BOSTON — Stephen Curry demoralized the Celtics when he decided to improvise. After dribbling to spin past Marcus Smart, who happens to be one of the NBA’s fiercest defenders, Curry found himself sizing up Robert Williams, a 6-foot-9 center whose sneakers might as well be concrete-filled .
Curry took a hard dribble, putting Williams behind before rising off the court to sink a running 12-foot swimmer that extended Golden State’s lead in Game 4 of Friday night’s NBA Finals.
It was a scene that felt familiar but new, same but somehow different. Curry has spent his career filling games with parabolic 3-pointers and dazzling shots to the hoop. But now, at age 34, having spent the past few seasons wandering the basketball wilderness with his teammates, he’s busy orchestrating a renaissance.
And it was his performance — 43 points and 10 rebounds on a sore left foot — that got basketball fans buzzing ahead of Game 5 Monday night in San Francisco. The series is tied, 2-2.
“He didn’t want to let us lose,” said his teammate Draymond Green.
Aside from Curry’s relatively short stature — at 6ft 2, he’s a shrub in the NBA forest of redwoods — he might be difficult for ordinary people to relate to. He is a highly trained athlete and the greatest marksman who ever lived. He has won two NBA Most Valuable Player Awards. Architect of an expanding entertainment empire, he spends his free time playing golf with former President Barack Obama.
And for five seasons, from 2014 to 2019, Curry sat at the top of the basketball world.
Few people ever become the best at anything, and victories can feel elusive. You get stuck in the slowest checkout line. You deserve this promotion. They also want to be able to buy a house in this neighborhood. But Curry helped the common masses feel like winners by his side, even as they knew his team was going to lose.
When Curry led Golden State to five straight NBA playoffs and won three championships, opposing fans got to the games early just so they could watch him warm up. At Madison Square Garden, where the lights are dim and the square is a stage, the MVP chants were for him. In Los Angeles, in Houston, in Philadelphia and in Miami, cities with their own All-Stars, the roars and the crowds, the oohs and the aahs – they trumpet his Arrival.
Along the way, he urged his teammates to turn basketball into fine art. They shot with precision. They moved with the grace of ballet dancers. And in a sport steeped in oversized egos and enormous paychecks, they reveled in going overboard.
And then along came Kevin Durant, all arms and legs and 25-foot vaulters. After losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals, Golden State had successfully recruited Durant to sign on as a free agent. Was it a cry for help, an acknowledgment that the team had room for improvement? Or did the rich just get richer?
“We were the evil empire for a while,” Rick Welts, the team’s former president, said in a recent interview.
Durant, of course, was fearsome before he came to Golden State. After being named league MVP in 2014, he described his mother, Wanda, as the “true MVP” in an emotional speech. The callousness of the current era eventually turned that expression of humbleness into a meme that would soon turn against him: between Durant and Curry in Golden State, who was the true MVP?
That question — from social media trolls, TV personalities and pesky sports fans — was a dig at Durant, but its sharp edge also hurt Curry. Golden State had gotten too good.
Sure enough, Durant has been a force in back-to-back championships, the latter a four-game win over the Cavaliers. Golden State had a sense of cheerless inevitability: anything short of a championship was a failure.
And then the dynasty collapsed. In the 2019 finals, Klay Thompson and Durant suffered serious injuries as the Toronto Raptors staged an upset to win their first title. Thompson sat out the next season after knee surgery. Durant went to the Nets freehand. And Curry broke his left hand and missed all but five games as Golden State finished with the worst record in the NBA
Within months, the league’s most dominant team had turned into a renovation project. To make matters worse, Thompson tore his Achilles tendon in a practice session before the start of last season, and Golden State failed to make the playoffs again.
Nothing was guaranteed this season. Golden State had gone from indomitable to vulnerable, a battered version of his younger self. But the team wasn’t completely broken. Thompson’s return in January after a 941-day absence was hailed as a triumph and no small medical miracle. He went up to a dunk in his first game.
The finale was a microcosm of Golden State’s long journey back – a beautiful fight. After dividing 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 dying minutes when the Celtics’ Al Horford landed on him in a scramble for a loose ball .
After that, it was left to Thompson to offer some hope by saying he was “getting big 2015 vibes,” a reference to the 2015 Finals when Golden State trailed 2-1 behind the Cavaliers before plotting a comeback, to win everything. the first of the Curry-era team.
More broadly, Thompson called Golden State’s postseason experience a positive one. When he was younger, he said, there were trapdoors everywhere. He tended to feel anxious about falling behind in a series and was probably overconfident with a lead. Now he was older but wiser.
“You can’t really relax until the final buzzer of the final game goes off,” he said. “That’s the hardest thing about the playoffs – you have to deal with being uncomfortable until the mission is complete.”
Curry slept well after Game 3, he said, keeping his left foot in an ice bucket whenever possible. The focus was on recovery and healing his aching body. (Steph Curry: Just like us.) He only knew one thing for sure: he was going to play in Game 4.
Exactly 75 minutes before Friday’s opening tip, Curry showed up for his pre-game warm-up routine. Dressed in black with the notable exception of lavender sneakers, he started with five layups. He then switched to left elbow, where he unleashed a series of shots with his left hand, which is his off-hand, missing nine in a row to the delight of hundreds of early arriving Celtics fans.
But over the next 20 minutes something odd happened, but not entirely unexpected: the crowd began to murmur in admiration and approval as Curry sank 136 of 190 shots, including 46 of 72 3-pointers, some of them from half-court. Fans pulled out their phones to capture the moment for posterity. Children screamed for autographs.
“People think his shot is like Ken Griffey Jr.’s shot — he’s so pretty you think he never needs to work on it,” Bob Myers, the team’s general manager, said in an interview during the regular season . “But that’s far from true. If you look behind the curtain, you see the work.”
Once upon a time, Curry’s feats seemed magical — and they still are. But over the past few seasons, as Golden State has wandered through a wasteland of injury and uncertainty, Curry and his teammates have shown that success is no accident, that it takes great effort and determination. Sure, they’re still basketball pundits, but they’re pundits who’ve shown the world their homework.
“Winning, losing, whatever it is, however you play, you have to keep coming back to the well to keep sharpening the toolkit and finding ways to evolve your game,” Curry said. “It’s the hardest part of our job.”
After helping to force the Celtics into a late turnover that essentially sealed Friday’s win, Curry and Thompson celebrated by wave their arms in unison. Thompson, who knows Curry better than most, 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 judge my performance,” he said. “Just win the game.”
In this phase he knows what is important.