Well, spring. But whatever.
As the NBA Finals move into their business end, and the Stanley Cup Final gets ready to kick off tomorrow, both of the conversations around them center around two players who were thought to be past it and yet are the main reason their team is where they are, i.e. poised for yet another ring. Both have had to pull their teams out of the muck at times, make up for injured or non-performing teammates, and both have come up with some of the biggest moments and performances in their career. And both have a ton of observers asking themselves, “How did we forget about this guy?”
Steph, much more so than Stamkos, has always been somewhere around the heated NBA debates for the past seven years. Unlike Stamkos, he can claim to have changed, if not warped, the entire game. There’s a lot of fans who have to fight the instincts built over decades to decree yet another launch from 33 feet a bad shot, if not slap your forehead and exclaim, “WHAT’RE YOU DO….” before the ball expectedly only slightly disturbs the net as it passes through serenely. A lot of the ire Steph sees is either the result of basketball parochialsim and fans protecting their chosen favorite or those railing at the three-point-ification of the NBA, which Steph will always be the face of. These days, in all sports, the greatness of one player is a threat to either another, someone in the past, or the very way we view the sport. Steph certainly was never in the mold of MJ, Kobe, Magic, or LeBron, and definitely not the great centers of yore either. How dare this little mite take over the league in such a way?
So the knives have been out for Curry for a while, and certainly there was no little glee in the Warriors literally falling apart in the 2019 Finals and then the struggles of the past two seasons as the roster was reconstructed and Curry and Klay Thompson battled injuries. It only gave credence to the (false) view that Curry was along for the Kevin Durant ride, even though he’d already garnered two MVPs, a ring, and the greatest season ever without him. Or that Steph wasn’t any good in the Final itself, even though there are more than enough virtuoso performances there to disprove that.
And Steph has been up against it this spring, with Thompson not really himself after his leg turned to cottage cheese over the past three years, Draymond Green unable to ignite the offense like he used to (if not outright driving it into a ditch), and merely a gaggle of contributors instead of another star around (Jordan Poole cameos aside). Steph is starting and finishing a lot more than he used to have to, and he’s done it at 34 with his own injury concerns. Defenses have been keyed on him perhaps more than at any time in the Warriors stay at the top, and it hasn’t really mattered.
And maybe it won’t be enough, as the Celtics are almost certainly the more athletic, bigger, and deeper team. Steph may need one more, if not two, games where he’s channeling Ares to get the Dubs to a fourth championship. Which is where Stamkos finds himself now as well. The Lightning may be more loaded than the Warriors are now, but they’re facing the 2.0 version of themselves starting Tuesday night in the Colorado Avalanche. They do everything the Lightning do, except they do it faster. They’re younger, and they don’t have the mileage and wear and tear of two previous Cup runs on their tires.
Which won’t take away from what Stamkos has accomplished in even getting the Lightning here. While he’s had major help from Andrei Vasilevskiy in net, at the other end it’s been Stamkos who has provided most of the moments to see the Bolts through. His two-goal game to put the Rangers to the sword on Saturday night will go down in Lightning history, especially his winning goal just 21 seconds after the Rangers had tied it that made it very clear to everyone, including the Rangers themselves, just who would be moving on and who would not. It clinched a third straight Final appearance for the Lightning, a simply ridiculous accomplishment in itself. Not since the Islanders 40 years ago has any team done that.
Stamkos may not be as decorated as Curry is, though he is one of only three players with a 60-goal season to his name in the past 20 years. And a little like Curry, there was always some question as to how vital Stamkos was to the Lightning’s run. He famously didn’t score in the Final in 2015, including blowing a breakaway in the deciding Game 6 with the score still 0-0. He missed all of the 2016 run to the conference final, bar one game, to injury. Same story basically with their first Cup win in the bubble. While he was a major contributor to last year’s triumph, he had been surpassed in people’s minds by NIkita Kucherov or Brayden Point.
Stamkos has ceded that ground wilfully through his career. He moved from center to wing to accommodate Point, and has become something of a sniper more than an all-around player as he’s aged. But thanks to Point’s injury, much like where Thompson is at for Curry, Stamkos has returned to the pivot and had to do everything against the Rangers. Coach Jon Cooper didn’t hide Stamkos’s line from the top opposition, and he spent most of the series clubbing the Rangers’ second line, thereby nullifying any chance the Rangers had of scoring at evens, and keeping Adam Fox mostly behind his own net. He also put up a goal and an assist in the Lightning’s series-turning comeback in the third period of Game 3 along with his Game 6 heroics.
Unlike Curry, Stamkos isn’t clearly the best player on his team. But like Curry, this spring he’s become the most important guy on the roster, at a time when his team didn’t really have anywhere else to turn. Like Curry, they may both be up against it in the championship round, and it could be their last turn in their sport’s biggest show. But both are going to make it count either way, past the time when a lot thought they were done doing so.