Stephen Curry — unlike the Titan Atlas of Greek mythology — wasn’t condemned to hold up 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 apropos to what Curry managed to accomplish in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Curry found the inner strength and fortitude to will the Warriors to a road win, in an extremely hostile environment. He gave his team direction when it seemed all was lost. His adventurous shots, frowned upon by a generation stuck in the past, blazed a new trail for the NBA; now, they’re providing a path forward for the Warriors, a renewed lease on life after it seemed the Boston Celtics were on the verge of snuffing it out.
Draymond Green was having the worst playoff series of his career. Klay Thompson’s inefficiency was sticking out like a sore thumb. Andrew Wiggins — with a double-double of 17 points and 16 rebounds — stepped up into the roles that Green and Thompson should be occupying.
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 from Green and Thompson — they made some key plays down the stretch in Game 4, but consistency across the board has to be the name of the game.
Curry has been unquestionably the best player of these Finals. His titanic 43-point performance to salvage the Warriors from a potential 3-1 hole — on 26 shots (7-of-12 on twos, 7-of-14 on threes) and 71.8% True Shooting — was the latest in a string of performances that each deserve their own place in history. But this one rightfully claims its place in a higher echelon within the pantheon.
A zoomed out view of this series provides a larger perspective — and larger appreciation — of what Curry has been doing. In 4 games in the Finals, he’s averaging 34.3 points on an otherworldly shooting split: 50/49/86. His 66.4% True Shooting harkens back to his unanimous MVP campaign, where he put up a 66.9% True Shooting mark.
Curry destroys any conventional notion of what good defense is. His presence stretches defenses to their limits — and that includes the best defense in the league in the Celtics, whose philosophy in screen-and-roll coverage has been conservative.
They’ve been staying conservative, even on the undisputed greatest shooter of all time, who can get a shot off in a multitude of ways. The Celtics have masterfully shut down the Warriors’ intricate offense, rendering it largely null and void through a combination of copious switching, tenacious screen navigation, and dominant rim protection.
The cracks in the Celtics’ proverbial armor are smaller than most, but Curry is excellent at poking at those holes and threading the needle.
It’s much to ask of a defense that has proven itself time and again this season, but the Celtics need to be pristine and flawless to contain Curry. Even the smallest of lapses has burned them.
The Warriors haven’t gotten much out of their patented low-post split action, but Curry manages to drill a three off of one. Most teams who have a pulse on this action would bring the screener’s defender higher up to crowd Curry’s space, but the Celtics have faith in their on-ball defenders’ screen-navigation chops to catch up to Curry and do the crowding 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 drops back comfortably to watch his teammate fall ever so slightly behind, relegated to a mere spectator for another Curry three.
Even the classic Curry relocation has victimized the Celtics, who have been otherwise excellent at keying in on Curry’s off-ball shenanigans.
Note that the possession above was triggered by a forced switch onto Al Horford. Curry easily blows by Horford and gets two feet in the paint, forcing help from Grant Williams. Curry kicks out to Gary Payton II in the corner, and Williams — thinking that the threat has been contained — finds himself a step behind Curry’s relocation toward the corner.
The Celtics’ reluctance to commit to two bodies blitzing Curry and forcing him to cough up the ball has been a prevalent storyline. They prefer not to release Curry’s ball-screen partner — often Green — into a position of numerical strength against the backline. If they can help it, they will stay home on their assignments, keep the Curry on-ball action contained, and live with the results.
Even with the Celtics learning their lesson by being burned by multiple Curry pull ups against various levels of deep drop, Curry’s unfathomable range has one-upped their screen-level meet ups.
The concept of a screen-level meetup itself — more aggressive than your traditional drop, but still relatively conservative than an outright double or trap — is warped by Curry’s generational talents. If the on-ball defender is even a half-second behind in getting over the screen, Curry’s lightning release allows him to get the ball out of his hands in rapid fashion, with a big that, even while playing higher than usual, is rendered ineffective.
(The common denominator in the possessions above: Horford. The Warriors have made Horford their pressure point to target; if the Celtics aren’t going to commit two to the ball, they will make Horford step up, make a choice, and defend in space.)
Curry’s shot-making brilliance was at its peak, in a game where it needed to be nothing less than almost perfect. A few shots swerving left or right, falling short of their mark, or with too much oomph put behind them, and the outcome of the game would’ve been different. But Curry put just the right amount of touch — as he is wont to do — to find his mark.
And when Curry had the Celtics on their heels — when every conservative coverage the Celtics tried to throw at him got thrown back right at their faces — they blinked.
A rare sight, but one the Celtics tried to prevent from happening: Curry drawing two bodies around a Green screen, then flipping the ball to Green in the short roll. This creates a virtual 2-on-1, with Horford stuck in no-man’s land. Green dumps it off to Looney, who finishes and creates a 5-point cushion with a minute remaining.
It remains to be seen whether the Celtics will keep on blinking by incorporating more doubles in their Curry coverages. The safe answer is they won’t — their faith in their on-ball defenders is high enough to the point that they will live with ridiculous Curry shot making and hope everything else falls into place.
But Curry is putting up monstrous numbers in the pick-and-roll. Per InStat, 43% of his possessions in the Finals have involved a ball screen — 16% higher than his regular season pick-and-roll frequency. He’s scoring 1.23 points per possession (PPP) on such plays — and he’s doing so against a transcendent defensive unit.
There are more hurdles to jump over. The Celtics won’t roll over and acquiesce; they will find a way to respond, to shore up their shortcomings, and to keep pounding at the pressure points they themselves have earmarked. Curry may have to repeat this performance — or his supporting cast will have to improve theirs.
But the fact remains: Curry has willed this team to what was thought to be an improbable series standstill, against a team built to beat them at every turn. That, in and of itself, is a massive achievement worthy of praise.
If there was ever doubt that he isn’t a performer on the grandest stage of them all, such doubts must surely be gone by now. Curry is built to carry the burden, a titan of the game worthy of being considered one of the best to have ever played the game at its highest level.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown — but if the weight of responsibility is the price that Curry must pay, he is more than willing to shoulder the cost, if it means another championship to add to his extensive list of accolades.