The big question for Monday night's Western Conference Semifinals Game 4 between the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers was how Stephen Curry would look after a 15-day layoff due to an MCL sprain in his right knee. It took a little while to get a concrete answer on the back-to-back MVP's level of play, but a record performance in overtime provided the clearest one possible.
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Although he did not start and entered the game with a rough expectation that he would play 25 minutes, Curry dominated crunch time to put together one of the greatest performances in a season that already ranked among the most thrilling individual campaigns in NBA history. After shooting 6-of-18 from the field (with no made three-pointers) for 13 points in the first three quarters, Curry caught fire in the fourth quarter and went supernova in overtime to finish with a game-high 40 points in 37 minutes. That total includes 17 in overtime (including the Warriors' first 12), a new NBA record for extra-period scoring.
If there were any doubt about his health before OT, Curry silenced it. He's back.
Curry out-scored Portland by three points in overtime by himself to carry Golden State to a 132-125 victory that puts them up 3-1 in the series. With the league's top offensive weapon in top form, the Warriors look like a good bet to clinch a spot in the West finals in Wednesday's Game 5. Frankly, this overtime alone has probably restored them as overwhelming favorites to claim back-to-back championships.
His return was that stunning and emphatic. Just ask Blazers owner Paul Allen:
The basketball world has grown used to unreal scoring spurts from Curry throughout this season, but this late-game showing defied all reasonable expectations set by the circumstances of his return from injury and his play through the first three quarters. Although Curry was mostly effective and used his pump fake to create space for drives, he lacked his usual agility as an elite perimeter ballhandler and unprecedentedly great pull-up shooter. The result was a Curry who was clearly dangerous but not necessarily frightening, a capable scorer with limitations. Head coach Steve Kerr seemed to recognize it, as well — he tied Curry's minutes to those of Andre Iguodala both for defensive purposes and to ensure the Warriors always had another high-level facilitator on the floor.
Conventional wisdom said that Curry would not dominate crunch time if only because he had been away from the challenges of in-game conditioning for so long. After all, Curry's total 37 minutes in Game 5 nearly matched the 39 he had played in the postseason prior to Monday night. Most players need time to get back into game shape, and it would have been perfectly understandable for Curry to miss longer shots off the front of the rim or to be a little out of sync when trying to break down a defender off the dribble.
Our mistake was to assume that Curry is like other NBA players. He came out with newfound springiness in the fourth quarter, making his first quintessentially Curry-like pull-up jumper just outside of the 9:00 mark to give the Warriors a 92-87 lead. He went to the bench for a three-minute rest about 1:30 later and returned to nail his first three-pointer of the night (after 10 misses) on his first possession after re-entry. Curry continued to play with newfound energy through the remainder of regulation, although he missed an 11-foot runner in the final seconds that could have won it.
Then came overtime, which should go down as one of the greatest moments of Curry's historic season. It would be wrong to say the fourth quarter prepared everyone for what he did in OT — there's no way to prepare for 17 points in five minutes — the two periods were not entirely dissimilar. The fourth at least prepared Curry for overtime by proving that he could handle a superstar's share of the scoring, ballhandling, and playmaking loads. The quarter-by-quarter shooting numbers show that he generally got more confident as the game went on:
Stephen Curry's 40 points by period:
Q1: 4 points on 2-6
Q2: 7 points on 3-7
Q3: 2 points on 1-5
Q4: 10 points on 4-7
OT: 17 points on 6-7
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 10, 2016
The late-game outburst was perhaps most impactful because the Warriors looked in need of a superstar performance for most of the night. Curry first entered at the halfway point of the first quarter with his team down 16-2 following a 1-of-12 shooting start. Curry's entry didn't exactly raise Golden State into championship form right away, but he help them to make up a significant portion of the deficit to trail 26-18 by quarter's end. That trend continued into the second quarter, when the Warriors regained their footing and cut the lead to as few as four with several minutes remaining in the half.
The Warriors didn't exactly assert control, though, because the game devolved into a series of foul calls and dual-sided Hack-A-Player tactics to rob the contest of any flow whatsoever. It's hard to imagine in the wake of Curry's late heroics, but Game 4 was downright ugly for vast portions of the second and third quarters. That's in large part due to poor officiating that affected both sides — it was a physical game in which players would get whistled for random moving screens but not for flagrant-level shots to the head on shot attempts. The inconsistencies rankled many, including Warriors guard Shaun Livingston. He earned the first ejection of his career late in the second quarter with 1:36 remaining in the half after protesting a non-call to referee Scott Foster:
Livingston's ejection was a major moment in the game both for the immediate impact and what it seemed to force the Warriors into for the rest of the game. Down 58-52 after Livingston's finish, the Warriors seemed to lose their composure and surrendered a 9-2 run right away. Curry helped get the deficit back down to 10 by the buzzer with a three-point play, but the Livingston-less scenario seemed to put the visitors in bad shape, especially given the assumption that their returning superstar could only play a little more than half the game.
Things obviously worked out fine for the Warriors, but it's important to note that the Blazers looked like the better team for long stretches of the game. They got contributions up and down the rotation, particularly from Al-Farouq Aminu (18 points on 4-of-6 3FG and 13 rebounds) and Mason Plumlee (12 points and 15 rebounds), and persevered through plenty of questionable calls and several Warriors runs that would have crushed less confident teams. It's telling that, although Damian Lillard (9-of-30 FG, 5-of-18 3FG) and C.J. McCollum (9-of-23 FG, albeit with 4-of-9 3FG) put up some iffy shooting numbers, both players can be said to have played quality games with several big moments in the fourth quarter. There were questions about the Blazers' readiness for this series after they lucked into injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the first round, but they have proven a lot in four games against the top team in the league.
Unfortunately for them, the Warriors can be a historically great outfit when Curry is merely good, let alone incredible. His late-game domination did more than just win a key game for Golden State — it also announced that the 73-win Warriors are back near full strength. It took more three weeks to get there, but they look primed to confirm their status as one of the best teams in NBA history.
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