HOUSTON — Through vexing mistakes, uncharacteristic slumps and a nagging finger injury, the most magical shooter in NBA history conjured the greatest postseason performance of his storied career.
To fully appreciate Stephen Curry at his peak, it helps to catalogue his recent canyons.
In Game 1 of this second-round series against the Houston Rockets, Curry was waylaid by serious foul trouble. In Game 2, he was forced to the locker room after dislocating a finger on his left hand and later returned with his fingers taped together. In Game 3, he blew a dunk while going scoreless in the fourth quarter and overtime of a narrow loss. In Game 5, he committed a turnover so careless that Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr reflexively punched the air in frustration. In Friday’s Game 6, Curry committed two fouls in the game’s first six minutes and proceeded to miss his first six shots.
When Kerr pulled his star point guard midway through the first quarter, against Curry’s wishes, the coach asked him point-blank in the huddle: “How can I trust you not to pick up your third foul?” Curry had no answer, and was forced to the bench again midway through the second quarter after picking up his third. The plan had been for Curry to carry the offense with Kevin Durant sidelined due to a calf strain, yet the two-time MVP still hadn’t scored a single point by halftime.
What happened next was Disney movie fare for Warriors fans and sheer torture for the Toyota Center crowd. Curry scored 33 second-half points, 23 of which came in the fourth quarter, to lead Golden State to a 118-113 road victory that clinched the defending champs’ fifth consecutive trip to the Western Conference finals.
“He just completely took over the game on a night when everything was going wrong,” Kerr said. “If that game didn’t personify Steph Curry, I don’t know what does. He’s a guy who can make some plays that leave you scratching your head, the fouls and turnovers. But most of the time, he makes these incredible plays. He’s just fearless. That what makes him who he is. He made some amazing plays down the stretch.”
The after-halftime turnaround started slowly, with a missed three-pointer followed by a simple layup to get on the board. His confidence swelling, Curry hit a floater, and a corner three, and a lefty scoop. As a close game went deeper into the fourth quarter, he sensed the Rockets were staggering and kept ratcheting up his attacks. Another floater. A right angle three. A nifty run through an open paint for a banking layup. During a dead ball late in the fourth, he shook his injured left hand and winced in pain, doubling over at the waist.
Clinging to a two-point lead with 90 seconds left, Curry wielded the dagger. Blanketed by PJ Tucker — an experienced, physical and brilliant defender — he went behind-the-back twice in search of a rhythm. Feeling it, he crossed over from right-to-left, and then left-to-right, to generate some breathing room.
A quick stutter, a hop to his right and he was free, launching a three-pointer over Tucker’s right hand from the right angle. The ball swished through, and soon thousands of Rockets fans were headed to the exits, not waiting to see Curry seal the win from the free throw line.
“His spurtability, his ability to get points in bunches, is the best in the world, in the history of the game,” Klay Thompson said. “I knew he was going to get going. There’s nobody better to have the ball in his hands at the end of the game. [His second half] didn’t surprise me one bit. He’s our leader. He plays with great composure.”
Curry has had plenty of memorable playoff moments, but Game 6 should be remembered as his signature night. Adversity came in many forms, and lesser players would have been content to pack up it and prepare for a Game 7 back at home.
There was the latest recurrence of his ongoing bouts with foul trouble, and the empty first half he later admitted was “terrible.” There were the absences of Durant and fellow Warriors starter DeMarcus Cousins, both sidelined with leg injuries.
There were Rockets stars James Harden and Chris Paul, who combined for 62 points in a pair of gutsy showings. There was the head-to-head late-game duel with Harden, the league’s reigning MVP, in front of a road crowd that was far feistier than the one Curry famously sent home early back in the 2015 Western Conference finals.
Those circumstances, and the strength of Houston’s roster, propelled this series-ender past Curry’s “I’m here, I’m back” explosion against the Portland Trail Blazers in 2016, or his impossible corner three in a 40-point effort against the New Orleans Pelicans in 2015, or his 37-point outburst in a closeout Game 4 blowout of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 Finals.
For the Warriors’ dynasty to carry on, they needed Curry at his very best. Thompson kept things afloat with a strong first half, Andre Iguodala improbably hit five three-pointers, Draymond Green was everywhere on defense, and a host of reserves stepped up to fill Durant’s minutes and chip in around the edges.
But Golden State entered Game 6, and a possible Game 7, with Curry staring at his moment of truth: Either he was going to live up to the hype that began building in 2015, or he was going to embark on a new chapter of his career with critics wondering whether Harden, and other stars, had surpassed him and whether Durant was about to leave in free agency.
Curry stared down those stakes, shook off a disheartening first half and sent the Warriors’ biggest rivals into an uncertain summer, eliciting kudos from future Hall of Famers.
“NEVER underestimate the heart of a champion,” Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James wrote on Twitter.
Retired Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade added: “Just because [Curry is] a team-first guy and is willing to sacrifice in moments doesn’t mean he’s not still a beast.”
The heroics provided the Warriors with a brief reprieve, as they will enjoy the weekend off before preparing to host Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Portland Trail Blazers or Denver Nuggets on Tuesday. They will be strong favorites against either opponent, having eliminated Portland from the playoffs twice in the past three years and blowing out Denver three out of four games this season. To further strengthen their hand, Durant could return during the series too.
It must be noted the Rockets possessed more collective playoff experience and have had more success against the Warriors than any of the remaining playoff teams in either conference. Beating Houston doesn’t guarantee a three-peat, but this series may go down as Golden State’s biggest hurdle given its hard-fought nature, Harden’s strong play and Durant’s untimely injury.
As Curry exited the Toyota Center, then, he savored both the momentous victory and the validation that came with it.
“I’ve heard a lot of noise this series, I’ll just leave it at that,” he said, referencing recent criticism of his play. “I know what I’m capable of. I don’t need any extra motivation. My confidence never wavers. I appreciate those words [from James and Wade]. Champions recognize champions, and what it takes to win games like tonight. Hopefully there’s more of that to come.”