Stephen Curry is a terrifying player. He creates an anxiety you can’t shake, because there is nothing you can do about a guy who can make 28-foot jump shots without even having both hands on the ball. You don’t guard that because you can’t, because according to everything we know about basketball it’s a waste of time to even consider it. You just have to hope it’s not going to be one of those nights.
And if it is? Hey, the sun will come out tomorrow.
Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals reached that realm of the ridiculous Monday in San Antonio. Curry scored 22 in the third quarter, just casually making shots you’d call slop luck if it were somebody else taking them.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Kawhi Leonard was called for a foul while guarding Curry three feet out of bounds. That’s what it’s like. That’s the anxiety. You’re afraid he’s going to score on you when he’s not even legally on the court. After one shot, three shocked players just threw their hands on their heads like they were trying to keep their brains inside – and they were his teammates.
The Spurs did all they could, and that’s a lot. This is the Spurs we’re talking about. This is a team coached by professional basketball’s finest tactician. They started trying to trap Curry on the perimeter because literally any alternative was better than him shooting it.
So he’d casually flip a pass to somebody like Carl Landry, and, shoot, Carl Landry is good enough to make a layup. On back-to-back possessions, Curry drove for floaters over Tim Duncan, who has blocked more shots than all but seven players in NBA history.
Curry finished with 44 points on 18-for-35 shooting. He had 11 assists. He played 58 minutes.
And the Spurs won. The Spurs won 129-127 at home in double overtime because Steph Curry could make ridiculous shots, but the Spurs could get open ones.
It was a wide-open shot by Danny Green that sent the game into overtime, a wide-open shot by Boris Diaw that tied it up again in OT, and a wide-open 3-pointer by Manu Ginobili that won the game with 1.2 seconds left in the second overtime.
“I was wide open,” Ginobili said. “I didn’t have any other option.”
It should not have come to that.
Curry hit a 27-footer off a crossover to put the Warriors up 90-72 with 30 seconds left in the third quarter. They were still up 16 with nine minutes left and they were up 14 with 5:34 to play. A minute after that, Duncan left the game sick and the thing should have been over.
But the Spurs cut it to 10 at the three-minute mark, the beginning of an 18-2 run that had the Warriors puckered up like a kid on his first roller coaster.
This whole time, the Spurs were still all over Curry, but one of those nights turned into just another night for just long enough. Jarrett Jack made two big shots, and with 3.9 seconds left Curry found Kent Bazemore, who made a tough layup to put Golden State up one.
It all looked so hard. The Jack shots, the Bazemore layup, most of the shots Curry made. All of them required all the skill the Warriors have. The hours and hours and thousands and thousands of jump shots, the surgical attention to the finest details of shooting, the pure shooting talent fully expressed in all its beauty in perhaps the game of the year. If you can’t beat San Antonio on a night like that…
And that’s when the Spurs did that thing they do. With 1.2 seconds left in the second OT, coach Gregg Popovich called a play that confused the Warriors’ defense. Leonard passed it to Ginobili, who was standing on the wing all alone, and Ginobili made it splash.
“I really have to watch it to see what happened,” Ginobili said.
This meant more for Golden State than San Antonio. The Spurs won, feeling like they had not played their best. The Warriors lost on a night their best player scored 44 points and had 11 assists in 58 minutes on the floor.
The Warriors might win a game or two in this series, but they have seen what it looks like when Curry gets super hot, the Warriors get a huge lead, Tim Duncan goes to the locker room and the crowd gets quiet. And it looks like a 35-year-old balding guy sticking an open 3 to break your heart.
In other words, it was one of those nights. And it didn’t matter.