Sports

Curry playing the hero role playoff legends are made of

Just when it looked like the Boston Celtics were poised to defend homecourt and send the NBA Finals back to San Francisco with a commanding 3-1 lead, Stephen Curry said he wasn’t having it — delivering an all-time great Finals performance to tie the series.

The Finals pauses for the weekend as the teams travel back to California in preparation for what should be an epic Game 5 on Monday.

Before that, here are some takeaways from a 107-97 Game 4 Golden State Warriors win that didn’t exactly go to script in the most entertaining game of the series so far:

Steph Curry shines

It’s not Curry’s fault he’s never before been the best player on a lesser team in the NBA Finals and thus had the opportunity to play the kind of hero role playoff legends are made of, the way, say, LeBron James lifted Cleveland to their comeback from down 3-1 in 2016.

In 2014-15, Curry was the Warriors’ best player, but they were better than the then-injury-riddled Cleveland Cavaliers. As mentioned, the Warriors’ 73-9 juggernaut was upended by a transcendent James and the Cavaliers in 2016. After that, Kevin Durant was on the Warriors, and Golden State’s superstar depth made it difficult to give Curry his proper due in the Finals.

But in this series? Curry is the best player on his team, by a margin, and the Celtics still profile as the better overall team than the Warriors and their aging core.

Curry is perfectly positioned for a signature moment and is making the best of his opportunity. In leading the Warriors he’s reminding the basketball world that he is among the best who have ever played — as if anyone should really need to be reminded. His 43-point, 10-rebound masterpiece on the road against the Celtics may be his best game in his six Finals appearances. He lifted the Warriors early with a 19-point first half, and then refused to let the game — and the series — get away from Golden State as he put up 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the pivotal third quarter.

Then, he shut the door on Boston down the stretch with 10 more in the fourth, making one difficult shot after another into the teeth of a historically good Celtics defence.

“I’ve been here [the Finals] six times, I got a lot of experience in terms of staying composed, confident in what you can do,” said Curry afterwards.

“I don’t rank my performances. Just win,” he later added.

He’s now averaging 34.4 points a game to lead the series with a True Shooting percentage of 66.4.

The withering of Draymond Green

For much of his career, appreciating Draymond Green’s basketball contributions was a bit of a trick question.

Casual fans might look at the offensive numbers or his fairly ordinary level of athleticism and wonder what all the fuss was about. But if you knew the game and could see everything Green did to help his team – from screen setting to passing to orchestrating his team offensively and defensively to guarding every position on the floor – it was easy to see why he’s a sure-fire hall- of-famer, regardless of his single-digit career scoring average.

But Green has made even experts have to look harder to see how he’s impacting the Warriors, positively at least. Coming into Game 4, Green had accumulated 15 points and 15 fouls and was shooting 26.3 per cent.

Normally you could point to his defensive contributions, but according to ESPN Green was allowing 1.24 points per play in isolation as a defender, which is what happens when you allow Al Horford or Jaylen Brown to get off for big games on your watch. It’s probably not fair, as Green’s best contributions are as a help defender, but it made a point.

“I played like [crap],” was Green’s assessment after his Game 3 no-show.

He was no better in the first half of Game 4 as he was 0-of-4 from the field, continuing a trend offensively where it looks like his sole goal is to get the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible, regardless of what happens next. He managed just three rebounds and the Warriors’ best stretch came after he sat down with two quick fouls in the first quarter.

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr knew something was off with his starting lineup so decided to sit down Kevon Looney in favor of Otto Porter, presumably to open up more space for Green to operate with Porter’s shooting, but it had no effect.

Green was integral to the Warriors’ three championships, but as they go for their fourth in eight years, the 32-year-old seems like a problem, rather than a solution. He’s looked over-matched defensively against Williams and almost everyone else he’s had to match up with and anemic offensively. Not pretty.

He did end up grabbing nine rebounds and managed eight assists and four steals, which went a long way to off-setting his two points on 1-of-7 shooting, but with the Warriors’ season on the line, Green was on the bench for much of the fourth quarter as Kerr opted to go with small with Jordan Poole and Looney as the big, though he substituted Poole’s offense for Green’s defense down the stretch.

“I’m definitely never thrilled coming out of the game with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter of a must-win game, I’m not going sit here and act like I was thrilled,” said Green. “But at the end of the day, if that’s what coach decides, then you roll with it.”

Robert Williams III is the difference-maker

Early in the first quarter Curry turned the corner on Boston’s Marcus Smart and saw the ocean part: the typically penetrable Celtics half-court defense was cracked, the lane open, the rim unprotected. Curry took off for the basket, flipped up a high-arching finger roll and then watched in amazement as the Celtics’ young center moved like a panther and jumped like he was shot out of cannon, easily getting from the foul line in time to swat Curry’s once wide-open lay-up out of bounds.

It was an incredible play, but one Williams makes seem routine. The NBA game has changed in favor of spread offenses, three-point shooting and away from traditional post-up centers. But centers like Williams – mobile enough to contain point guards, big enough to dominate as a rebounder and athletic enough to catch lobs on one end while blocking and changing any shot in the paint, seemingly, at the other – prove that size absolutely matters.

A moment after the Curry block Williams grabbed an offensive rebound over an over-matched Warriors front line and then caught a lob and drew a foul. And all the while, every lay-up the Warriors have attempted with Williams on the floor has been made more difficult because of his presence, and it shows.

In seven first-quarter minutes, Williams had five points, five rebounds, one spectacular block, one almost-as-impressive assist as he found Grant Williams for a three on a short roll, and was a game-best plus-12 as even though Boston led just 28-27. He finished plus-6 for the game, on his way to seven points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots in 31 minutes.

It may not be the flashiest box score line, but Williams is a player that must be accounted for at all times, on both ends. He’s a significant impact player in these Finals.

Andrew Wiggins comes up…pretty big

The eight-year veteran has earned a lot of justified praise for his all-around contributions, especially on the defensive end, during the first extended playoff run of his career. It seemed like he was in a perfect position as the veteran, star-studded Warriors’ third or even fourth option. But as the Finals have worn on, and it’s clear that Golden State needs someone – anyone – to step up and support Curry, Wiggins has fallen somewhat short.

With Green floundering and Klay Thompson flailing, Wiggins – a career 20-point scorer in his prime – largely missed his opportunity to really put his stamp on Game 4. Sure he delivered another “solid, solid, performance” as ESPN announcer Jeff Van Gundy put it, but sometimes it seems like a bit much to praise such a gifted player for being solid. Especially when the Warriors needed – or will need – something big, something special, from someone other than Curry.

Wiggins is the logical person to deliver it. Why’s that? Finals history is filled with ‘role players’ who play above their heads at critical moments. I’m not sure if a former No. 1 pick at his athletic peak should be considered a role player but, the Warriors need something more, at least in my opinion.

Wiggins played well – his career-high 16 rebounds included a pair of critical put-backs in the fourth quarter – but he always seems to have a little more in him that doesn’t quite make it to the floor. He got caught napping early in the fourth quarter and allowed Tatum a wide-open three. He made a weak turnover a moment later.

Upon review, maybe I’m being a bit harsh as 17 points and 16 rebounds in a critical road win in the NBA Finals is nothing to scoff at and he was the primary defender on Tatum – who was 8-of-23 on the night – can’t be overlooked.

So let’s just leave it at this: Curry is going to need some help if the Warriors are going to find a way to win two more games, and Wiggins could and maybe should be the guy.

“Wiggs was fantastic,” said Warriors head Steve Kerr. “We needed every bit of Wiggs’ contribution.”

Celtics lose the third quarter, and the fourth quarter

For the fourth straight game, the Celtics got beaten in the third quarter, this time 30-24, which pushed the Warriors’ aggregate advantage in the first 12 minutes after half to plus-49 as Boston gave up a five-point halftime lead. But the Celtics have largely owned the fourth quarter, heading into Game 4 plus-40 in the series in the final 12 minutes of games.

This time, the Warriors were able to push back. Of course Curry had a lot to do with that, but credit Kerr who was willing to break with some patterned lineups. He pulled Thompson at times; he gave big fourth-quarter minutes to the defensively challenged Poole and put the ball in Curry’s hands, trusting him to run high pick-and-roll over and over again. He pressed plenty of buttons, and most of them worked.

“Loon [Looney] was playing so well and Jordan was playing so well, we just stayed with it,” said Kerr.

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