With his Warriors down eight to the Trail Blazers entering the fourth quarter of Monday’s Game 4, Steve Kerr broke with his typical substitution pattern. Rather than getting Stephen Curry his customary early-period rest, he opened the quarter with the two-time Most Valuable Player on the floor. That Curry had just played the entire third quarter didn’t matter. Or, at least, it didn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that a win would secure a sweep and guarantee the injury-addled Warriors nine days of rest before the 2019 NBA Finals tip off May 30.
Kerr didn’t quite toss #StrengthInNumbers out the window: Quinn Cook, Andrew Bogut, and Jonas Jerebko all pulled shifts in the fourth too. But sensing a chance to seize an opportunity, the coach rolled the dice. The time for dusting off Damian Jones had passed. No more screwing around. Seven and a half minutes later, Curry drove left off a screen from Kevon Looney all the way to the rim for a layup that tied the game at 104, capping a 26-9 run that erased a 17-point deficit and brought Portland face to face with postseason mortality.
The Blazers pushed back and had great chances to either win it in regulation or tie it in overtime. But Damian Lillard missed a tough floater over the outstretched arms of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green at the end of the fourth; was thwarted by that tandem on a contact-seeking drive in the waning seconds of OT; and came up empty on a full-speed fading 3-pointer in the short corner at the very end, and that was that. Warriors win, 119-117, finishing off a sweep of a 53-win conference finalist on the road and advancing to a fifth straight Finals despite being without Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins for the entire Portland series, and despite missing Andre Iguodala (sore left calf) for the deciding Game 4.
The Warriors trailed for more minutes in the conference finals than they led, yet they never really seemed to be in trouble, or even close to a position in which they could be in trouble. The bedrock core that was in place pre-Durant prevented any panic—even while climbing out of three straight 15-plus-point holes, another bit of history—against a Portland team they’ve been crushing in the postseason for years. Thompson deserves credit for blanketing Lillard late in Game 4 and shaking off some frigid post-first-quarter shooting to drill a big 3. Green (18 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists, three steals, two blocks) was once again brilliant on both ends. But it all started, as everything for Golden State always has, with Curry, who played every second after halftime, and 47 minutes in all, pacing the Warriors with a fourth straight devastating performance:
After hanging 37 more points on Portland to go with 13 rebounds and 11 assists—the second triple-double of his postseason career—Curry finished Round 3 with 146 total points scored, the most ever tallied by a player in a four-game sweep. The dominant display continued the springtime renewal of his reputation as one of the sport’s most lethal scorers and a pick-and-roll orchestrator who can lead a breathtaking offense even without the presence of an all-time weapon like Durant; Golden State has scored 114.9 points per 100 possessions in the five full games since KD went down, right in line with its league-best regular-season efficiency mark.
One of my favorite bits of tweet-length analysis of the late-model Warriors is Jared Wade’s juxtaposition of Durant’s bone-chilling consistency with Curry’s predilection toward ecstatic explosion. It’s a handy framing of the divergence of their styles, a snapshot reminder of the different ways in which each player can reduce defenses to rubble. With Durant out, though, Steph has managed to somehow combine the best of both worlds. He’s still capable of raining down fire—see: the 33-point second half in Game 6 against Houston—but, more frequently, he’s also veered toward producing staccato bursts of scoring that can change the contours of a game, like the personal 28-second 8-0 run against Portland in Game 4 that cut Golden State’s deficit from 12 to four heading into half.
Curry scored 36 points on 12-for-23 shooting in Game 1, 37 on 11-for-22 in Game 2, 36 on 11-for-26 in Game 3, and 37 on 11-for-25 in Monday’s closeout. Averaging 10.3 in first quarters, 9.3 in seconds, 10 in thirds, and seven in fourths, Curry provided a steady stream of points for a Warriors team that without Durant can struggle to find consistent shot creation. He was a metronomic nightmare from which the Blazers just could not wake, no matter how they tried to handle him in the pick-and-roll—exactly what Golden State needed him to be in this matchup.
That extended beyond the scoring too. Curry struggled with his shot after halftime of Game 4, missing 10 of his 14 attempts; he didn’t score a point in the final nine and a half minutes. But he still factored prominently in two of Golden State’s biggest shots down the stretch: a Green corner jumper with about 3:30 to go in regulation, created solely by Steph’s dusting Game 4 hero Meyers Leonard off the dribble and drawing four defenders to him; and Green’s eventual game-icing 3-pointer in overtime, which he was able to launch because neither Evan Turner nor Rodney Hood wanted to leave Steph, and which Draymond had the confidence to fire because Curry had called his number on that fourth quarter drive-and-kick. In the first half, Steph blitzed the Blazers with his shooting; after intermission, as his gas tank sputtered toward empty and the legs on his shot started to disappear, he beat them in the trenches, collecting four offensive rebounds and six defensive boards while dishing out seven dimes against only one turnover.
Whichever opponent Golden State draws in the championship round will likely pose a stiffer challenge than the Blazers did. Either the Bucks or Raptors will have home-court advantage in the Finals. (Although the Warriors have grown awfully comfortable winning on the road in the playoffs.) Compared with Portland, both Milwaukee and Toronto boast superior depth, size, and wing talent; more menacing defenses better equipped to swarm Warriors ball handlers with length and relentless attention; and a bona fide MVP-caliber superstar capable of taking over a game on both ends of the court. Regardless of its Finals matchup, Golden State will probably be the betting favorite, getting the respect afforded a three-time champion, but either potential opponent—and especially the Bucks—has the capacity to stand toe-to-toe with the Dubs and trade shots.
Or, at least, they can try. The Warriors’ training staff now has a full nine days to calm the barking calves of Durant and Iguodala, and possibly even get Cousins all the way back from the torn left quadriceps muscle he suffered during Round 1. Thompson, Green, and Curry—all of whom have averaged at least 39 minutes per game since the start of the second round—will get a chance to power down after all those hard-driven, high-leverage minutes. So will reserves like the aging Shaun Livingston and newly minted “foundational piece” Kevon Looney, who have been pressed into heavier duty by Durant’s injury and have responded with their best play of the season.
A week and a half ago, the Warriors’ season seemed to be teetering on the brink. Now, they’re entering their fifth straight Finals—the first team to pull that off since Bill Russell’s Celtics, more than a half-century ago—and they’re going to have the chance to be as close to 100 percent as possible to notch a fourth title in five years and the immortality it would confer. That’s not all due to Steph. He did a hell of a lot of the heavy lifting to make it happen, though.
Curry’s already a made man—a three-time champ and two-time MVP, the consensus greatest shooter in basketball history, and a paradigm-exploder whose accuracy and audacity changed the generally agreed-upon geometry of the game. Just about the only thing Steph doesn’t have yet is a Finals MVP trophy, with Iguodala winning in 2015 and Durant taking the honors the past two Junes. Maybe this is Curry’s year. Or maybe, once again, he’ll just create the conditions in which someone else can win it. Either way, this run through Houston and Portland has firmly reestablished Curry’s primacy and value in the minds of any who might have forgotten just what a force he can be. He’s sacrificed some of his own game for greater glory, and I doubt he’s got any regrets, but it’s been cool to get such a clear and senses-shattering reminder of just what kind of chaos he can create. He tilts the table. He changes what’s possible. He’s where Kerr and the Warriors turn when it’s time to stop screwing around.