BOSTON — Stephen Curry was demoralizing the Celtics when he decided to improvise. After he dribbled to spin previous Marcus Smart, who occurs to be one of many N.B.A.’s most ferocious defenders, Curry discovered himself sizing up Robert Williams, a 6-foot-9 middle whose sneakers would possibly as properly have been full of concrete.
Curry took a tough dribble, leaving Williams in his wake, earlier than he rose from the court docket to sink a working 12-foot floater that prolonged Golden State’s lead in Game 4 of the N.B.A. finals Friday night time.
It was a scene that felt acquainted however new, the identical however someway totally different. Curry has spent his profession filling video games with parabolic 3-pointers and dazzling drives to the ring. But now, at age 34, having spent the previous couple of seasons wandering by the basketball wilderness along with his teammates, he has been busy staging a renaissance.
And it was his efficiency — 43 factors and 10 rebounds on a sore left foot — that had basketball followers buzzing forward of Game 5 on Monday night time in San Francisco. The sequence is tied, 2-2.
“He wasn’t going to allow us to lose,” his teammate Draymond Green mentioned.
Aside from Curry’s comparatively slight stature — at 6-foot-2, he’s a shrub within the N.B.A.’s forest of redwoods — it may be tough for strange people to narrate to him. He is a extremely skilled athlete and the best shooter who has ever lived. He has received two N.B.A. Most Valuable Player Awards. The architect of an increasing leisure empire, he golfs with former President Barack Obama in his spare time.
And for 5 seasons, from 2014to 2019, Curry sat atop the basketball world.
Few individuals ever grow to be the very best at something, and wins can really feel elusive. You get caught within the slowest checkout line. You deserved that job promotion. You need to have the ability to purchase a home in that neighborhood, too. But Curry helped the strange plenty really feel like winners alongside him, even when they rooted for his crew to lose.
As Curry led Golden State to 5 straight N.B.A. finals appearances, profitable three championships, opposing followers would end up early for video games simply so they may watch him heat up. At Madison Square Garden, the place the lights are low and the court docket is a stage, the M.V.P. chants have been for him. In Los Angeles, in Houston, in Philadelphia and in Miami, cities with All-Stars of their very own, the roars and the crowds, the oohs and the aahs — they trumpeted his arrival.
Along the best way, he pushed his teammates to show basketball into excessive artwork. They shot with precision. They moved with the grace of ballet dancers. And in a sport saturated by supersize egos and monumental paychecks, they relished passing to the open man.
And then got here Kevin Durant, all arms and legs and 25-foot jumpers. After shedding to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers within the 2016 N.B.A. finals, Golden State had efficiently recruited Durant to signal on as a free agent. Was it a cry for assist, an acknowledgment that the crew had room for enchancment? Or have been the wealthy simply getting richer?
“We have been the evil empire for some time,” Rick Welts, the crew’s former president, mentioned in a latest interview.
Durant, in fact, was fearsome earlier than he joined Golden State. After being named the league’s M.V.P. in 2014, he described his mom, Wanda, because the “actual M.V.P.” in an emotional speech. The callousness of the present period ultimately turned that expression of humility right into a meme, one that will quickly be turned in opposition to him: Between Durant and Curry in Golden State, who was the actual M.V.P.?
That query — from social media trolls, tv personalities and needling sports activities followers — was a dig at Durant, however its sharp edge wounded Curry, too. Golden State had grow to be too good.
Sure sufficient, Durant was a pressure in back-to-back championships, the latter a four-game sweep of the Cavaliers. There was a way of joyless inevitability about Golden State: Anything in need of a championship was a failure.
And then the dynasty crumbled. In the 2019 finals, Klay Thompson and Durant sustained critical accidents because the Toronto Raptors staged an upset to win their first title. Thompson sat out the following season after knee surgical procedure. Durant left for the Nets in free company. And Curry broke his left hand, lacking all however 5 video games as Golden State completed with the worst document within the N.B.A.
In a matter of months, the league’s most dominant crew had morphed right into a renovation challenge. Making issues worse, Thompson ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in a exercise earlier than the beginning of final season, and Golden State fell in need of making the playoffs once more.
This season, nothing was assured. Golden State had gone from indomitable to weak, a battered model of its youthful self. But the crew was not completely damaged. Thompson’s return in January after a 941-day absence was celebrated as a triumph and no small medical marvel. He soared for a dunk in his first recreation.
The finals have been a microcosm of Golden State’s lengthy street again — a gorgeous wrestle. After splitting the primary two video games of the sequence in San Francisco, Golden State misplaced Game 3 in Boston, and Curry injured his left foot within the ultimate minutes when the Celtics’ Al Horford landed on him in a scramble for a free ball.
Afterward, it was left to Thompson to supply some hope, saying he was “getting massive 2015 vibes,” a reference to the 2015 finals, again when Golden State trailed the Cavaliers, 2-1, earlier than engineering a comeback to win all of it, the crew’s first of the Curry period.
More broadly, Thompson cited Golden State’s postseason expertise as a optimistic. When he was youthful, he mentioned, there have been trapdoors in every single place. Prone to feeling anxious when trailing in a sequence, he was more likely to be overconfident with a lead. Now, he was older however wiser.
“You can’t actually calm down till the ultimate buzzer of the closeout recreation,” he mentioned. “That’s the toughest half in regards to the playoffs — it’s a must to take care of being uncomfortable till the mission is full.”
Curry slept properly after Game 3, he mentioned, and stored his left foot in a bucket of ice every time attainable. The emphasis was on restoration and mending his achy physique. (Steph Curry: Just like us.) He knew just one factor for sure: He was going to play in Game 4.
Precisely 75 minutes earlier than Friday’s opening tip, Curry appeared for his pregame warm-up routine. Clad in black, with the notable exception of lavender-colored sneakers, he began off by making 5 layups. He then moved to the left elbow, the place he hoisted a sequence of pictures along with his left hand, which is his off hand, and missed 9 in a row to the delight of tons of of early-arriving Celtics followers.
But over the following 20 minutes, one thing unusual however not totally surprising occurred: The crowd started to murmur in admiration and appreciation as Curry sank 136 of 190 pictures, together with 46 of 72 3-pointers, a couple of of them from simply inside halfcourt. Fans broke out their cellphones to document the second for posterity. Children yelled for autographs.
“People assume his shot is like Ken Griffey Jr.’s swing — it’s so fairly that you just assume he by no means has to work on it,” Bob Myers, the crew’s basic supervisor, mentioned in an interview in the course of the common season. “But that’s something however true. When you peek backstage, you see the work.”
Once upon a time, Curry’s feats appeared magical — and they nonetheless are. But in latest seasons, as Golden State wandered by a wasteland of damage and uncertainty, Curry and his teammates revealed that success doesn’t occur accidentally, that it takes nice effort and dedication. Sure, they’re nonetheless basketball savants, however they’re savants who’ve proven the world their homework.
“Win, lose, no matter it’s, nonetheless you play, it’s a must to preserve coming again to the properly to maintain sharpening the instrument equipment and discovering methods to evolve your recreation,” Curry mentioned. “That is the toughest a part of what we do.”
After serving to pressure the Celtics right into a late turnover that primarily sealed Friday’s win, Curry and Thompson celebrated by swinging their arms in unison. Thompson, who is aware of Curry higher than most, mentioned his teammate had by no means performed a finer recreation within the finals. Curry was requested whether or not he agreed with Thompson’s evaluation.
“I don’t rank my performances, although,” he mentioned. “Just win the sport.”
At this stage, he is aware of what issues.