BOSTON — The biggest bucket of Game 4 of the NBA Finals, according to Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, was not any of Stephen Curry’s stuefying 3s. It was not even any of Klay Thompson’s jumpers or Andrew Wiggins’ putbacks. No, after the Warriors’ 107-97 win on Friday, Kerr said that the biggest bucket was this left-handed finish from Kevon Looney:
Kerr isn’t just loony for Looney. It’s about context. There was about a minute left, and Al Horford had just made a 3, ending a more-than-three-minute Boston Celtics drought. Looney’s layup turned a one-possession game into a two-possession game, and it deflated a crowd that was ready to explode.
You’ve seen the Warriors execute passing sequences like this one a zillion times, and that’s the point. Their bread-and-butter stuff has not worked particularly well against the Celtics. Coach Ime Udoka said before the series started that he thinks other teams tend to overreact to Golden State’s 3-point shooting, opening up easy looks at the basket. Instead of trying to take the ball out of Curry’s hands, Boston has largely switched or trusted its guards to stay attached and navigate screens. That it changed course in crunch time, sending two defenders to Curry and serving up a 4-on-3 for Draymond Green, is a testament to a Curry performance for the ages: 43 points in 41 minutes, 14-for-26 shooting, 7-for-14 from deep, 10 rebounds, four assists, two days after Horford landed on his previously injured foot.
“The heart on that man is incredible,” Thompson said. “The things he does, we kind of take for granted from time to time, but to go out there and put us on his back — I mean, we got to help him out on Monday. Wow.”
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After Golden State fell down 2-1 in the Finals, Thompson said he was “getting big 2015 vibes” from this series. That was its first experience on this stage, and it was down 2-1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers before it won three straight. The vibes I’m getting, though, are more reminiscent of 2019, when a battle-tested Warriors team continually refused to die.
There was Game 5 of the second round against the Houston Rockets, in which Kevin Durant injured his calf late in the third quarter and Golden State held them off. There was the euphoria of Game 6 in Houston, where Curry scored zero points in the first half and 33 in the second, a defining win for the Warriors and for Kerr’s offensive philosophy. There were also Games 2 and 5 of the Finals, both in Toronto, both narrow, gutsy victories against an opponent that was ahead in the series and pulling out every defensive trick in the book.
The Celtics’ defense blends the best attributes of those Rockets (switchability) and those Raptors (intelligence). It has pushed Kerr to an uncomfortable place, where every lineup decision is a bet on Golden State either circumventing a spacing issue or scrounging up just enough stops to survive. Impressive as the Warriors were in Game 4, their halfcourt offense was rough: 83.9 points per 100 halfcourt plays, their worst mark of the series, per Cleaning The Glass. They won’t by hitting the glass, pushing the pace and, crucially, accepting that it won’t always be pretty.
“Your normal sets or just the normal flow probably isn’t going to be there from the beginning of the game just because that’s what they’re good at and how they dominate games on that end of the floor,” Curry said. “So those are the times where you can be a little bit more aggressive, try to, let’s say, force the issue a little bit. That doesn’t always mean shoot, but it means just attacking, being and finding lanes, doing aggressive” it over and over and over again.”
Facing a potential 3-1 deficit, essentially a death sentence against this huge, athletic and well-coordinated defense, Curry and the Warriors found a way to play the hits. We saw some straight-up crazy shot-making from behind the 3-point line:
We saw Curry’s handle, balance and touch inside the 3-point line:
We saw the classic post splits, giving Curry juuuust enough space to get his shot off, even with his defender, Derrick White, getting over the screen and flying at him:
We saw a whole lot of transition play and early offense, situations in which Curry causes chaos and confusion — on one play, both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown picked him up, leaving Thompson unguarded:
We saw Gary Payton II do his best Zaza Pachulia impression, freeing Curry for a 3 by dropping the ball off in the corner and screening him open:
And we saw Golden State’s superb defense — Boston scored an awful 101 points per 100 possessions — get overshadowed by the Curry Flurry. In this case, Curry’s brilliance with the ball overshadowed how he fought and rotated on the other end, withstanding the Celtics’ repeated efforts to target him.
In Green’s estimation, every game in these Finals has been decided by force — who brings the most defensive intensity, who cuts harder, who screens harder, who imposes their will. Curry said that, even though Golden State had a poor start offensively, the tone of the game was completely different from the previous one: “It wasn’t a perfect first quarter, but we gave ourselves enough life.” That life allowed the Warriors to withstand some rough patches, hang around and be in a position for Curry to take them home.
“He wasn’t letting us lose,” Green said. “That’s what it boils down to.”