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Weathering the Steph Curry effect

The Celtics withstood a first quarter explosion by Steph Curry, steadied themselves, and came back to steal Game 1.

Golden State Warriors v Boston Celtics Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

I think Red would’ve loved Steph Curry.

Red was hardly a trained psychologist, but he knew enough about human nature to get the Celtics an advantage. Sure, there were times when he genuinely lost his temper with the refs or with the other team or with the other coach. Notably, he once punched St. Louis Hawks owner Ben Kerner before a Finals game, but when announcing that the league was fining him $300 (a trifling sum even then), the league’s president said, “from all I hear Auerbach had some provocation.” The thing is, Auerbach didn’t lose his temper nearly as often as he seemed to.

Most of what he did on the sidelines was an act. He wasn’t aiming for an Oscar, an Emmy, or a Tony. He just wanted another ring. And he knew that if he spent the game ranging the sidelines like a dyspeptic wildcat inexplicably in possession of a plaid blazer and cigar, it would affect the refs, the other coach and the other team.

And psychology is a key component of the brilliance of Steph Curry.

Golden State Warriors v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

We can talk about the skill of basketball players in terms of physics, not just in physical terms. A good offensive player can be like a black hole, warping a defense and drawing defenders past some basketball event horizon where they can’t escape to defend suddenly wide-open players elsewhere on the court.

Less commonly, you’ll get guys whose presence on the defensive end is like a mountain, to be avoided by the offense in the same way that nobody builds a road over one if they can build the road around it. Kevin Garnett was like that, but Bill Russell was the ne plus ultra of defenders who bent offenses to suit their purposes.

On very rare occasions, you’ll get guys like Shaq, who could bend offenses and defenses.

But Steph is something completely different.

Steph’s effect on the game is more like quantum entanglement — Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance.”

Steph’s offensive game often has a profound—and generally deleterious—effect on the other team’s offense, and it is purely psychological.

For all of the abuses that have been perpetrated on the three-point shot by less able players—all of those ugly ugly misses, the clang of ball against iron, the random rebounds flying all over the court, it is still, in the hands of a skillful practitioner, a thing of beauty.

With three-point shots, you so often know if they’re good the moment they leave the shooter’s hand… but you still have to wait for the conclusion. The three-point shot effectively suspends the game for us as fans. Time dilates — it stretches out. Think back to the three-point shots that the Celtics hit in that barrage to close the fourth quarter in Game 1. Think back to how long you had on each occasion to gleefully anticipate the eventual swish.

When done well, the three-point shot is a fermata — a note held until the ball ripples through the net or leaves it motionless.

You can’t really describe what time does during the shot. As Raymond Chandler once said, “they don’t make that kind of time in watches anyway.”

At least that’s what happens for us as fans.

On the court, the players still have work to do.

And that’s where Curry’s sublime mastery of the three-point shot gives the Warriors a psychological edge.

2022 NBA Finals - Boston Celtics v Golden State Warriors Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Curry turns players into spectators — or he lures otherwise sane and rational players into a vain attempt to do what he makes look so easy.

How many times have you seen a team head back up the court after Curry does something spectacular looking utterly discombobulated? How many times have you seen the other team’s star player try to ‘answer’ Curry with a Curry-esque shot?

Curry has tapped into something deep within the psyche of both basketball players and fans. Players suddenly forget what Antoine Walker once observed: there are no four-point shots. Caught up in the show, they seem to forget that a corner three coming after a few passes and some misdirection (a standard basketball play these days) puts as many points on the board as Steph just notched in his own inimitable fashion.

At least, that’s what happens with most players.

Over the past seven years, no team has even come close to Boston’s record against the Warriors.

Not only are the C’s the only team in the NBA to have a winning record against the Warriors in the Steve Kerr era, they’ve won 64% of their games against Golden State.

The Celtics were beating the Warriors when they were barely respectable, and much of the credit for that belongs to Brad Stevens.

In Brad’s final season at Butler, Roosevelt Jones picked off an inbound pass from Gonzaga’s David Stockton and took the ball down the court, hitting a pullup shot at the buzzer to give Butler a win. In the clip below, notice Stevens’ response (at the one minute mark) as soon as Jones shoots the ball.

He turns around and saunters up the court toward Gonzaga’s Mark Few. He doesn’t uncross his arms. In fact, he doesn’t even wait to see if Jones makes the shot. As he later told Pat Forde, “what goes through my mind is, the hay is in the barn. If a guy makes a shot like that or doesn’t, it doesn’t define who we are. It doesn’t affect how I evaluate our team. It doesn’t break our season.”

That level-headed and calm demeanor is exactly the antidote to Steph Curry.

During the first quarter when the Chase Center crowd was going nuts and ESPN’s announcers were attempting to outdo each other in their rapture over Curry’s performance, the Celtics simply went down to the other end of the court and went back to work, playing their style of basketball and it paid off. The Warriors — and Curry — were getting all the hype, but hype doesn’t show up on the scoreboard.

When, in the second quarter, the Warriors pushed out to a ten point lead, and the crowd was beside itself, the Celtics calmly put together a string of excellent defensive sequences and, at the other end of the court, workmanlike basketball that closed the gap. They tied the game not with spectacular three-pointers, but with a variety of two point shots — although Smart would’ve notched at least one three for the Celtics if his shoes were half a size smaller. During this 10-0 run, the play of the Celtics had an air of inevitability. There was nothing breathtaking about it… but then, there’s nothing breathtaking about the daily movement of the tides in San Francisco Bay either.

It was only in the third quarter that the Celtics fell into the mental trap that so often afflicts opponents of the Warriors. Rather than stay within themselves and trust their ability to win by playing the same kind of basketball that got them into The Finals in the first place, they tried to push things.

No matter how big the hole is, you’re only going to climb out of it two or three points at a time. Teams get boat-raced when they start focusing on the size of the deficit and stop focusing on the task that’s immediately in front of them.

After the C’s first win in this year’s playoff run, Marcus Smart said, “you always have more time than you think you do,” and the C’s lost sight of that in the third quarter last night. They started playing too fast, trying to do too much too quickly, as though they had only a few minutes to climb out of the hole they were in, not one whole quarter and a substantial chunk of another.

Perhaps nothing was more indicative of what was wrong with the Celtics at this juncture than Tatum’s wild outlet pass which glanced off Marcus Smart’s hands on its way to Oakland.

Fortunately, it was only temporary.

The C’s recentered themselves. They stopped the bloodletting before the third quarter was up, and once the fourth quarter started, they were able to take advantage of a Warriors team which had been working harder than they are used to. Because they had kept their wits about them for the most part, the Celtics were perfectly poised to take advantage of the Warriors’ fatigue, closing out the game with an exclamation point that sent Golden State’s fans to the exits even before Kerr emptied his bench.