Maybe it’s because he’s never won a Finals MVP. Maybe it’s because he famously played a starring role in blowing a 3-1 Finals lead. Maybe it’s because he’s a guard, and the NBA’s late playoff rounds are typically dominated by wings and bigs. But for some reason, entering this year’s Finals, a narrative followed Steph Curry as a whispered critique: For a two-time MVP and three-time champion, he wasn’t all that great in the Finals.
That argument was hogwash before this series, and it’s certainly debunked now. Entering this championship round against Boston, Curry touted career Finals averages of 26.5 points, 6.2 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game, with 39 percent shooting from 3-point range. And now, with his team overmatched in talent in the Finals for the first time ever, Curry has elevated his game even further through four games, averaging 34.3 points on 50 percent shooting, including an unfathomable 49 percent from distance.
His latest game was the most gorgeous masterpiece yet and his best Finals performance ever, according to teammate Klay Thompson—a 43-point, 10-rebound effort that evened the Finals 2-2. The Celtics shot better from 3, took more free throws, and even committed fewer turnovers than the Warriors. But they don’t have Curry. And that’s the main reason Golden State won Game 4 in Boston, 107-97.
Down a game and with Curry playing on an injured ankle, the Warriors were desperate Friday. The gambles started from the opening tip, as Steve Kerr started Otto Porter Jr. in place of Kevon Looney to split the offensively untenable Looney–Draymond Green pairing, recalling the crucial decision to flip Andre Iguodala for Andrew Bogut seven years ago. “Big 2015 vibes,” indeed.
That move didn’t really work as intended: Looney was one of the Warriors’ best players on Friday—and has been throughout the series—collecting a team-best plus-19 on-court differential, while Porter was minus-1. And when Looney was out of the game, the Celtics, mainly Robert Williams III, dominated on the boards.
The desperation continued all the way through the game’s closing moments. In the last four minutes of the tight game—neither team led by more than seven points at any point until the last minute—Kerr dabbled in an extended series of offense-defense substitutions with Jordan Poole and Green. He thus relegated the latter—a three-time champion and the team’s heart and soul—to only partial duty. It was a necessary sacrifice, given Green’s offensive limitations, with a 1-for-7 shooting performance including several botched layups. It also took chutzpah from Kerr, and demonstrated the pressure he felt against a more well-rounded opponent.
But no amount of coaching bravado can substitute for player skill, and with the Warriors’ other offensive options so limited no matter the lineup Kerr chose, Curry was Game 4’s protagonist. Even with a slow shooting start—just 2-for-8 on 3s in the first half—Curry was the focal point for both Golden State’s offense and Boston’s defense. He scored 19 first-half points on a variety of 2-point attempts: floaters and jumpers and contorted layups through contact.
And in the third quarter, as has been his wont throughout years of playoff basketball, Curry exploded. The numbers are impressive—14 points, 4-for-5 from distance—but even they don’t capture the sheer wonder of Curry’s hot streaks, especially given the droves of defenders Boston directed his way. At some points, the Warriors were so confident in Curry’s ability to generate his own offense that they surrounded him with two nonshooters and two questionable shooters, like the quartet of Looney, Andrew Wiggins, Porter, and Gary Payton II. Their limitations didn’t matter: Curry could create from 35 feet out all by himself. Midway through the third, he canned multiple 3s in quick succession while probably getting fouled on both, too.
The Celtics adjusted in the fourth quarter, adopting an even more extreme anybody but Curry mindset. Through much of the fourth, Curry took only one shot and didn’t score any points, as the Celtics blitzed and trapped and closed with urgency whenever he looked liable to rise for a shot. They forced him into one particularly terrible turnover with a sideline trap, leading to a three-point play on the other end that represented Boston’s high point of the final frame.
But as the Warriors’ own defense clamped down on the other end, holding Boston to just 19 points in the quarter, the Celtics couldn’t create meaningful separation with Curry holding flat. And then he rejoined the offensive flow: first, with an assist for a Thompson 3 to give Golden State the lead, then a floater, then a dagger 3-pointer with 1:42 left.
To be fair, Curry’s teammates contributed just enough in their own individual ways to push the team over the top. Looney was sturdy on both ends. Andrew Wiggins chipped in 17 points and 16 (!) rebounds. Even Nemanja Bjelica stoned Jayson Tatum on a few isolation mismatches.
Yet Curry was, and is, the team’s totemic leader, and the sole reason it’s competitive as the weaker overall team in these Finals. For most of his career, Curry’s been on the other side of these battles: when LeBron James was the lone star against a more loaded opponent, when Curry could survive a rare off night and still win because of his team’s superior depth. Now he’s in the LeBron role, facing a tremendous degree of difficulty and needing to dazzle to give his team a chance, but succeeding anyway, and garnering a real MVP argument even if his team doesn’t ultimately emerge victorious.
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