SAN ANTONIO – Everyone else on these Golden State Warriors had marched grudgingly into the huddle now, but Stephen Curry's eyes stayed with the shooter. As Manu Ginobili left the floor with 1.2 seconds left in double overtime, he leaped into the arms of Tim Duncan on the San Antonio Spurs' sideline.
All this noise tumbled down onto the AT&T Center floor, all these years washed away, and there Curry stood marveling over the magnificence of Manu's magical moment. All this noise tumbled down out of the rafters, out of those four championship banners, and Curry had begun to consider the consequences of leaving him too much time on the clock, leaving him one more shot to transform this hysteria into a stunned silence.
Stephen Curry had gone for 44 points, had gone within a whisper of Kobe Bryant's playoff record of 45 on the Spurs. Curry had gone wild on the Spurs, but he wouldn't get the final shot, nor the final word on Monday night.
"Yeah, I'll be thinking about the one I didn't get to take," Curry told Yahoo! Sports late Monday. "You always want that one more opportunity."
Out of the timeout, the Spurs' Kawhi Leonard wrapped his arms around Curry and refused to let him come over the screen and catch an inbounds pass. The Warriors protested, but as one team official said, "You're never getting that call against them."
After another timeout, the Spurs clustered on Curry, and the ball found its way to Jarrett Jack for a stumbling, off-balance miss that left the Warriors despondent 129-127 Game 1 losers in the Western Conference semifinals.
"This freaking game," Curry mumbled to no one in the losing locker room.
As far back as the kid could remember, this is what the Spurs do in the springtime: They leave basketball stars mumbling to themselves. They leave broken, battered teams wondering what in the world had happened out there.
Curry buttoned his shirt, stepped past the tub of ice water in which he had been soaking his aching feet and still found himself shaking his head. The Warriors had the Spurs buried with 4½ minutes left in regulation, had them down 16 points. Tim Duncan, sick with a stomach flu, had gone back to the locker room for several minutes.
And again in these playoffs, the Warriors collapsed. Somehow, they lost an 18-point lead late to Denver in Game 6, but survived. Only, these weren't the Nuggets. These are the Spurs of Duncan and Ginobili, Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich.
"Let them back in," a wise rookie, Draymond Green, said, "and they will execute you to death."
When it was over, Curry walked down the corridor to his news conference and politely shut down a team official trying to console him with context. "Don't blame the age," Curry told him.
He had destroyed the Spurs, had them at his mercy and somehow the Warriors let them go. In the postseason for the first time at 25 years old, Curry has been a dominant force in these playoffs, standing shoulder to shoulder so far with LeBron James and Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
Destroying Denver was impressive, but the Spurs are something else. San Antonio's the standard. He hated losing, but the moment wasn't lost on him here.
"I know who I'm playing against here," Curry told Yahoo! Sports on his way back to the bus on Monday night. "I've been a fan of basketball since my dad was playing, and these guys here – the Spurs – they've been champions. They've been on this stage so many times.
"I have confidence in myself, but I mean, this is different against them. This is … surreal."
The Spurs didn't stop Curry, as much as too many minutes wore him down. He wouldn't dare suggest it, but too much had been asked of him on Monday. After Curry's 22 points in the third quarter – the four 3-pointers, the breathless drives through the lane for floaters – Mark Jackson made a young coach's mistake and tried to ride his star too hard, too long.
Jackson should've rested him to start the fourth period, but let him keep going, and those legs betrayed Curry the rest of the night.
"But I've got to still find another gear," Curry said.
Once the Spurs moved the longer Leonard onto him, Curry needed lift on that step-back jumper, needed to create space to get his shot, and it was no longer there. The kid kept playing, kept coming, but the Spurs' defense had loaded up on his drives, too, and, suddenly, getting to the rim didn't come so freely for him.
Nevertheless, Curry's own weary legs played the biggest part in stopping him. Once Jackson had stayed so long with Curry in the fourth, he had no choice but to keep him on the floor in the first and second overtimes.
At the end of the second overtime, pushing 60 minutes of basketball, Curry had come so close to still closing out these Spurs. Even when he had missed his final eight jumpers of the night, Curry made a marvelous finger roll with 32.8 seconds left to bring the Warriors within 126-125 and made a shrewd pass to Kent Bazemore for a reverse layup with 3.9 seconds to thrust Golden State into a 127-126 lead.
Only, the Warriors' defense would lose Ginobili beyond the 3-point line on the inbounds play, and it didn't matter that Ginobili had missed 15 of 19 shots, nor seven of eight 3-pointers. When the moment mattered, Ginobili made the three and leaped into Duncan's waiting arms.
Here was the ultimate Spurs comeback in the ultimate Spurs way, against a young player, Curry, who represents the game the way San Antonio has always. For most of the night, he was beating the Spurs the way they've forever beaten everyone else: the fluidity of a game played far below the rim and far above the norm.
The greatness of Steph Curry doesn't come in his size and strength and athleticism. The greatness comes in the simplicity of knowing what's coming with him, and still being unable to stop it. Those were forever the Spurs, and yet that was the essence of the glorious young counter who baffled them for most of Monday night.
Curry isn't trying to be one of the greatest shooters the sport's ever seen, but one of its greatest players. Where it starts is in the playoffs, in these moments, and Curry wasn't walking out of Game 1 a devastated and defeated man. He was leaving determined, leaving fortified.
"We are young guys trying to make a name for ourselves, and this is where you do it," Curry told Y! Sports. "We aren't using our age as a crutch, or a reason to change the expectations of winning. If we were to get swept in this series, people would probably see this as a successful year for us.
"We want more. Until the last few minutes, anyway, we showed them that we're ready for this moment."
After all these years, Stephen Curry had watched Ginobili beat him with his guts and guile and fearless, sweet stroke. He watched Ginobili leap into Duncan's arms and it all felt so surreal. These were the Western Conference semifinals and he had come close to pushing past Kobe's 45 points and delivering a performance no one ever had on San Antonio.
The ball never found Curry's hands on that final play of the second overtime, and promised to linger until Game 2 on Wednesday night, promised to leave this shooter with remorse. Curry watched Ginobili steal his night, steal his winning shot, and he left the AT&T Center hell-bent on retribution. Soon, he will get that final shot, that final word, and maybe he'll even get it in this series. The kid's coming now, coming hard. Soon, there will be no stopping Stephen Curry.
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