April 16, 2024

Stephen Curry lifts Warriors to brink of NBA Finals

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DALLAS — One by one, the major postseason foes from Stephen Curry’s past have fallen by the wayside.

Kawhi Leonard missed the entire season with a knee injury. LeBron James and Russell Westbrook fell short of the play-in tournament. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving couldn’t muster a single playoff win. Chris Paul and James Harden both faltered in the second round.

Yet Curry is still going — a ball of constant motion, running and shooting and celebrating like the good old days. The Golden State Warriors’ star hasn’t just outlasted his peers, he’s dancing all over the next generation, too. Just two months after he sustained a foot injury that sidelined him for the final 12 games of the regular season, Curry has returned to full speed and guided the Warriors to the brink of their sixth NBA Finals appearance in the past eight years.

“Steph is the best-conditioned athlete in this game,” Dallas Mavericks Coach Jason Kidd said, after his first encounter with Curry in the Western Conference finals. “He never stops moving.”

What to know about the 2022 NBA playoffs

During a 109-100 Game 3 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, Curry launched a three-pointer and turned his back while the ball was still arcing toward the hoop, his silent sign that he already knew that it was going in. Later, he isolated against Luka Doncic and tiptoed past Dallas’s 23-year-old headliner with a series of crossover moves to set up a pretty finger roll. Curry’s Warriors have manhandled Doncic’s Mavericks to take a 3-0 series lead, and they will have a chance to complete the sweep in Tuesday’s Game 4.

Even at age 34, Curry’s highlights remain both jaw-dropping and commonplace. Late in a Game 2 win, he mouthed the words, “Night, night,” while hitting a dagger three, then tilted his head onto his two hands as if they were a pillow. This was at least the third time that he had gone to that particular motion in these playoffs, after previously putting to bed the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies.

The consistency and focus from Curry have been staggering. Consider that his 2022 playoff averages (27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists) are virtually identical to his 2015 playoff numbers (28.3 points, 5 rebounds and 6.4 assists). Back then, he was a 27-year-old gunning for his first ring. Now, he’s seeking his fourth title but still won’t allow himself to skip steps or take off possessions on defense.

“I’m not going to fast forward,” Curry said, after finishing with 31 points, five rebounds and 11 assists in Game 3. “We’re playing great basketball right now. We can play better, but we’re finding ways to win games. That’s how you piece this thing together. There’s no expectation other than the challenge ahead of us. The challenge now is to close out a series against a really good team and get back to an opportunity to win the Finals.”

History will remember Curry for changing the sport with his unmatched shooting ability, but loyalty and self-assuredness are equally important to his legacy. James, Durant, Paul, Harden, Irving, Westbrook and Leonard have all changed teams multiple times. Curry has never seriously hinted at wanting out of Golden State in 12 years, not even during the ugly lottery seasons of 2019-20 and 2020-21.

Though other superstars have split from their running mates in search of a larger market or a bigger role, Curry has consistently morphed his game to empower those around him, rather than feeling threatened or adopting a territorial response. His three-year partnership with Durant is the most obvious example of his willingness to share touches and the limelight, but Curry has also been instrumental in coaxing the best out of Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole this season.

Wiggins has left his disappointing Minnesota Timberwolves stint in the past, transforming into a pleasant surprise with the Warriors and a two-way force in these playoffs. In Game 3, Wiggins scored 27 points, handled the lead defensive responsibilities on Doncic and took advantage of Dallas’s undersized front line by grabbing six offensive rebounds. Since Wiggins arrived in 2020 with a reputation for inconsistency, Curry has made a point to shower the forward with positive reinforcement and celebrate his successes, like his first all-star selection in February and his sensational Game 3 poster dunk on Doncic.

“When the trade happened, it was the idea of what he could do to impact games for us,” Curry said. “Defensively, his athleticism. He was a 20-point scorer so he knew how to put the ball in the basket, but he would be asked to do it a different way and balance with the rest of the guys. We’ve been preaching that since he joined the team well over two years ago. It’s amazing to see it happen under the bright lights. He’s stepping up, and that’s only because of his approach, his attitude and him just being a gamer.”

Curry went even further to accommodate Poole, a 22-year-old scoring guard who has enjoyed a breakout campaign. With Poole averaging 23.4 points after the all-star break and taking on an expanded role during Curry’s injury, Golden State was in a bit of a tricky spot when the playoffs opened.

On one hand, the Warriors didn’t want to mess up Poole’s positive momentum. On the other, they knew they needed Curry to ramp up physically and perform to his peak capabilities if they were going to compete for a title. To resolve the matter, Curry came off the bench for the first four games against Denver, gradually increasing his playing time before he returned to the starting lineup.

The Warriors don’t stop moving, or sharing, and foes can’t keep up

That unselfishness set an example for Poole, who excelled against the Nuggets before moving back to the second unit against the Grizzlies. Incidentally, it was Poole, not Curry, who put away the Mavericks for good with a pretty three-pointer in the final minute of Game 3.

“If Steph Curry can come off the bench, anyone can come off the bench,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said.

In the coming weeks, Curry’s longevity and unselfishness will probably be rewarded with a chance to make some serious history. If the Warriors knock off the Mavericks, he’s in line to be the inaugural winner of the Magic Johnson Western Conference finals MVP award. From there, a fourth ring would draw him level with James and give him a title before, during and after Durant’s Warriors tenure.

Should everything break right, Curry could win Finals MVP for the first time — the last gap on his Hall of Fame resume — and spark a new round of talking-head debates about whether he’s ready to unseat Johnson as the greatest point guard of all time.

While Curry’s act never gets old, he knows that he’s getting older. The last two seasons gave him a taste of his basketball mortality and an extended look at what life will be like when his calendar no longer revolves around June. Clearly, he wasn’t ready for all that just yet.

“It’s just trying to take advantage of the opportunity, knowing they are not going to come [forever],” Curry said. “You shouldn’t take it for granted. There’s a limit to how this goes.”

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