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January 22, 2023

SAN FRANCISCO — There is a famous quote attributed to the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu that says, “A leader is best when people hardly know he exists.” When his work is done, his objective achieved, they will say: we did it ourselves. The idea is that a leader moves silently, only subtly inserting himself when needed, ceding the glory to his team.

In Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Stephen Curry proved that even the most revered philosophers of our time can be completely wrong. On Sunday, Curry made sure the Boston Celtics — and anyone even remotely interested in basketball — knew he existed.

Curry asserted himself forcefully in what amounted to a must-watch game for the Golden State Warriors, keeping his team afloat during an ugly offensive first half and unleashing a grueling third-quarter run at both ends of the floor that ultimately leads to a 107-88 win over the Celtics and a 1-1 tie as the teams head east for Game 3 on Wednesday.

“Steph was breathtaking in that quarter. Not just the shooting, but the defensive effort,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the win. “The guy is amazing. He continues to work on his game, his strength, his fitness year after year, and it’s a pleasure to watch him play every night.”

Curry, whose dazzling 21-point first quarter in Game 1 had fans who didn’t know better ready to crown the Warriors, went 5 of 16 from the field and 1 of 6 from 3-point range for the rest of the game as he watched the Celtics pull off a historic fourth quarter to blast the Warriors in the first-ever game of the Finals at Chase Center.

This did not sit well with Curry. He couldn’t sleep. He called Sunday’s Game 2 a “come to Jesus moment.” Whether it was Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Mohamed or just Curry’s old basketball genius, he lifted the Warriors in a game they just couldn’t afford to lose, recording 29 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals on 5-for-12 3-point shooting against a myriad of defensive looks and a relentless Celtics physique.

“Guys will try to get physical with him, but he’s used to it. He’s a lot stronger than before,” Warriors center Kevon Looney said after the game. “He knows sometimes he will have to make sacrifices, not have so many looks sometimes to find us, and I think he did a good job of balancing today.”

Everyone in the building knew the Warriors would come out with more intensity after what happened in Game 1. Draymond Green, never afraid of displays of intensity from the outside, tied up Al Horford on the game’s first possession, flexed on Horford after a lay-up and was given a technical foul after an altercation with Grant Williams – all minutes into the first quarter. He was definitely doing the job he needed to do to get this team to the level of aggression needed to survive against a team as good as Boston.

The problem was that it didn’t really work. Boston got off to a 13-5 start thanks to some hot shots from Jaylen Brown, which Green was tasked with guarding to start the game. Minutes later, it was clear Golden State was going to have to work extremely hard for every pass, dribble and field goal it could muster Sunday night. Klay Thompson, who said the team had to play in “desperation”, was desperate to shoot – going just 1 of 5 from the field and 0 of 3 from 3-point range in the first quarter en route to a gruesome 4 – for-19 night of filming.

So, with all of the Warriors struggling offensively despite their improved toughness and intent, Curry got to work. He wasn’t marked by the glitz and dread of Game 1’s first-quarter blast, but his methodical ability to keep the Warriors in the game on Sunday amid their offensive struggles was equally important. He didn’t shoot particularly well, but Curry scored 10 points in the first frame, shooting four free throws and delivering three assists. On the surface, it didn’t look like Curry was dominating the game, but lo and behold, the Warriors somehow held a 31-30 lead after the first quarter. That’s what leaders do, and it doesn’t go unnoticed by teammates.

“Most importantly, his decision making was excellent. He got the ball back. He didn’t get into traffic. He took what the defense gave him,” Green said after the Game 2 win. “I think for the first few, probably six minutes of that game, he had no points. He wasn’t forcing anything. Let the game come to him and, you know, we all followed that.”

The second quarter was a similar job, with the Warriors continually out or denied on what are normally uncontested layups due to the length, size and skill of the Celtics defense. The bar didn’t move much, but Boston took a 52-50 locker room lead at halftime, setting the stage for the third-quarter onslaught the Warriors were about to unleash.

Curry was brilliant offensively in the deciding third and quarter, scoring 14 points on 4-for-9 shooting, including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc. When he came off a high screen right in front of his own bench, got up and swept a 30-footer to put the Warriors up by 17, it felt like the final blow to put the Celtics to bed – although the Warriors and Chase Center fans wouldn’t dare go that route.

With all of his offensive exploits, it would be easy to overlook what Curry did on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the third quarter. Kerr and the Warriors preached all year that Curry wasn’t getting enough recognition for his defense, and Sunday provides plenty of evidence for their assertion. Curry’s hands were everywhere as he jumped passing lanes and powerfully resisted any Celtic trying to use a height advantage.

Watch here as Curry thwarts Horford’s attempt to bully him to the basket and channels him to help from Otto Porter Jr. Then he reads Williams cutting under the basket for a potential lay-up and slides to deflect Horford’s pass before the Celtics knew what hit them. That’s the kind of instinct usually attributed to Defensive Player of the Year winners like Green and Marcus Smart.

“From my rookie year until now, it’s always been about effort and just a healing factor, overcoming physical limitations with matchups or whatever,” Curry said of his defensive evolution. “If you try hard, good things will happen. And you will keep improving. So that was always a point of attention. Just better now.”

Curry was a vital part of a defense that forced more third-quarter turnovers (five) than Boston had field goals (four). When the buzzer sounded to end the frame, the Warriors had outscored the Celtics 35-14, their largest margin for any quarter-final in franchise history.

The Warriors had nothing to do in the first half and Curry kept them afloat. When they needed a knockout punch in a must-win game, he got through it on both sides. It’s no revelation to say that Curry is one of the greatest basketball players Earth has ever seen (and probably most other planets too), but his leadership can sometimes be taken for granted. He doesn’t shout like Green or break clipboards like Kerr, but he knows when his team needs him and, more often than not, he knows how to deliver.

“I think this year I absolutely have to be aggressive throughout the game – to create, get attention, get shots and keep applying pressure,” Curry said after Game 2. “Obviously both first games, it went well. I don’t know what it will be like on the road, the rest of the series. It’s always about being confident with the ball in your hands and making plays.

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