BOSTON — Stephen Curry was demoralizing the Celtics when he decided to improvise. After he dribbled to spin past Marcus Smart, who happens to be one in every of the N.B.A.’s most ferocious defenders, Curry found himself sizing up Robert Williams, a 6-foot-9 center whose sneakers might as well have been crammed with concrete.
Curry took a tough dribble, leaving Williams in his wake, before he rose from the court to sink a running 12-foot floater that prolonged Golden State’s lead in Game 4 of the N.B.A. finals Friday night.
It was a scene that felt familiar but latest, the identical but by some means different. Curry has spent his profession filling games with parabolic 3-pointers and dazzling drives to the ring. But now, at age 34, having spent the past couple of seasons wandering through the basketball wilderness along with his teammates, he has been busy staging a renaissance.
And it was his performance — 43 points and 10 rebounds on a sore left foot — that had basketball fans buzzing ahead of Game 5 on Monday night in San Francisco. The series is tied, 2-2.
“He wasn’t going to allow us to lose,” his teammate Draymond Green said.
Except for Curry’s relatively slight stature — at 6-foot-2, he’s a shrub within the N.B.A.’s forest of redwoods — it may be difficult for strange humans to relate to him. He’s a highly trained athlete and the best shooter who has ever lived. He has won two N.B.A. Most Useful Player Awards. The architect of an expanding entertainment empire, he golfs with former President Barack Obama in his spare time.
And for five seasons, from 2014to 2019, Curry sat atop the basketball world.
Few people ever change into the very best at anything, and wins can feel elusive. You get stuck within the slowest checkout line. You deserved that job promotion. You should find a way to purchase a house in that neighborhood, too. But Curry helped the strange masses feel like winners alongside him, even in the event that they rooted for his team to lose.
As Curry led Golden State to 5 straight N.B.A. finals appearances, winning three championships, opposing fans would prove early for games just so that they could watch him warm up. At Madison Square Garden, where the lights are low and the court is a stage, the M.V.P. chants were for him. In Los Angeles, in Houston, in Philadelphia and in Miami, cities with All-Stars of their very own, the roars and the crowds, the oohs and the aahs — they trumpeted his arrival.
Along the best way, he pushed his teammates to show basketball into high art. They shot with precision. They moved with the grace of ballet dancers. And in a sport saturated by supersize egos and large paychecks, they relished passing to the open man.
After which got here Kevin Durant, all legs and arms and 25-foot jumpers. After losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers within the 2016 N.B.A. finals, Golden State had successfully recruited Durant to sign on as a free agent. Was it a cry for help, an acknowledgment that the team had room for improvement? Or were the wealthy just getting richer?
“We were the evil empire for some time,” Rick Welts, the team’s former president, said in a recent interview.
Durant, after all, was fearsome before he joined Golden State. After being named the league’s M.V.P. in 2014, he described his mother, Wanda, because the “real M.V.P.” in an emotional speech. The callousness of the present era eventually turned that expression of humility right into a meme, one that might soon be turned against him: Between Durant and Curry in Golden State, who was the actual M.V.P.?
That query — from social media trolls, television personalities and needling sports fans — was a dig at Durant, but its sharp edge wounded Curry, too. Golden State had change into too good.
Sure enough, Durant was a force in back-to-back championships, the latter a four-game sweep of the Cavaliers. There was a way of joyless inevitability about Golden State: Anything wanting a championship was a failure.
After which the dynasty crumbled. Within the 2019 finals, Klay Thompson and Durant sustained serious injuries because the Toronto Raptors staged an upset to win their first title. Thompson sat out the subsequent season after knee surgery. Durant left for the Nets in free agency. And Curry broke his left hand, missing all but five games as Golden State finished with the worst record within the N.B.A.
In a matter of months, the league’s most dominant team had morphed right into a renovation project. Making matters worse, Thompson ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in a workout before the beginning of last season, and Golden State fell short of constructing the playoffs again.
This season, nothing was guaranteed. Golden State had gone from indomitable to vulnerable, a battered version of its younger self. However the team was not totally broken. Thompson’s return in January after a 941-day absence was celebrated as a triumph and no small medical marvel. He soared for a dunk in his first game.
The finals have been a microcosm of Golden State’s long road back — a stupendous struggle. After splitting the primary two games of the series in San Francisco, Golden State lost Game 3 in Boston, and Curry injured his left foot in the ultimate minutes when the Celtics’ Al Horford landed on him in a scramble for a loose ball.
Afterward, it was left to Thompson to supply some hope, saying he was “getting big 2015 vibes,” a reference to the 2015 finals, back when Golden State trailed the Cavaliers, 2-1, before engineering a comeback to win all of it, the team’s first of the Curry era.
More broadly, Thompson cited Golden State’s postseason experience as a positive. When he was younger, he said, there have been trapdoors in every single place. Susceptible to feeling anxious when trailing in a series, he was prone to be overconfident with a lead. Now, he was older but wiser.
“You may’t really loosen up until the ultimate buzzer of the closeout game,” he said. “That’s the toughest part in regards to the playoffs — you may have to cope with being uncomfortable until the mission is complete.”
Curry slept well after Game 3, he said, and kept his left foot in a bucket of ice every time possible. The emphasis was on recovery and mending his achy body. (Steph Curry: Similar to us.) He knew just one thing for certain: He was going to play in Game 4.
Precisely 75 minutes before Friday’s opening tip, Curry appeared for his pregame warm-up routine. Clad in black, with the notable exception of lavender-colored sneakers, he began off by making five layups. He then moved to the left elbow, where he hoisted a series of shots along with his left hand, which is his off hand, and missed nine in a row to the delight of a whole bunch of early-arriving Celtics fans.
But over the subsequent 20 minutes, something strange but not entirely unexpected happened: The group began to murmur in admiration and appreciation as Curry sank 136 of 190 shots, including 46 of 72 3-pointers, just a few of them from just inside halfcourt. Fans broke out their cellphones to record the moment for posterity. Children yelled for autographs.
“People think his shot is like Ken Griffey Jr.’s swing — it’s so pretty that you’re thinking that he never has to work on it,” Bob Myers, the team’s general manager, said in an interview in the course of the regular season. “But that’s anything but true. Once you peek backstage, you see the work.”
Once upon a time, Curry’s feats seemed magical — and so they still are. But in recent seasons, as Golden State wandered through a wasteland of injury and uncertainty, Curry and his teammates revealed that success doesn’t occur by accident, that it takes great effort and determination. Sure, they’re still basketball savants, but they’re savants who’ve shown the world their homework.
“Win, lose, whatever it’s, nevertheless you play, you may have to maintain coming back to the well to maintain sharpening the tool kit and finding ways to evolve your game,” Curry said. “That’s the toughest a part of what we do.”
After helping force the Celtics right into a late turnover that essentially sealed Friday’s win, Curry and Thompson celebrated by swinging their arms in unison. Thompson, who knows Curry higher than most, said his teammate had never played a finer game within the finals. Curry was asked whether he agreed with Thompson’s assessment.
“I don’t rank my performances, though,” he said. “Just win the sport.”
At this stage, he knows what matters.