By Marcus Thompson II
BOSTON — It was a routine step-back 3-pointer, albeit his second in a row. It gave the Warriors a five-point lead. It came with 2:03 left in the first quarter. Nothing about this sequence, and when it occurred, suggested it was of special significance.
Still, after watching his swish, and after the Celtics called a timeout, Steph Curry had something to say. He walked away from the Warriors’ bench, all the way to the other end of the court. Yelling. Flexing. Taunting. On the baseline near the Boston bench, he roared into the sea of green and white, as if he wanted to tremble their souls. They say a tiger’s roar is strong enough to paralyze its prey. Curry usually saves his demonstrative displays for the big moments, when the opponent is vanquished. But this night, in the early stages of this must-win game for the Warriors, he wasn’t celebrating a conquest. He was prepping it.
He pointed to the hallowed hardwood beneath his feet and declared the reality the Celtics are facing. They would have to deal with an all-time great this night. All night.
“He wasn’t letting us lose,” Draymond Green said.
That he did not. Curry scored 43 points on 14-for-26 shooting with 10 rebounds in a 107-97 win in Game 4. A Curry Classic on Causeway. He snatched home-court advantage from the clutches of the Celtics. Boston had a chance to take a commanding lead. But Curry flexed, and the Warriors head home for Game 5 with a chance to take control of the series.
Curry’s had some big NBA Finals games before, contrary to popular narratives. In 2015, he scored 17 of his 37 in the fourth quarter of a pivotal Game 5, going bucket-for-bucket with LeBron James to take control of the series. In 2016, Game 4 on the road in Cleveland, with the wear and tear of his sprained knee taking its toll, Curry scored 24 of his 38 in the second half to put the Warriors up 3-1 in the series. He totaled 47 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in Game 3 of the 2019 finals despite facing a box-and-one defense from the Raptors while Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson were sidelined with injuries. Two games later, Curry finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in a huge Game 5 win in Toronto to keep the Warriors alive.
But what happened Friday night was a performance that vaults his legend. He left even his harshest critics with frayed vocal cords. Beneath the 17 championship banners hanging in the rafters of TD Garden, on the parquet floor graced by legends like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, Curry showed the basketball world he is, indeed, him.
“The heart on that man is incredible,” Thompson said.
Game 4 was the flashy exhibit often necessary for proper acclaim. It was the type of monster performance expected from players of his ilk. But this game was but another episode in his legacy of winning. Coming out on top so often commands a grittiness, requires a hero’s resolve. His superpower is shooting, but his greatest strength is his will to win.
His 43-point night was born of one of his greatest attributes. Sure, it was a clinic of shooting and ballhandling, but such were secondary. The star was his indomitable will, a frame that belies his toughness. His resilience cannot be understated. His entire story is a case study in determination. Friday night was the latest example of his disregard for odds.
You want to know why the Warriors have now won a road game in 27 consecutive series? Wardell Stephen Curry II. The Warriors have now won 39 road playoff games in the Curry era. He’s scored at least 30 points in 20 of them.
“I don’t rank my performances,” Curry said. “Just win the game.”
Nothing reveals fortitude in the NBA like winning on the road. And Boston’s intimidating venue requires a tenacious spirit. The Celtics fans had been cussin’ out Green for two games. They shouted spicy speech at Thompson, too, after he called them “rude” and threw shade at their classiness. A retort was required. So the 6-foot-3 fella from Davidson played the role of big brother leading the Warriors through the proverbial alley, darkened by Celtics’ vitriol. He yelled back at them. And when the crowd started spewing profanity his way, he responded with big baskets and scoring spurts.
Remember, he did this two days after a 6-foot-9, 240-pound man fell on his left foot, setting off another injury watch as the world waited to see if he was hurt.
Curry can’t stand when his health becomes the storyline, a complex born of his ankle troubles early in his years. But, in hindsight, his sore left foot tipped his hand. He was determined to play and not to talk about his foot. He wanted all doubt about Game 4 on Boston’s side of the aisle.
“I could tell in his demeanor the last couple days,” Green said, “even after Game 3, that he was going to come out with that type of fire.”
Remember, the Celtics offense is hunting him. Curry can’t hide and rest on defense.
He has been the defender on 52 Boston field goal attempts in this series, per NBA Stats. More than Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. Opponents are shooting 44.2 percent against Curry. After going 10-for-16 against foul-plagued Curry in Game 3, the Celtics were 4-for-11 when Curry defended in Game 4.
Remember, he did this against the No. 1 defense in the league — which is bigger and stronger at every position and plays with a physicality that breaches boundaries and breaks spirits.
Curry has seen just about every defense imaginable. He’s been face-guarded the length of the court, doubled 40 feet from the basket, trapped and blitzed. But the Celtics pose unique problems. Their smallest player is the 2022 Defensive Player of The Year, and he plays like his freedom is on the line. Smart is so good at what he does, and so consistently abrasive, he gets away with a lot of otherwise illegal contact. The entire Boston defense has picked up on that game plan — get into Curry, do whatever it takes to stay connected, even if that means holding when he’s off the ball and hand-checking when he’s on it. Plus, the Celtics have the advantage on Curry in girth, athleticism, strength and length. Yet he battles through it, like he would’ve had to if he’d played in his father’s day.
And look what he’s doing against this Celtics’ defense in this series: averaging 34.3 points on 50 percent shooting, including 25-of-51 from 3.
“Just stunning,” Steve Kerr said. “The physicality out there is, you know, pretty dramatic. I mean, Boston’s got obviously, the best defense in the league. Huge and powerful at every position. And for Steph to take that — that kind of pressure all game long and still be able to defend at the other end when they are coming at him shows you, I think, this is the strongest physically he’s ever been in his career, and it’s allowing him to do what he’s doing.”
Another big third quarter, his favorite, put the Warriors in position to come out of New England with renewed life.
He came off a screen going to his right and drilled a three over Derrick White from the right wing, cutting the Celtics’ lead to three. He came off another screen going left, firing before Robert Williams III could react and before White could recover. The Celtics’ lead was down to one. Going left off a Gary Payton II screen, he pulled up from 33 feet, suddenly enough for Jayson Tatum to run into the back of him. That one tied the game. Then, in a play that gets added to the highlight reel, he drove and dished to the corner, then relocated to that same corner, splashing another 3 to put the Warriors ahead by a point.
“We were there,” Smart said. “He made a lot of the shots where we were contesting from behind. We had somebody there and he was just making them. That’s what he does.”
This put Kerr in a tough spot. Curry was at 31 minutes, 28 seconds at the start of the fourth quarter. He normally sits for the first six minutes of the quarter. That’s been cut to about four minutes in the playoffs. Last game, Kerr had to cut it to just over two. That’s because the Celtics have dominated the fourth quarters. In Game 1, they owned it 40-16. In Game 3, it was 23-11.
Curry was rolling, and the Warriors needed offense to stave off a pending Celtics rally. But Kerr stuck with his gut. He doesn’t like Curry over 40 minutes. There are diminishing returns. While the threat Curry is on the court is helpful, Kerr’s expertise on his superstar knows he is better with even a short rest. So he opened the fourth with Curry on the bench.
“He was not happy,” Kerr said. “I felt pretty good about where we were. The other night he played the whole fourth, and I didn’t love the way that quarter went, not because of how he played, but I think we were in a pretty good spot. You know, to buy him a few minutes in that fourth quarter to start, I think to me was important. But you never know how it all plays out. You just kind of go with your gut.”
The move didn’t doom the Warriors. Boston led by as many as five, but that only set up the cap to Curry’s historic night. The ball was in his hands. The Celtics defense was scattered. His presence put pressure on their offense to score. It all colluded to break Boston.
The Celtics led by two when Curry pushed it in transition. He drew three defenders, which left Thompson open for a 3 at the top. The Warriors took the lead for good. The next time down, Curry eluded Smart on a screen and danced with Williams on the perimeter. A series of crossovers led to an easy 12-foot floater.
Then with just inside of two minutes left, Green led a fast break. He got stopped at about the free throw line. But he knew exactly where to go. All the attention was on him, as he had the ball. It was enough for Curry to get free from White for a split second. He stepped into a Green bounce pass, gave a little jab and ratted home the dagger 3.
Then, after the Celtics called a timeout, their hopes crushed and facing the reality of a long series, it was finally time to celebrate the conquest. He flexed. He pounded his chest. He taunted. Curry waded into the mystique of the Celtics — as did Kobe before him, and Magic Johnson, and Dr. J — and made the kind of statement legends make. He is him.