Steph Curry dribbled around a screen set by Andrew Wiggins, which created enough space for him to step back and sink a deep 3-pointer over Jaylen Brown and Al Horford.
That was normal stuff for the 3-point king, who had given the Warriors a five-point lead late in the first quarter.
But this wasn’t: As the Celtics called a timeout, Curry trotting back to his defensive end, he turned and directed some words at the crowd seated behind the baseline, barking at anyone who could hear him, in a rare display of emotion from the guard, especially that early in the game.
But Curry understood the stakes. He’d been here before. Down a game in the NBA Finals, on the road in the most hostile of environments, Curry knew he had to be a little louder on Friday night at TD Garden.
“Felt like we just had to let everybody know that we were here tonight,” Curry said.
When it was all said and done, that message had been made loud and clear, as Curry delivered one of the greatest individual performances in NBA Finals history.
It wasn’t quite the Michael Jordan flu game, but nursing a hurt left foot that had put his status for Game 4 into some question, Curry overcame it all – the foot, the relentless crowd, the Celtics’ physically demanding defense – to score 43 points, hitting back-breaking 3s over and over, as he almost single-handedly willed the Warriors to even this series and take it back to the Bay Area with home-court advantage restored.
Curry has come through the Warriors in big moments throughout his decorated career. He’s won three championships and done it all. But Friday’s performance left even his longtime teammates with a performance they had never seen before.
Where would Klay Thompson rank that performance on Curry’s lengthy NBA resume? He didn’t need much time to ponder.
“I think probably No. 1,” Thompson said.
Draymond Green didn’t mince many words, either.
“Put us on his back. Willed us to win,” Green said. “Much-needed win. Game we had to have. Came out and showed why he’s one of the best players to ever play this game.”
Twenty-four of Curry’s 43 points, and five of his seven 3-pointers came after halftime, and the Warriors needed every one of them, with minimal scoring help from others, and the Celtics punching back throughout a back-and-forth fourth quarter.
This might have been a game a younger Curry couldn’t pull off. The physicality required of him on both ends of the court against a bigger and imposing Celtics team takes its toll over 48 minutes. But an older, more mature and stronger Curry fought through it all – double teams, constant pressure and difficult matchups against bigger guards on the defensive end – to will the Warriors.
“Just stunning,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “The physicality out there is pretty dramatic. I mean, Boston’s got obviously, best defense in the league. Huge and powerful at every position, and for Steph to take that — that kind of pressure all game long and still be able to defend at the other end when they are coming at him shows you, I think this is the strongest physically he’s ever been in his career, and it’s allowing him to do what he’s doing.”
Curry is scoring 34.3 points per game, including a 49.1% clip from 3-point land, in this series. But nothing has come easy. Boston’s defense – including Brown, Derrick White and Marcus Smart are contesting almost everything he takes. Curry is just hitting ridiculous shots. On Friday, it was one of the major reasons why this series was tied back up.
That momentum Curry created early on carried over late, and it ultimately sunk the Celtics. With 1:42 left, he delivered a dagger into their hearts with a step-back 3 over White that gave the Warriors a six-point lead that the C’s ultimately couldn’t dig out of. Curry pounded his chest three times after the shot, and it was safe to say a silenced crowd had heard him.
Friday night at TD Garden was Curry’s night.
“We were there,” Smart said. “He’s a great player; he made shots. He made a lot of the shots where we were contesting from behind. We had somebody there and he was just making them. That’s what he does.
“We obviously have to do a better job of limiting that. We got to make it even more tough for him. … That’s the one guy you can’t allow to beat you.”