BOSTON – Stephen Curry was demoralizing the Celtics he decided to improvise. After touring after Marcus Smart, one of the toughest defenders in the NBA, Curry found himself taking the measure of Robert Williams, whose 6-foot-9 center could have been filled with concrete.
Curry dribbled hard, leaving Williams on his own before sinking a 12-foot float before he got off the court, widening Golden State’s lead in Friday’s 4th game of the NBA Finals.
It was a scene that seemed familiar but new, the same but somehow different. Curry has completed his career games with 3 parabolic points and a brilliant record for the hoop. But now, at the age of 34, after spending the last two seasons playing basketball with his teammates in the desert, he has been busy performing the revival.
And it was his performance — 43 points and 10 rebounds in a left foot injury — that put basketball fans ahead of Game 5 in San Francisco on Monday night. The series is tied, 2-2.
“He wouldn’t let us down,” Draymond Green told his teammates.
Leaving aside Curry’s relatively light height — it’s 6 feet 2 inches, it’s an NBA forest shrub — it might be difficult for ordinary humans to report it. He is a highly trained athlete and the greatest shooter ever. He has won two awards for the most valuable players in the NBA. The architect of a thriving entertainment empire, he is golfing with former President Barack Obama in his spare time.
And for five seasons, from 2014 to 2019, Curry sat in the basketball world.
Few people become the best at anything, and victories can feel fleeting. You stay on the slowest payline. You deserved that job promotion. You want to be able to buy a house in that neighborhood too. But Curry helped the ordinary masses feel victorious next to him, even rooting for the loss of his team.
As Curry led Golden State to five consecutive NBA Finals appearances, winning three tournaments, opposing fans would go early to the games to watch them warm up. At Madison Square Garden, where the lights are low and the court is a stage, the MVP songs were for him. Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia and Miami, cities with their own All-Star, roars and crowds, oohs and aahs – they blew the trumpet his arrival.
Along the way, he encouraged his teammates to turn basketball into a top art. They fired accurately. They moved with the grace of ballet dancers. And in a sport full of supersize egos and high pay, they liked to pass on to the open man.
And then came Kevin Durant, with all his arms and legs and 25-meter jumpers. After losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals, Golden State hired Durant to sign him as a free agent. Was it a cry for help, acknowledging that the team had room for improvement? Or were the rich getting richer?
“We were an evil empire for a while,” former team president Rick Welts said in a recent interview.
Durant, of course, was terrified before he entered Golden State. After being named league MVP in 2014, he described his mother, Wanda, as a “true MVP” in a moving speech. The wickedness of the stream eventually turned that expression of humility into a meme, which would soon turn against him: in Golden State between Durant and Curry, who was the real MVP?
That question — a troll on social media, a TV character, and a fan of sports fans — was exciting for Durant, but his sharp edge also hurt Curry. Golden State became very good.
Surely Durant was a force in the deck tournaments, the latter a four-game sweep of the Cavaliers. There was an inevitable feeling of unhappiness at Golden State: anything outside the tournament was a failure.
And then the dynasty broke up. In the 2019 final, Klay Thompson and Durant suffered serious injuries as the Toronto Raptors made an outburst of winning their first title. Thompson sat down the following season after knee surgery. Durant left Nets free agency. And Curry broke his left hand, except for five games, as Golden State finished with the worst NBA record.
Within a few months, the league’s top team had become a renovation project. Worse, Thompson broke his Achilles tendon in a training session before the start of last season, and Golden State missed the playoffs again.
Nothing was guaranteed this season. Golden State went from being invincible to vulnerable, a corrupt version of his younger self. But the team was not completely broken. Thompson’s return was celebrated as a victory after a 941-day absence in January and it was no small medical miracle. He made the sound of throwing in his first game.
The finals were a microcosm of Golden State’s long-running turn – a beautiful 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 Celtic’s Al Horford hit a loose ball.
Thompson was then left to offer some hope, saying he was getting “great atmospheres of 2015,” referring to the 2015 final, 2-1 behind the Golden State Cavaliers, before designing a win-win return, the team’s first Curry season.
Overall, Thompson rated Golden State’s positive post-season experience. When he was younger, he said, there were traps everywhere. He tended to feel anxious when leaving a series, probably having too much confidence in a leader. Now, he was older but wiser.
“You can’t relax until the final buzz of the final 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 an ice bucket when he could. The highlight was the recovery and repair of his thin body. (Steph Curry: Like us.) The only thing he knew for sure was that he would play in Game 4.
75 minutes before Friday’s opening game, Curry showed up for his pre-match warm-up routine. Dressed in black, with the exception of the prominent lavender-colored sneakers, he began by doing five layups. He then went to the left elbow, where he received a few shots with his left hand, which is his off his hand, and lost nine in a row to the delight of the hundreds of Celtics fans who arrived early.
But over the next 20 minutes, something strange but not entirely unexpected happened: the crowd began to murmur with admiration and appreciation as Curry sank 136 of 190 shots, including a 46-of-three shot from 72, some of them from midfield. Fans broke their cell phones to record the moment for their descendants. The children asked for autographs.
“People think his shot is like a Ken Griffey Jr. swing; it’s so nice that you think it should never work,” team general manager Bob Myers said in a regular season interview. “It simply came to our notice then. When you look behind the curtain, you see the work. ”
Once upon a time, Curry’s feats seemed magical, and they still are. But in recent seasons, as Golden State has wandered through a wilderness of injury and uncertainty, Curry and his teammates have revealed that success does not happen unexpectedly, that it takes a lot of effort and determination. Sure, they are still basketball wise, but they are wise men who have shown their homework to the world.
“Win, lose, whatever you play, you have to keep going back to the pit to keep sharpening the tool kit and finding ways to evolve your game,” Curry said. “That’s the hardest part of what we’re doing.”
After Friday’s victory that basically sealed the Celtics to help force late billing, Curry and Thompson celebrated. unanimously swinging his arms. Thompson, who knows Curry better than most, said his teammate had never played a finer game in the finals. Curry was asked if they agreed with Thompson’s assessment.
“I don’t classify my performances, though,” he said. “Just win the game.”
At this stage, he knows what is important.