BOSTON – Stephen Curry was demoralizing the Celtics when he decided to improvise. After dribbling past Marcus Smart, who happens to be one of the fiercest defenders in the NBA, Curry found himself sizing up Robert Williams, a 6-foot-9 center whose sneakers might as well have been filled with concrete.
Curry took a hard dribble, leaving Williams in his wake, before rising off the court to sink a 12-foot floater that extended Golden State’s lead in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Friday night.
It was a scene that felt familiar but new, the same but somewhat different. Curry has spent his career filling games with 3 parabolic points and dazzling drives to the hoop. But now, at 34, after spending the last two seasons wandering the basketball wasteland with his teammates, he’s been busy staging a renaissance.
And it was his performance – 43 points and 10 rebounds on a sore left foot – that had basketball fans buzzing ahead of Game 5 on Monday night in San Francisco. The series is tied 2-2.
“He was not going to let us lose”, his teammate Draymond Green said.
Curry’s relatively slight stature aside — at 6-foot-2, he’s a shrub in the NBA’s redwood forest — he might be hard for ordinary humans to relate to. He is a highly skilled athlete and the greatest shooter who ever lived. He has won two NBA Most Valuable Player awards. The architect of a growing entertainment empire, he plays golf with former President Barack Obama in his spare time.
And for five seasons, from 2014 to 2019, Curry sat atop the basketball world.
Few people become the best at anything, and victories can seem elusive. You are stuck in the slowest queue. You deserved this promotion. You also want to be able to buy a house in this neighborhood. But Curry helped the ordinary masses feel like winners by his side, even if they wanted his team to lose.
As Curry led Golden State to five consecutive NBA Finals appearances, winning three championships, opposing fans showed up early for games just so they could watch him warm up. At Madison Square Garden, where the lights are dim and the court is a stage, the MVP chants were for him. In Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia and Miami, cities with their own All-Stars, the roars and the crowds, the oohs and the aahs – they trumpeted his Arrivals.
Along the way, he pushed his teammates to turn basketball into great art. They fired with precision. They moved with the grace of ballet dancers. And in a sport saturated with oversized egos and huge paychecks, they relished the move to open man.
And then came Kevin Durant, all arms and legs and 25-foot jumpers. After losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals, Golden State had successfully recruited Durant to sign as a free agent. Was it a call for help, an acknowledgment that the team had room for improvement? Or were the rich just getting richer?
“We were the Evil Empire for a while,” former team president Rick Welts said in a recent interview.
Durant, of course, was formidable before he joined Golden State. After being appointed 2014 League MVP, he described his mother, Wanda, as the “true MVP” in an emotional speech. The insensitivity of the present day eventually turned that expression of humility into a meme, which would soon backfire: Between Durant and Curry at Golden State, who was the real MVP?
This question – needled social media trolls, TV personalities and sports fans – was a dig at Durant, but its cutting edge also hurt Curry. Golden State had gotten too good.
Sure enough, Durant was a force in back-to-back championships, the latter a four-game sweep of the Cavaliers. There was a sense of joyless inevitability about Golden State: anything short of a championship was a failure.
And then the dynasty collapsed. In the 2019 final, Klay Thompson and Durant suffered serious injuries as the Toronto Raptors staged an upset to win their first title. Thompson sat out the following season after knee surgery. Durant left for the Nets in free agency. And Curry broke his left hand, missing all but five games as Golden State finished with the NBA’s worst record.
Within months, the league’s most dominant team turned into a makeover project. Worse, Thompson ruptured his Achilles tendon during practice before the start of last season, and Golden State failed to qualify for the playoffs again.
This season, nothing was guaranteed. Golden State had gone from indomitable to vulnerable, a battered version of its younger self. But the team was not totally broken. Thompson’s return in January after a 941-day absence was celebrated as a triumph and no small medical marvel. He flew out for a dunk in his first game.
The finals were a microcosm of The long way back from Golden State — a good fight. After splitting the first two games of the series in San Francisco, Golden State lost Game 3 in Boston, and Curry injured his left foot in the final minutes when the Celtics Al Horford landed on him in a run for a loose ball.
After, it was left to Thompson to offer some hope, saying he was “getting great vibes from 2015,” a reference to the 2015 Finals, when Golden State trailed the Cavaliers 2-1 before stage a comeback to win it all, the team’s first of the Curry era.
More broadly, Thompson cited Golden State’s playoff experience as a positive. When he was younger, he says, there were trap doors everywhere. Prone to feeling anxious when trailing in a series, he was likely to be overconfident with a lead. Now he was older but wiser.
“You can’t really relax until the final buzzer of the closing game,” he said. “That’s the hardest part of the playoffs – you have to deal with being uncomfortable until the mission is over.”
Curry slept well after Game 3, he said, and kept his left foot in a bucket of ice whenever possible. The focus was on recovering and repairing his aching body. (Steph Curry: So do we.) He only knew one thing for sure: He was going to play in Game 4.
Precisely 75 minutes before Friday’s opening board, Curry appeared for his pre-game warm-up routine. Dressed in all black, with the notable exception of lavender sneakers, he started by doing five lay-ups. He then moved to the left elbow, where he hoisted a series of shots with his left hand, which is his left hand, and missed nine in a row to the delight of hundreds of Celtics fans arriving early.
But over the next 20 minutes, something odd but not entirely unexpected happened: The crowd began to murmur in admiration and appreciation as Curry sank 136 of 190 shots, including 46 of 72 from 3 points, including a few just inside the half court. Fans pulled out their cellphones to record the moment for posterity. Children were screaming for autographs.
“People think his shot is like Ken Griffey Jr.’s swing. It’s so beautiful you think he never has to work on it,” said Bob Myers, the team’s general manager. in an interview during the regular season. “But that’s anything but true. When you look behind the curtain, you see the work.
Once upon a time, Curry’s exploits seemed magical – and they still are. But over the past few seasons, as Golden State wandered through a wasteland of injury and uncertainty, Curry and his teammates revealed that success doesn’t happen by accident, it takes hard work and determination. Sure, they’re still basketball scholars, but they’re scholars who showed the world their homework.
“Win, lose, whatever, however you play, you have to keep coming back to the well to keep refining the toolkit and finding ways to evolve your game,” Curry said. “That’s the hardest part of what we do.”
After helping force the Celtics into a late turnover that essentially sealed Friday’s victory, Curry and Thompson celebrated by swinging their arms in unison. Thompson, who knows Curry better than anyone, said his teammate has never played a better game in the Finals. Curry was asked if he agreed with Thompson’s assessment.
“I don’t rank my performances, though,” he said. “Just win the game.”
At this point, he knows what matters.
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