Ever since Kevin Durant went down with his right calf injury in Game 5 of their second-round series against the Rockets, the Warriors have established a platform of nostalgia, mining the sentimentality of their once-shocking rise in what could be the last season of this juggernaut era of Golden State basketball. They brought 2015 back in full. In Wednesday night’s 123-109 loss to the Raptors at Oracle Arena, however, the Warriors—and especially Steph Curry—found themselves on the wrong side of their own history lesson.
We’ll remember 2015 as the beginning of the Atlas Tetralogy, a four-part saga of LeBron James single-handedly willing his Cleveland Cavaliers into battle, year after year, against one of the greatest teams in NBA history. In that first Finals, the mind-numbing style that LeBron used to keep his mismatched team afloat was given a name: Caveman Ball, a brutal, bruising, painfully inefficient display of star power. There were misses, there were free throws, and there were a whole lot of offensive rebound opportunities. It was ugly, practically a real-time rebuke of the beautifully efficient offensive fractals of the Warriors’ perimeter-oriented attack. It was a joyless brand of basketball that only a player with LeBron’s frame, and capacity for multitudes, could have pulled off in the modern game. And yet, on Wednesday, with the Warriors decimated by injuries to three of the team’s most important rotation players, it’s perhaps the closest parallel for what Curry was forced to do. With so much riding on Curry, he was almost assured to have a career performance; he did, scoring a playoff career-high 47 points. He is now only the second player to log at least 47 points in an NBA Finals game and lose. The other player is LeBron.
Steph has the NBA Finals record for most 3-pointers made in a game with nine, but if having a signature performance on basketball’s grandest stage is a know-it-when-you-see-it proposition, Game 3, even in a loss, stands above his previous 24 Finals bouts. It’s one of the only instances wherein Curry has been forced to conform to the modern NBA superstar template, creating something out of nothing with only sheer talent and desire powering his intentions. He is a player whose unique gifts allow him to conceive of a different way of making everyone around him better: The team may revolve around him, but with all his off-ball actions, he also quite literally revolves around the team. He doesn’t always need the ball in his hands, or even to be directly involved in a play, to make his teammates better. It was always a bit of a fun thought experiment to imagine if he did, though.
And that’s exactly why watching Curry live up to a completely different (and arbitrary) standard of play than his own was, in a way, refreshing, even if it didn’t go the way the Warriors had hoped. Curry had 40 points by the end of the third quarter, two more points than his previous Finals career high, and only four away from his previous postseason career high. And while it had the gravity of a different kind of star performance, it looked more or less like a normal Steph Curry game: He worked his way from one side of the floor to the other to get open, he took advantage of high screens set near the half-court line to catch unsuspecting bigs sleeping for deep-range bombs, and he worked the pick-and-roll to perfection. But he also put the onus on himself to take shots he normally wouldn’t: He took a number of midrange floaters when the Warriors simply needed to stop the bleeding. It’s what Caveman Ball looks like in the hands of a software engineer.
After their Game 1 loss, the Warriors talked at length about how the Raptors reminded them of themselves. Similar styles. Similar pet maneuvers. Similar game plan. Toronto subsisted on a steady diet of some of the most efficient shots in basketball: paint attempts and corner 3s. Its ball movement cribbed from the Spurs, its flow (and frequent momentum-crushing moments) cribbed from the Warriors. There was only so much one player could do, something LeBron learned three out of four times.
Every element of Curry’s play revolves around making everything around him more spacious, more beautiful. He isn’t built to muck up the game, but he damn sure tried. With the game nearly officially out of reach, at around the 3:30 mark in the fourth quarter, Curry’s competitive nature reached its boiling point. He squirted into a passing lane to swipe a pass from Danny Green’s expectant hands, and forced a foul call as he dove on the floor; less than a minute later, he rushed Marc Gasol’s blind side for a steal off a Raptors defensive rebound; 10 seconds after that, he was on the floor again, diving for a loose ball and winning the jump ball against Kyle Lowry, who, had it not been for Curry’s 47-point outburst, might’ve been the biggest story of the game (23 points, nine assists).
It was all for naught. Curry exited the game with just over a minute and a half remaining and the game officially out of reach. But for those two minutes, with Curry locked in, and with the score hovering around a 10-point deficit, one couldn’t help but expect it all to work out the way it usually does: careless turnovers and 50-50 balls going the Warriors’ way, swiftly converted into 3-pointers. Sure, there was no Durant on the floor, no Klay Thompson; but there was still a prevailing sense that, with Steph, anything was possible. It was a strange feeling he conjured: the euphoria of the We Believe team blended with all the haughtiness of the Light-years era. He was the underdog and a destroyer. Somehow, in one of Steph’s most uncharacteristic performances, he still managed to trace the arc of his career in a 43-minute suite. It’ll be the reel he sends in for Finals MVP consideration, no matter how the rest of the series shakes out.