SAN FRANCISCO — Stephen Curry didn’t score in the fourth quarter. He finished with a hardly jaw-dropping 29 points on 21 attempts. Ditto for his six rebounds and four assists — not spectacular on paper.
So in a couple of years, maybe in a couple of months, depending on how the 2022 NBA Finals unfold, some will heap this effort on the pile of all the other unimpressive, unclutch, not-that-important performances by Curry on this grand traineeship. This one will also fade into obscurity when critics, talking heads and social media haters go searching for a particular type of dominance while suggesting Curry doesn’t have big games in the finals, doesn’t show up in the critical moments and is propped up by a system and a loaded roster. It doesn’t count unless he scores 50 points and hits the game-winner to lift a roster of G Leaguers over an All-Star-laden opponent in a Game 7.
But don’t forget what you saw. A maestro conducting a familiar piece. Game 2 was, for sure, a snapshot of Curry’s dominance. Just like Game 5 in 2015. Game 4 in 2016. Game 5 in 2019. Game 2 in 2017. Sunday’s final score, a 107-88 win in which the home team led by as much as 29, will give off the impression the Warriors weren’t in any danger. But, oh, they were.
And in one quarter, Curry’s quarter, he shifted the game and quite possibly the finals. Sunday, when the Warriors looked most vulnerable against a Celtics squad that sometimes feels destined to be crowned, they put the ball in the hands of their superstar.
“I thought he was incredible,” Draymond Green said. “And most importantly, his decision-making was great. He got off the ball. He didn’t drive into traffic. He took what the defense gave him. I think for the first probably six minutes of that game or so, he had zero points. He wasn’t forcing anything. Let the game come to him and, you know, we all followed that.”
It wasn’t that Curry was hot. This was an orchestrated dismantling. In Game 1, Curry came out gunning. He scored 21 points in the game’s first quarter as Boston played as if he didn’t get the memo. But the Celtics tightened up, limiting to Curry to 13 points the rest of the way. In Game 2, Curry had 15 points on 12 shots in the first half as he downloaded the scheme and picked his spots. Curry’s initial inclination was to use his gravity to get the offense clicking. But his scoring cohorts were overwhelmed by the Boston defense.
At the half, the Warriors led 52-50 after scoring just 21 points in the second quarter. Klay Thompson had missed all four of his 3s and was 1-for-8 from the field. On a few of his attempts, the ball left his hands like a shuttlecock. Jordan Poole was 1-for-5 and still scuffling against the Celtics’ physicality and rim protection. His frustration was getting tangible. Wiggins finally made a few shots in the second quarter, but he shot 4-for-10, including some squandered layups.
It looked as if, felt as if, the Celtics had the Warriors right where they wanted them. Boston was 10-of-16 from deep, its defense mostly stout, and the Warriors were low on answers. After destroying Golden State in the fourth quarter on Thursday to steal Game 1, the Celtics’ confidence was peaking — which boded well for their chances in a close game. The nervousness was undeniable as the Warriors faced heading to Massachusetts in an 0-2 hole.
The one hope to change that was Curry. The one way to take the confidence from Boston and reconfigure the tenor of this series was a patented third quarter from the Warriors, a staple of the Curry era since 2013 when he scored 22 against Denver in the third quarter of Game 4 at Oracle in the playoffs’ opening round. On Sunday, he scored 14 points in the third quarter as Golden State outscored the visitors by 21 and maybe — maybe — planted a seed of doubt in the Celtics.
He sensed it was his time, and he imposed himself.
“That’s an accumulation of the last two years of trying to figure that out and balance … the scoring load, the play-making load and everything that you try to accomplish throughout the game,” Curry said. “So I try to be under control, composed, see the game, feel the flow and the rhythm and know where I can get to my spots. There’s definitely a lot of composure there.”
The Warriors needed him to be. It is well-documented how willing Curry is to use his gravity to power the Warriors’ offense. He’s welcomed other superstars, sacrificed shots, even come off the bench in the playoffs. Winning is his priority. Sunday, that required him taking over.
The Celtics’ combination of perimeter protection and shot-blocking was too daunting for their usual democratic offense. Curry is the lone playmaker the Warriors have to churn Boston’s defense. So Golden State unleashed its guy.
Curry had 12 pick-and-rolls in Game 1, according to Synergy Sports. He finished with 12 in Game 2 as well, except he did it in three quarters. He ran six in the third quarter alone. But even that undersells how much Curry had the ball in his hands. His combination of pick-and-rolls, transition and isolations added up to about 12 let-Curry-cook possessions in the third quarter.
A two-minute, four-second sequence illustrated the fullness of Curry’s game. The scoring. The unselfishness. The defence. The flair.
It began with a pick-and-roll that drew a double-team and set up two passes that led to an Otto Porter Jr. 3. The Warriors led 71-62.
On the ensuing possession, Al Horford grabbed an offensive rebound over Curry and immediately tried to post up the Warriors point guard. But Curry held his ground. When Porter came to offer help, Curry read Horford’s next move, jumped the passing lane and came up with the steal. The ensuing break led to a pair of Green free throws to make it 73-62.
The next time down, after the Warriors deflected a Tatum miss out of bounds, Curry was isolated on Celtics guard Payton Pritchard. Some great on-ball defense clamped Pritchard and forced him to pass the ball. White traveled on the catch-and-shoot, and Curry made Boston pays with a 3 from the top of a pick-and-roll with Gary Payton II. It was 76-62 Warriors.
On the next possession, Curry cut off drives from Pritchard and Grant Williams in the same possession and broke up an interior pass with a deflection. Moments later, he secured another Warriors stop by tracking down the long rebound. He walked up the court, jogged around a Porter screen and pulled up from 30 feet as Boston center Daniel Theis backpedaled. It was 79-62.
An 11-0 run, powered by Curry on both ends.
“Yeah, Steph was breathtaking in that quarter,” Steve Kerr said.
“People go at him to try to wear him down because they know how important he is to us offensively,” Kerr said, “and it’s pretty dramatic the difference in Steph’s strength and physicality in his body now than from eight years ago when I first got here. So the guy’s amazing. He just keeps working on his game, his strength, his conditioning year after year, and it’s a pleasure to watch him play every night.”
But in typical Curry fashion, unlocking himself did the same for his teammates. Closing the quarter, Poole seized on Curry’s approach. Once Curry exposed the Celtics’ underbelly, Poole had the blueprint. He ran the pick-and-roll in consecutive possessions, getting a Kevon Looney layup and a step-back 3 out of them. He punctuated the dominant quarter with a buzzer-beater from just over half court. It was a welcomed sight for the Warriors, who need Poole as a second playmaker against the Celtics’ vaunted defense.
What doesn’t translate in box scores, or in the debates on talk shows and Twitter, is the context. The dominating conversations of comparisons and rankings, mostly meaningless in their own right, have a way of boiling down brilliance to B-roll. Unique greatness can get lost, and certainly underappreciated, in the quest for cookie-cutter kings.
But Chase Center lived it. The intensity of the stress for the Golden State faithful. The relief from Curry doing what Curry does. The Celtics were two good quarters from putting the Warriors in a bind unlike one they’ve experienced.
Curry may need to do it a couple more times to get past Boston. The adjustments are coming. The Celtics, who can vacillate between masterful and mediocre and who played like a team that got the one win it wanted, are going to come harder in Boston. But they have to, mostly because Curry went on another third-quarter run and infused the Warriors with life.
When people try to say he’s never come up big in the finals, don’t forget what you saw.
Weiss: Celtics fall victim to another stagnant third quarter
King: Celtics pushed around by aggressive Warriors
Kawakami: How the Warriors tweaked their strategy for Game 2
Vardo: Draymond Green was close to ejection, then the Celtics stopped him
(Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)