thorough win, fueled by Irving torching all comers with 30 points and LeBron James’ dominant 32 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. When LBJ drilled a pull-up three (remember, this is a guy so devoid of confidence in his jumper that the Warriors repeatedly went under screens against him 15 feet from the hoop), it was clear the contest was finished:

To anyone watching Games 1 and 2, it felt like the only possible result of Game 3 would be another Warriors win. And much of that feeling stemmed from the near-certainty Klay Thompson—and especially Curry— couldn’t possibly stay quiet for a third consecutive game.

But Curry was something worse than quiet, and it drew loud responses from The Cauldron’s Nate Duncan, the San Jose Mercury News‘ Tim Kawakami and NBA gambler Haralabos Voulgaris (among many, many others):

This was strange—sort of a last incomprehensible subversion from a player and a team that simply refused to honor norms all season.

Seventy-three wins is impossible? Just watch.

No one will ever hit 400 threes? False.

Climbing out of a 3-1 hole in the conference finals almost never happens? Wrong again.

And now, unexpectedly, we’ve seen the first unanimous MVP continue a cold streak at the worst-possible time. Great players are supposed to build their legacies on games like Wednesday’s. Curry had it all set up for him: Hang 40 on the Cavs in Cleveland and effectively end the series.

Instead, he fell short. Or, rather, he continued to fall short, finishing with fewer than 20 points for the third straight postseason game after never being held under 20 in any two straight playoff games before.


Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Golden State, often seemingly invincible, is something less than that when Curry doesn’t mask its flaws. And something much less when he’s at the center of them.

There’s an easy positive spin on Curry’s ill-timed struggles, and it ties in with Golden State’s theme of repeatedly inverting expectations.

Faced now with deserved criticism and some of the first negative scrutiny of the season, the expectation might be for Curry to press, to exacerbate this unfamiliar problem. But since he’s Curry and these are the mold-busting Warriors, he could figure the whole thing out immediately, look like an A-plus version of himself and bury the Cavaliers in Game 4.

After Wednesday, though, that seems impossible.

Which, by the backward math of the 2015-16 Warriors, is sort of the same thing as inevitable.

 

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