Stephen Curry – unlike the Titan Atlas of Greek mythology – was not doomed to bear the weight of the heavens. But as the face of the franchise and its undisputed best player, the burden of the Golden State Warriors world had to fall on his 34-year-old shoulders.
The name “Atlas” itself is about what Curry managed to accomplish in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Curry found the inner strength and courage to lead the Warriors to a road victory in an extremely hostile environment. He gave direction to his team when it seemed all was lost. His adventurous shots, frowned upon by a generation stuck in the past, paved a new path for the NBA; now they’re providing a way forward for the Warriors, a breath of fresh air after it looked like the Boston Celtics were close to snuffing it out.
Draymond Green had the worst playoff streak of his career. Klay Thompson’s inefficiency stuck out like a sore thumb. Andrew Wiggins – with a double-double of 17 points and 16 rebounds – stepped in to the roles Green and Thompson are expected to fill.
But whether Wiggins being the Warriors’ most consistent non-Curry warrior is enough for the Warriors to win a championship remains the question. They’ll need more Green and Thompson – they made a few key plays in Game 4, but consistency across the board has to be the name of the game.
Curry was unquestionably the best player in these finals. His titanic 43-point performance to save the Warriors from a potential 3-1 hole — on 26 shooting (7 of 12 from two, 7 of 14 from three) and 71.8% True Shooting — was the latest in a string of performances that each deserve their place in history. But he rightly claims his place at a higher level within the pantheon.
An enlarged view of this series offers a broader perspective — and greater appreciation — of what Curry has done. In 4 games in the final, he averaged 34.3 points on an otherworldly shooting distribution: 50/49/86. His 66.4% True Shooting is reminiscent of his unanimous MVP campaign, where he achieved a 66.9% True Shooting rating.
Curry destroys any conventional notion of what a good defense is. His presence stretches defenses to their limits – and that includes the league’s best defense in the Celtics, whose screen-and-roll coverage philosophy has been conservative.
They have remained conservative even on the undisputed greatest shooter of all time, who can shoot multiple ways. The Celtics masterfully ended the Warriors’ complex offense, rendering it largely null and void with a combination of copious switching, tenacious on-screen navigation and dominating rim protection.
The cracks in the proverbial Celtics armor are smaller than most, but Curry is excellent at punching those holes and threading the needle.
That’s a lot to ask of a defense that’s proven itself time and time again this season, but the Celtics need to be pristine and flawless to contain Curry. Even the smallest of failings burned them.
The Warriors didn’t get much out of their patented low position action, but Curry manages to punch a three-on-one. Most teams with a pulse on this action would get the screener defender higher into Curry’s space, but the Celtics trust their defenders’ screen navigation chops on the ball to catch Curry and make overcrowding themselves.
But the Celtics’ faith in Derrick White above is misplaced (in this case, at least – White is otherwise an elite screen navigator). Robert Williams III steps back comfortably to watch his teammate fall ever so slightly behind, relegated to a mere spectator for another Curry three.
Even Curry’s classic relocation victimized the Celtics, who were otherwise excellent at seizing Curry’s off-ball shenanigans.
Note that the possession above was triggered by a forced switch on Al Horford. Curry blasts easily through Horford and gets two feet in the paint, forcing an assist from Grant Williams. Curry kicks Gary Payton II into the corner, and Williams – thinking the threat has been contained – finds himself one step behind relocating Curry to the corner.
The Celtics’ reluctance to commit to two bodies attacking Curry and forcing him to cough up the ball has been a widespread scenario. They’d rather not release Curry’s ball-screen partner – often green – in a position of numerical strength against the baseline. If they can help him, they’ll stay home for their missions, keep the Curry on-ball action contained, and live with the results.
Even as the Celtics learn their lesson by getting burned by multiple Curry pull-ups against varying levels of deep dropping, Curry’s unfathomable range has improved their encounters screen-wise.
The concept of a screen-level encounter itself — more aggressive than your traditional drop, but still relatively conservative than an outright double or trap — is twisted by Curry’s generational talents. If the defender on the ball is even half a second late to cross the screen, Curry’s flash release allows him to get the ball out of his hands quickly, with a big one that even when playing higher than usual , is rendered ineffective.
(The common denominator in the possessions above: Horford. The Warriors have made Horford their pressure point on target; if the Celtics aren’t going to commit two for the ball, they will force Horford to step in, make a pick and to defend in space.)
Curry’s shooting brilliance was at its peak, in a game where he had to be nothing less than near perfect. A few deflected shots left or right, short of their target, or with too much punch behind them, and the outcome of the match would have been different. But Curry put in just the right amount of contact — as he’s used to — to find his mark.
And when Curry had the Celtics on their heels — when every conservative cover the Celtics tried to throw at him was thrown right back in their faces — they blinked.
A rare sight, but one the Celtics tried to prevent: Curry drawing two bodies around a green screen, then returning the ball to green in the short roll. This creates a virtual 2-on-1, with Horford stuck in no man’s land. Green hands it to Looney, who finishes and creates a 5-point cushion with one minute remaining.
It remains to be seen if the Celtics will continue to flash by incorporating more doubles into their Curry covers. The sure answer is that they won’t – their confidence in their defenders on the ball is high enough that they’ll live with a ridiculous shot from Curry and hope everything else falls into place.
But Curry is posting monstrous numbers in the pick-and-roll. According to InStat, 43% of his possessions in the Finals involved a ball screen — 16% more than his pick-and-roll frequency in the regular season. He scores 1.23 points per possession (PPP) on such plays – and he does it against a transcendent defensive unit.
There are more hurdles to overcome. The Celtics won’t turn around and acquiesce; they will find a way to respond, fill in their gaps, and continue to hammer at the pressure points they have designated themselves. Curry may have to repeat that performance — or his supporting cast will have to improve theirs.
But the fact remains: Curry wanted this team to be what was thought to be an unlikely series stopper, against a team designed to beat them at every turn. That, in itself, is a massive achievement worthy of praise.
If there has been any doubt that he is not a performer on the greatest stage of all, those doubts must surely be dispelled now. Curry is built to carry the burden, a titan of the game worthy of being considered one of the best to ever play the game at its highest level.
Heavy is the head that bears the crown – but if the weight of responsibility is the price Curry must pay, he is more than willing to bear the cost, if it means another championship to add to his long list of accolades.