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The Celtics went dormant on offense just as Steph Curry came alive

The Golden State star turned in the best performance of his NBA Finals career just as Boston seemed to lose all offensive urgency.

2022 NBA Finals - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Of course, it was going to be the question everybody led their post-Game 4 commentaries with, whether it was on television or Twitter or [insert podcast name here]. That’s what we do when an athlete delivers a historic performance: we immediately have to compare it to the other times they’ve done something historic, or rank those performances, or say why this one wasn’t better, but it was definitely more important.

It’s a vicious cycle we go through as fans; as a media that evolves, but really hangs on its same founding pillar when it comes down to it (that pillar is the power rankings exercise, of course); it’s even something players lean into when asked about, offering up soundbites that either deflect or feed the narrative. It’s easy, and it’s successful. Why stop now?

It’s especially easy when the subject of the debate is Steph Curry, and his most recent performance — a 43-point, 10-rebound, four-assist eruption to carry the Warriors to a 107-97 win over the Celtics and tie The NBA Finals at 2-2 — is undoubtedly the best he’s ever put forth on this stage. Forget the outings with LeBron and Kyrie or Kawhi and Lowry on the other side of the aisle; they don’t compare.

“I think probably #1,” Klay Thompson said postgame. “I mean, this was nearly a must-win game, and to go out there and shoot as efficiently as he did, and grab 10 rebounds and they were attacking him on defense... Steph played incredible.”

Draymond Green offered more of the same: “He wasn’t letting us lose. That’s what it boils down to.” He later added, “[He] put us on his back. Willed us to a much-needed win. He came out and showed why he’s one of the best players to ever play this game and why this organization has been able to ride him to so much success. It’s absolutely incredible.”

Steve Kerr, as he tends to do, offered the sagest punctuation of them all: “Just stunning. Boston has the best defense in the league. For Steph to take that pressure and still be able to defend. I think this is the strongest physically he’s ever been.”

On Friday night, Steph Curry morphed into a sort of supercharged shot-making force unlike we’ve ever seen from him on this stage. And that’s saying something. His gaze sharpened. He yapped a bit more liberally, both at the officials and the opposing crowd. His shots fell with the same sort of smooth ease they always have, but it felt different in this game — like there was no chance they weren’t going to drop; like anything Curry hoisted was hardly a maybe, but a guarantee. It was the greatest performance of his Finals career, a list not many other players can say requires true consideration. This effort — not just his best, but one of the most dominant in the history of the championship round — immediately vaults to the top. As if he even cared.

“I can’t rate my performances,” Curry said. “Just win the game.”

Fair enough. The numbers, and how they matched the moment, will do it for him. It was the seventh time in his playoff career that he has scored at least 40 points, and the most he’s ever had in a win — a stat so fake-sounding I ran it four times just to confirm. In the second half alone, Curry put up 24 points on seven-of-11 from the field, including five-of-six on 3s. He went nuclear, as they say. No matter what the Celtics' league-best defense threw at him, he wasn’t going to be stopped.

That’s the thing: the Celtics threw plenty at Curry, often sticking with him through dribble and shimmy after dribble and shimmy. But sticking with the greatest shooter in the history of the sport doesn’t always mean deterring him, and sometimes (read: a lot of the time), defensive pressure is the least of Curry’s worries.

“Some of the 3s he hit were highly contested and you can’t do anything about those,” Ime Udoka noted postgame. Of Curry’s 26 shot attempts, I counted 18 of them as well contested, and eight as poorly contested. Of his 14 makes, eight were well contested, and six poorly contested, though primarily because Curry moves around like a hummingbird and, occasionally, you can’t help but not stick with a zippy organism that darts around for a living. It checks out.

“We were there,” Marcus Smart added. “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.”

Here’s the problem, though: tightly contesting Wardell Stephen Curry and tightly contesting, oh, I dunno, Andrew Wiggins, are two very different tasks. With a player like Jimmy Butler, or even one like Jordan Poole, typical defensive coverage will often serve you well. Good, legal contact with the body and a hand in his line of sight will do the trick.

Defending Steph Curry is more akin to the time The Avengers-slash-Guardians of the Galaxy mishmash of super-people tried to remove the Infinity Gauntlet from Thanos’ hand in Avengers: Infinity War. They literally had to stun him, hypnotize him, grasp hold of each of his limbs, and have three of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes™ tug on the Gauntlet at once. It still didn’t work.

Much of the chatter throughout last night's game was about who would be the player to help Curry carry the offensive load. Frankly, it wasn’t so much that the Warriors needed to make life easier for Steph by taking on a scoring burden, but instead making his scoring opportunities easier to come by. Steph received 48 on-ball picks in Game 4, his highest clip of the season, and his highest mark since Game 5 of the 2017 Finals. (He finished with 34 points and 10 assists in that one, the clincher over Cleveland.) Sure, notable contributions did come from Wiggins (17 points and 16 rebounds), Klay Thompson (18 points), and Jordan Poole (14) on Friday. But Steph is Steph. He pours in this sort of performance as routinely as most of us commoners roll out of bed.

But the greatest asset to Steph’s production might have, ironically, been Boston’s lack of production on their own offensive end, especially down the stretch. The Celtics looked fueled and prepared to counter any possible onslaught to start the game, with Jayson Tatum knocking down a few early triples, Jaylen Brown attacking the basket with a purpose, and Robert Williams once again delivering an energetic performance akin to what he offered in Game 3. But as the night wore on, despite the home team maintaining its defensive pressure, the Celtics were unable to respond in the least offensively. After entering halftime with a five-point cushion, Boston’s offensive withered in the second half, like flowers trying to stay alive in a sauna.

Boston was on the wrong side of a 17-3 Golden State run to close the game. And while your first thought may go to the number of points they allowed during that barrage, what should stick out is how ghastly their offense looked down the stretch, thus rendering them unable to stick with the Warriors no matter what they brought defensively. They say the best offense is a good defense; perhaps the worst defense is an offense that can’t hit water if it fell out of a boat.

Following a Marcus Smart triple with 5:18 remaining and the lead at 94-90, the Celtics made just one shot, missing seven of their final eight attempts, six of which came from beyond the arc. Which, quite honestly, might be the most damning stat of the night: with the game still within reach, the Celtics became almost exclusively reliant on three-pointers, taking on the “get it all back in one shot” approach that teenage AAU teams get taken to the woodshed for. Golden State went on a 10-0 mini-run during that time — not exactly of the same ilk as the larger 17-3 run, but when countered with poor shot selection from the Celtics, it was ultimately enough to put a bow on the game.

In the fourth quarter, Boston made seven of their 21 shot attempts, and four of their 13 tries from three. They were outrebounded 16-6; the Warriors snatched as many offensive rebounds as the Celtics did total in the final frame. Somehow, Boston only recorded three turnovers, but with the number of shots they missed down the stretch, it might as well have been 20. It was a pure unraveling, a nine-point loss that flipped the game on its head, for all intents and purposes.

“We did get some good shots off,” Udoka said, “but we would like to get a little bit more downhill and get some things to the rim and kick out.”

Notable Celtics in the fourth quarter of Game 4

Player Minutes FGM/FGA 3FGM/3FGA PTS REBS ASTS TOV Off. rating Def. rating Plus/minus
Player Minutes FGM/FGA 3FGM/3FGA PTS REBS ASTS TOV Off. rating Def. rating Plus/minus
Jayson Tatum 12 1/5 1/2 3 2 3 1 86.4 133.3 -9
Jaylen Brown 12 3/7 0/3 6 4 0 2 86.4 133.3 -9
Marcus Smart 8:06 1/4 1/3 4 0 0 0 78.6 150 -10
Al Horford 3:41 1/2 1/2 3 0 0 0 42.9 166.7 -7
Derrick White 12 1/2 1/2 3 0 1 0 86.4 133.3 -9
Robert Williams 8:19 0/0 0/0 0 0 2 0 100 120 -2
Stats via NBA.com

Time and again, it seems as though these Celtics beat themselves to the point of ultimate frustration and, quite frankly, total confusion. Looking back on this postseason, no matter how it pans out, will come with a side of a palm to the forehead and a healthy helping of Tylenol, plus the overarching feeling of, “couldn’t it have been easier?” If it’s any consolation, the players themselves are just as frustrated. Tatum said postgame, “We don’t do this s#$% on purpose. I promise you, we don’t. We trying as hard as we can.” Udoka chimed in, too, noting, “We had to do it the difficult way... We’ve done it before. Keep your head up and let’s go get one on the road.”

Friday night’s collapse felt like it came at the blades of a unique and immediately fatal double-edged sword. Not only did the Celtics fail to stop a universe-defying scoring threat, but they fell short of the pedestrian task that is, simply put, making their shots. Sure, sometimes they can’t all fall — if they could, we’d live in a world of 246-239 games (we’re on our way to that already). But when it seems as though every shot is forced, ill-advised, or launched in an impossible effort to reduce an 11-point deficit to two within the span of a single three-point attempt, it’s hard not to see quite plainly where the problem lies. It’s a fixable one. It’s also one for the Celtics that, at this point, represents life or death in this series. Especially when the team’s inability to make shots comes up against one of the greatest performances in NBA Finals history.

While Steph Curry wasn’t working solo amidst Golden State’s 17-3 run that ultimately killed the Celtics in Game 4, his go-ahead three-pointer to push the Warriors ahead by six with under two to go was perhaps the harshest blow. It wasn’t the most consequential shot to drop during that stretch, but it pushed the knife deeper into an already gaping wound. Perhaps it’s best to describe that shot as a reminder that success for Curry can always loom opposite your worst failures, even if it isn’t constantly present as they unfold.

That seems to be a trend thus far in this series. If it persists, the series could suddenly become a quick one.