August 9, 2022

BOSTON – The biggest bucket in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, according to Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, was not one of Stephen Curry’s 3 stunners. It wasn’t even one of Klay Thompson’s jumpers or Andrew Wiggins’ backhands. No, after the Warriors’ 107-97 win on Friday, Kerr said the biggest bucket was that left-handed Kevon Looney finish:

Kerr isn’t just crazy for Looney. It’s a matter of context. There was about a minute left, and Al Horford had just made a 3, ending a Boston Celtics more than three-minute drought. Looney’s layup turned a one-possession game into a two-possession game, and he deflated a crowd that was ready to explode.

You’ve seen the Warriors execute passing streaks like this a million times, and that’s the point. Their bread-and-butter thing didn’t work particularly well against the Celtics. Coach Ime Udoka said before the series started that he thought other teams tended to overreact to Golden State’s 3-point shot, opening up easy looks at the basket. Instead of trying to get the ball out of Curry’s hands, Boston largely switched or trusted their guards to stay tied down and navigate the screens. That he changed course in record time, sending two defenders to Curry and serving a 4-on-3 for Draymond Green, is testament to a Curry performance for the ages: 43 points in 41 minutes, 14 for 26 shots , 7 for 14 from deep, 10 rebounds, four assists, two days after Horford landed on his previously injured foot.

“This man’s heart is amazing,” Thompson said. “The things he does, we take for granted once in a while, but to go out there and put us on his back – I mean, we have to help him on Monday. Wow.”

After Golden State fell 2-1 in the Finals, Thompson said he was “getting big 2015 vibes” from this series. It was his first experience on this stage, and he trailed the Cleveland Cavaliers 2-1 before winning three straight. The vibes I feel, however, 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 suffered a calf injury late in the third quarter and Golden State held them up. 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 victory for the Warriors and for Kerr’s offensive philosophy. There were also Games 2 and 5 of the Finals, both in Toronto, two close and gutsy wins against an opponent who was leading in the series and pulled off every defensive trick in the book.

The Celtics’ defense mixes the best attributes of those Rockets (switchability) and those Raptors (intelligence). It pushed Kerr into an awkward place, where every roster decision is a gamble on Golden State, either sidestepping a spacing issue or making just enough saves to survive. As impressive as the Warriors were in Game 4, their half-court offense was tough: 83.9 points per 100 half-court plays, their worst rating in the series, per Cleaning The Glass. They won by hitting the glass, picking up the pace and, most importantly, accepting that it won’t always be pretty.

“Your normal sets or just the normal flow probably won’t be there from the start of the game just because that’s what they do well and how they dominate games at that end of the court,” Curry said. “So those are the times where you can be a bit more aggressive, try, say, force the issue a bit. It doesn’t always mean shooting, but it just means attacking, being aggressive and finding ways, doing it again and again and again.”

Facing a potential 3-1 deficit, essentially a death sentence against that huge, athletic, well-coordinated defense, Curry and the Warriors found a way to play the hits. We’ve seen some crazy shots from behind the 3-point line:

We’ve seen Curry’s grip, balance and touch inside the 3-point line:

We’ve seen the classic post splits, giving Curry just enough space to shoot, even with his defender, Derrick White, going over the screen and flying towards him:

We’ve seen plenty of transition plays and early attacks, situations in which Curry causes chaos and confusion – on one play, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown took it, leaving Thompson unguarded:

We saw Gary Payton II do his best impression of Zaza Pachulia, freeing Curry for a 3 by dropping the ball in the corner and filtering it open:

And we’ve seen Golden State’s superb defense — Boston scored 101 points on 100 possessions — being eclipsed by the Curry Flurry. In this instance, Curry’s brilliance with the ball overshadowed the way he fought and turned at the other end, despite the Celtics’ repeated efforts to target him.

In Green’s estimation, every game in these finals was decided by Obligate – who brings the greatest defensive intensity, who cuts harder, who filters harder, who imposes his will. Curry said that although Golden State had a bad 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 has allowed the Warriors to weather tough times, hang around and be able for Curry to drive them home.

“He wouldn’t let us lose,” Green said. “That’s what it boils down to.”