NBA Finals 2022: Warriors’ Steph Curry displays leadership through patience, defense in Game 2 win vs. Celtics

SAN FRANCISCO — There’s a famous quote attributed to ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu that says, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” The idea is that a leader moves in silence, inserting himself subtly only when he has to, ceding the glory to his team.

During Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Stephen Curry proved that even the most revered philosophers of our time can be dead wrong. On Sunday, Curry made sure the Boston Celtics — and everyone in the world with even a remote interest in basketball — knew he existed.

Curry forcefully asserted himself in what amounted to a must-win game for the Golden State Warriors, keeping his team afloat during an ugly offensive first half and sparking a backbreaking third-quarter run on both ends of the floor that eventually led to a 107-88 win over the Celtics, and a 1-1 series tie as the teams head East for Game 3 on Wednesday.

“Steph was breathtaking in that quarter. Not just the shot making, but the defensive effort,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the win. “The guy’s amazing. He just keeps working on his game, his strength, his conditioning year after year, and it’s a pleasure to watch him play every night.”

Curry, whose dazzling 21-point first quarter in Game 1 had fans who didn’t know better ready to crown the Warriors, went 5 for 16 from the field and 1 for 6 from 3-point range for the rest of the game as he watched the Celtics ride a historic shooting fourth quarter to blow the Warriors off the floor in the first-ever Finals game at Chase Center.

That didn’t sit well with Curry. He couldn’t sleep. He called Sunday’s Game 2 a “come to Jesus moment.” Whether it was Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Mohamed or just Curry’s plain old basketball genius, he lifted the Warriors in a game they simply couldn’t afford to lose, putting up 29 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals on 5-for-12 3-point shooting against myriad defensive looks and relentless physicality from the Celtics.

“Guys are going to try to be physical with him, but he’s been used to it. He’s a lot stronger than he used to be” Warriors center Kevon Looney said after the game. “He knows that sometimes he’s going to have to sacrifice, not get as many looks sometimes to find us, and I think he did a good job of balancing out today.”

Everyone in the building knew the Warriors would come out with more intensity after what transpired in Game 1. Draymond Green, never one to shy away from outward displays of intensity, tied up Al Horford on the first possession of the game, flexed on Horford after a layup, and picked up a technical foul after an altercation with Grant Williams — all just minutes into the first quarter. He was certainly doing the work he’s required to do for this team to reach the necessary level of aggression to survive against a team as good as Boston.

The problem was, it wasn’t really working. Boston got off to a 13-5 start thanks to some hot shooting from Jaylen Brown, whom Green was assigned to guard to start the game. Just minutes in, it was clear that Golden State was going to have to work extremely hard for every pass, dribble and basket it could muster on Sunday night. Klay Thompson, who said the team needed to play with “desperation,” was desperate to make a shot — going just 1 for 5 from the field and 0 for 3 from 3-point range in the first quarter en route to a horrific 4-for-19 shooting night.

So, with all the Warriors struggling offensively despite their improved tenacity and intention, Curry went to work. It wasn’t marked by the glitz and awe of the first-quarter outburst in Game 1, but his methodical ability to keep the Warriors in the game on Sunday amid their offensive struggles was just as important. He didn’t shoot particularly well, but Curry scored 10 points in the opening frame, shooting four free throws and dishing out three assists. On the surface, it didn’t seem like Curry was dominating the game, but lo and behold the Warriors somehow held a 31-30 lead after the first quarter. That’s what leaders do, and it doesn’t go unnoticed by teammates.

“Most importantly, his decision-making was great. He got off the ball. He didn’t drive into traffic. He took what the defense gave him,” Green said after the Game 2 win. “I think for the first, probably six minutes of that game or so, he had zero points. He wasn’t forcing anything. Let the game come to him and, you know, we all followed that.”

The second quarter was a similar slog, with the Warriors continually either missing or being denied on what are normally uncontested layups due to the length, size and skill of the Celtics defense. The bar didn’t move much, but Boston took a 52-50 lead into the locker room at halftime, setting the stage for the third-quarter onslaught the Warriors were about to unleash.

Curry was brilliant offensively in the third and deciding quarter, scoring 14 points on 4-for-9 shooting, including 3 of 6 from beyond the arc. When he came off of a high screen right in front of his own bench, raised up and swished a 30-footer to put the Warriors up by 17, it felt like the final blow to put the Celtics to bed — though the Warriors and the Chase Center fans wouldn’t dare allow themselves to go down that road.

With all his offensive exploits, it would be easy to ignore what Curry did on the defensive side of the ball, particularly in the third quarter. Kerr and the Warriors have preached all year that Curry doesn’t get enough recognition for his defense, and Sunday provides ample evidence for their assertion. Curry’s hands were everywhere while he was jumping passing lanes and powerfully resisting any Celtic trying to utilize a size advantage.

Watch here as Curry thwarts Horford’s attempt to bully him to the basket and funnels him into Otto Porter Jr.’s help. Then he reads Williams cutting under the basket for a potential layup and slides to deflect Horford’s pass before the Celtics knew what hit them. These are the kind of instincts generally attributed to Defensive Player of the Year winners like Green and Marcus Smart.

“From my rookie year to now, it’s always been about effort and just a care factor, overcoming physical limitations with matchups or whatever it is,” Curry said of his defensive evolution. “If you try hard, good things will happen. And you’ll continue to get better. So it’s always been a point of emphasis. Just better at it now.”

Curry was an essential part of a defense that forced more turnovers in the third quarter (five) than Boston had field goals (four). When the buzzer sounded to end the frame, the Warriors had outscored the Celtics 35-14, their largest margin for any Finals quarter in franchise history.

The Warriors had nothing going in the first half, and Curry kept them afloat. When they needed a knockout punch in a must-win game, he came through it on both ends. It’s not a revelation to say that Curry is one of the greatest basketball players the Earth has ever seen (and probably most other planets too), but his leadership can sometimes be taken for granted. He doesn’t shout like Green or smash clipboards like Kerr, but he knows when his team needs him and, more often than not, he knows how to deliver.

“I think this year, there’s definitely a need for me to be aggressive throughout the game — to create, draw attention, get shots up and just continue to apply pressure,” Curry said after Game 2. “Obviously the first two games, it’s gone well. I don’t know what it will look like on the road, rest of the series. It’s just always about being confident with the ball in my hands and making plays.”  


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