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The Cavs Unleash the Oscar Robertson Defense on Steph Curry

AP Images
AP Images

In a blowout that warmed the hearts of old heads across the nation, Stephen Curry was contained by a Cavaliers team that had nothing left but everything it had. The truisms of old-school basketball manifested in Game 3 and seemingly converged to keep Curry from getting in rhythm. He was called for two quick fouls only seven seconds apart toward the end of the first quarter when the Warriors were down 13; conventional wisdom prompted Steve Kerr to take Curry out of the game, preserving him for later. He wouldn’t reenter until just under the seven-minute mark in the second quarter; when he was on the court, he was a ghost.

The Cavs played defense on a string all night, one seemingly controlled by Oscar Robertson, born from the defensive game plan against the Warriors he unveiled earlier this season. Cleveland bumped Curry on screens, and bumped him along the baseline while he sprinted across for open looks on the weak side. They forced him to play honest defense on Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith, who combined for 50 points on 50 percent shooting. There is nothing on the stat sheet for this game that suggests Curry’s performance was as bad as last year’s shooting catastrophe in Game 2 of the Finals (5-for-23, including 13 misses from behind the arc), but he’d left a clear stain on the game for the Warriors. “I’m disappointed that I didn’t do anything to help my team win tonight,” Curry said after Game 3. He meant that literally.

Sometimes it can feel like it takes an army to keep Curry from controlling a game, and that’s exactly what it took Wednesday night. The Cavs stripped him of his confidence by forcing him away from his comfort zones. There are certain shots Curry takes to get his juices flowing; they aren’t necessarily good shots, but they have weightless properties, like a coast-to-coast dunk from Russell Westbrook. These shots take supreme confidence, but in Game 3, they reeked of desperation. He missed them.

It’s no longer a matter of wondering about whether injuries are throwing him off his rhythm. We saw exactly how it unraveled. With only seconds remaining in the third quarter, Curry went to dunk a dead ball with the intent of unleashing his frustration on the rim. LeBron James, taking the role of a former nemesis, blocked it clean, Kevin Garnett–style, even though he didn’t really need to. It was hilarious and cruel and ultimately a sign of utmost respect.

The Cavs know how little it takes for Curry to attain that lightness of being. If this was the one game when Cleveland was going to block out the sun, it was going to have to block it out completely.