Stephen Curry's return from injury in Monday night's thrilling Western Conference Semifinals Game 4 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers was always going to be tough to top. After three quarters of decent but largely inhibited play, the Golden State Warriors superstar exploded in crunch time to set a new NBA record with 17 overtime points. His Game 5 encore was going to be appointment viewing regardless — especially coming on the night he accepted his second-straight (and first-ever unanimous) MVP trophy — but it would have been a little much to expect it to measure up to the preceding contest.
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In general terms, Curry was not quite as incredible as he was on Monday in Portland. But he still pulled off the most dramatic moment of a thrilling Game 5 victory at Oracle Arena. With the Warriors up 118-116 with under 30 seconds remaining in regulation, Curry faced off against Al-Farouq Aminu at the top of the key and pulled off one of his signature pull-up three-pointers for the series-ending dagger:
In truth, the game and series did not end right that moment. Curry nailed two free throws after a quick Allen Crabbe two on the next possession, but Blazers star Damian Lillard then coaxed Klay Thompson into fouling on a three-point attempt and made all of them. Yet the Warriors were able to get the ball to Curry on the ensuing inbound, and he made the final two of his seven points in the last 24 seconds to finish the scoring in a hard-fought 125-121 win.
Curry finished the night with an efficient 29 points (10-of-20 FG, 5-of-11 3FG, 4-of-4 FT), 11 assists, and five rebounds. Yet he arguably didn't look like his MVP self until the fourth quarter, when he scored 14 of Golden State's 32 points. As in Game 4, Curry looked somewhat inhibited early on, opting to set up teammates and avoid his patented perimeter dribble-moves. It's not apparent that he was restricted by discomfort in his right knee, but the player who dominated looked to be playing at full capabilities. While the Warriors have some issues to work on and more injuries to consider heading into the conference finals, they can at least proceed with confidence that their best player is in good enough healthy to perform on the sport's biggest stage.
That next series will now come against either the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs, who play Game 6 of their conference semifinal Thursday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena with the Thunder up 3-2. Both teams rank among the league's elite, and it's fair to say that the Warriors will have to up their own form to avoid a prolonged series. For now, though, they have defeated a capable and fearless underdog that gave them all they could handle.
Wednesday's close-out win did not come easily for Golden State. Portland came out determined to prove wrong Draymond Green's Tuesday claim that they were done, going 4-of-5 from three-point range to open the game in another display of tough shot-making. That form cooled slightly to 6-of-11 from deep by the end of the first quarter, but the Blazers still managed to enter the second with a 30-27 lead.
That advantage looked precarious if only because the Warriors had shot poorly and the Blazers seemed due for a regression, particularly from role players like Allen Crabbe, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Moe Harkless. The first part of that equation worked out for Golden State, because Klay Thompson emerged from two early fouls to set the net aflame. He became the clear focus of the Warriors offense and finished the first half with 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, which ended up as merely his best stretch in an excellent performance (33 points on 17 shots). With Draymond Green struggling early and Curry less than dominant, Thompson kept the Warriors humming. Despite trailing at the half and losing Andrew Bogut to a right adductor strain, they looked in very good shape to control the second half and close out the series.
Good teams have fallen victim to incandescent individual shooting performances like that before, but the Blazers countered with a few of their own. Damian Lillard was terrific to put up 21 points before the break, and starting forwards Harkless and Aminu combined for 20 points on 4-of-6 shooting from deep to punish several missed Warriors rotations. It was the same formula that kept the Blazers close in four of five games this series, and it was arguably most impressive facing elimination on the road.
Lillard cooled considerably to score only four points on 11 attempts before his aforementioned free throws, but C.J. McCollum stepped up to fill the void. The shots didn't get any easier for the Blazers, which occasionally made it seem as if they were on the brink of getting blown out. However, they answered every run, matched the Warriors at nearly every opportunity, and were in the game until Curry's late heroics. They pushed the defending champions as far as any team has this season.
The trouble for Portland and any other team is that Golden State is very comfortable living on the edge. Although their play was not nearly as crisp as it could have been, the Warriors experienced true playoff intensity this series after a lackadaisical showing from the Houston Rockets in the first round and should emerge stronger for it. The Thunder or Spurs will present different and likely tougher challenges moving forward, but the Warriors should be prepared for them.
Plus, no other team has the confidence that Curry brings. If there were any doubts as to his condition after a two-week layoff, these last two games answered them. He hasn't had a 48-minute stretch of dominance yet, but he looks like the MVP. That's enough to make the Warriors overwhelming championship favorites once again.
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