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PORTLAND, Ore. — On rare occasions, basketball can be bent by the will and actions of an individual so sharply that the other nine players are reduced from equal partners in a team sport to props in a show that’s greater than a game.
The latest reliable author of this phenomenon returned to the court on Monday, ending a two-week absence in which the NBA playoffs as a whole felt incomplete and the defending champions looked like one of many contenders rather than the most prolific winners of all time.
When Stephen Curry entered the game, after working back from a knee sprain and riding the bench for the first six minutes, his Warriors were already trailing 16–2, a mess of indecision and delayed reactions. His individual impact, although not immediate, was lasting in the type of way that drew quick comparisons to Michael Jordan and frantic rushes to the record books. By night’s end, Curry had tallied 40 breathtaking points, nine rebounds and eight assists in a 132–125 comeback victory in Game 4, pushing Golden State to a 3–1 series lead over Portland and delivering one of the very best and most merciless postseason performances of his career.
After pointing to the floor and screaming “I’m back,” a declaration that reverberated from Ohio to Texas to Oklahoma, Curry pocketed yet another record in an MVP season full of them: His 17 points in overtime were the most ever in an extra period, regular season or playoffs, in league history.
“That was crazy,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, still trying to process Curry’s late-game outburst. “The obvious [comparison] would be Michael Jordan [but] Steph does it so differently from Michael. The similarity is the awe-inspiring plays, the jaw-dropping plays that really bring the house down, even on the road.”
For three quarters, Curry’s outside shot resembled a garden hose with a kink. There was no splish, no splash, not even a drip, drip. Instead, an airball and other ugly misfires. The NBA’s undisputed three-point king missed his first nine attempts from deep, a drought that forced him to pursue other avenues to keep Golden State close with a Portland team that ached to pull the series even.
Curry, who wasn’t officially cleared to play until after he went through a pregame warm-up routine, got his bearings with mid-range shots, running layups to the basket and reliable dishes to shooters out of pick-and-roll situations. As late as the 5:00 mark of the fourth quarter, Curry’s record streak of 175 games, regular season and postseason, with at least one made three-pointer was in jeopardy.
With Portland’s star guards Damian Lillard (36 points on 9-for-30 shooting) and CJ McCollum (24 points, 9 for 23 FG) tiring under the burden of season-high minutes totals, Curry pushed through his own knee-related fatigue, finally managing to undo the kink. His first three-pointer of the night gave Golden State a 103–100 lead with 4:35 to play, his second three came two minutes later and then there was no stopping him.
“Obviously it took me awhile to get into the flow,” Curry said. “When you miss three weeks it’s really weird walking back on the court, with the crowd going crazy and that competitive atmosphere again. I was just trying to … make some plays and trying to get a rhythm. It took 48 minutes and things finally clicked.”
Twice Curry appeared peeved at his own shortcomings. First, when he stepped on the line for a long two late in the fourth quarter. He responded minutes later by opening his long-distance barrage with his first triple. Then, when he missed a running floater at the end of regulation, a potential game-winner that shockingly stayed out.
Curry responded to that with a merciless race through overtime: He hit six of his seven shots, including all three of his three-point attempts. His signature skill deserted him, only to reappear in its perfect form at the moment of greatest need.
“I was a little frustrated because I missed that last shot and I thought I had a good look at it,” he said. “My confidence never wavered.”
As quickly as he pulls from dribble to shot, the uncertainty around his knee morphed into the inevitability that has defined Golden State’s 73-win season. He lined up a shot, and he made the shot, he lined up again, and he made again, and so on and so forth until the Moda Center, overflowing with confidence and noise, began gradually emptying before the end of the period.
Curry personally outscored the Blazers 17–14 in overtime, scoring the Warriors’ first 12 points in the period.
“When Steph would have a game like this last year,” Kerr recalled, “[then-Warriors assistant] Alvin Gentry would say, ‘I’ve got two plays for you: Steph gets the ball and get the ball to Steph.’ … In Alvin’s honor, that’s what we ran in overtime.”
In terms of individual heroics, given all of the circumstances, this was the most iconic performance of his career to date. Sure, it wasn’t the finals, or even a closeout game, and he didn’t set a new playoff career high or hit a buzzer beater. But truthfully, it’s harder for any player to save the day—an important day—more cleanly and more memorably.
Curry turned a 14-point deficit into a seven-point win. His 10 fourth-quarter points were instrumental in forcing overtime, and his 17 overtime points are unprecedented and speak for themselves. He did it all on the road, in his first action in a fortnight, on a leg that wasn’t 100%, in a competitive second-round playoff series and against a tenacious opponent that clearly looked inspired by Draymond Green’s trash-talking after Game 3.
He did it out of the blue and right on cue, at the same damn time. He did it in ways that get overlooked, the passes and the patience, and in the way that will earn him a spot among the sport’s greats: that unmatched, magical shooting.
“[He] took over the game,” Green said. “Put us on his shoulders. … That’s why he is who he is.”
Curry did it in such a way that any building anxiety over a tied series was long gone by the time the postgame press conferences rolled around. Portland was already digesting the fact that its season could very well end in 48 hours. Golden State, flush with renewed swagger, was picking out the plot of land and gathering the shovels.
“There’s no better feeling than going on the road and silencing another team’s crowd,” Green said, soaking in the aftermath of the win after he delivered reams of bulletin-board material two days earlier. “Especially when you come out [16–2], that’s a gut punch [the Blazers] caught tonight. ... Of course I think [the Blazers are] done. It’s time for us to close this series.”
Make no mistake, Curry had help. Green turned in a strong all-around performance, Harrison Barnes unexpectedly hit a clutch three to tie the game late and Klay Thompson put together another quality two-way game.
But the difference between a tied series and a commanding lead is Curry. The difference between a contender and a clear-cut favorite is Curry. The difference between an entertaining postseason and an electric one is Curry. In five minutes that will last, and last, Curry reminded the basketball world of these facts, burying jumpers, burying the Blazers and burying concerns that Golden State would need to find a way to win without him.
“He’s the MVP again for a reason,” Lillard said, referencing reports that broke earlier Monday that Curry will soon be named league MVP for the second straight year. “He had a hell of a game.”
In those five minutes, Curry reintroduced the Warriors to the good life that was temporarily put on hold, the one where he routinely makes the difficult look easy and turns make-believe into “that really just happened.”