Stephen Curry’s theme for this postseason, clearly, is bedtime.
Against Denver, and then Memphis, he followed his dagger buckets by laying his head on the pillow of his hands, his way of saying goodnight. Perhaps it’s the father of three in him, even the uncle of two, who in this season of his life finds fulfillment in stories and prayers before sweet dreams. Or maybe he’s closing an endorsement deal with ZzzQuil.
Whatever the reason, it was Dallas’ turn to be tucked in Friday. But this is the Western Conference finals. The stakes brought a new ritual. He side-stepped Luka Dončić and launched an open 3 from the left wing. While the ball was still in the air, Curry verbally punctuated the moment with two words.
To the Mavericks in Game 2. The Warriors had already erased a 19-point lead. Curry’s 3-pointer, putting Golden State up 10 with 1:04 left in the game, turned the lights out on Dallas as the Warriors rallied from behind for a 126-117 win. Then he pressed the hand-pillow against his cheek.
“Just having fun,” Curry said. “You talk about having kids, you know how bedtime routines are important. It’s the final signal for a job well done that day.”
“Night, night.” — @StephenCurry30
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) May 21, 2022
As expected, Dončić brought his best for Game 2. After getting locked up by Andrew Wiggins and the Warriors collage of schemes in Game 1, managing just 20 points on 18 shots with seven turnovers, the Mavericks’ star was determined to respond. That he did Friday with 18 in the first quarter. He finished with 42 points on 23 shots. He had eight assists and just two turnovers. His 3 was falling (5-for-10), and he got to the free-throw line (13-for-15).
What’s more, his aggression and early dominance produced a ton of open shots for his teammates. They capitalized, making 15 of 27 in the first half as the Mavericks went up by as many as 19.
Coach Steve Kerr promised his team at the half if it played with poise the rest of the way, it would get back in the game. Not only could Dallas not defend the Warriors’ offense, but also Kerr was banking on the Mavericks not duplicating their hot shooting in the second half.
The Warriors found their poise and methodically broke down the Mavericks. The 14-point deficit at halftime was down to 85-83 entering the fourth. Curry missed all five of his shots and had just two points in the third. He sat for the first 5:36 of the fourth quarter. The Warriors led 102-95 when he returned to the floor.
Golden State simply needed him to close. Dončić was still cooking. He scored Dallas’ next 11 points after Curry checked in, hitting 3s on back-to-back possessions — the latter cutting the Warriors’ lead to six.
Golden State led 114-108 with 2:48 left when Curry decided it was bedtime.
To the concept of taking Curry out of the action with double-teams.
The Warriors were heading to a familiar dance with Dallas: a tight game, trading giant possessions with one of the game’s great young stars in crunch time. In a March 3 game, they lost as Dončić picked them apart in isolation, getting the switches he wanted and punishing them. And Curry was helpless to stop it as Dallas double-teamed him to get the ball out of his hands. He played 12 minutes without attempting a shot.
Not Friday. He wasn’t going to settle for such an outcome.
First he drove for a reverse layup. Then, after two free throws from Dončić, Curry drove in for another layup, getting fouled for a three-point play. The Warriors led 119-110 with 2:07 left.
Jalen Brunson answered with a layup and a foul but missed the free throw. Curry followed with a turnover, dribbling into a corner trap. But Dončić missed a chance to capitalize, his 30-foot pull-up missing the mark. This time, Jordan Poole brought the ball up, getting the ball to Klay Thompson. In a reversal of traditional roles, it was Thompson driving-and-kicking to Curry.
The game was over the moment Dončić closed out hard. Curry took one dribble as he stepped to his left, nearer to the Mavericks’ bench. He was unfazed by Dončić grabbing his arm as he flew by.
It was time to put a cap on the evening. The focus was there. The rhythm. The moment. Curry knew what time it was. Time to end the back-and-forth that would keep Dallas alive for some late-game magic. Time to pull out the big dagger after previously driving around and past the Dallas defense for three layups, continuing the dismantling Poole began with his penetration. Time to take this series on the road.
“I thought Steph kind of smelled blood in the water those last five minutes,” Kerr said, “and he got to his spots. We had good spacing, and he got in in the middle of (the) paint, and he finished. … So Steph did what Steph does, something like that.”
To all the narratives that seem to forget his postseason track record. Curry has heard many of them for years — about him no longer being elite, about him being in decline, about the below-his-standards shooting percentages this season being evidence he is no longer him. Curry is scarcely mentioned these days when the conversation covers the best-remaining players in the postseason. Some still don’t consider him one of those playoff performers. Two years away from the stage, out of the radius of this postseason spotlight, is enough time for people to forget. Two MVPs, three rings, five NBA Finals, they don’t quite stand up to the rhetoric of recency bias. Even as coach after coach dedicates his team’s arsenal to stopping Curry, the narratives persist.
But Curry’s been putting them to bed in these playoffs. Game 2 was the fifth time this postseason he’s scored double-digits in the fourth quarter. All of them close games. All of them at times his team needed him to deliver.
His 104 points in fourth quarters are the most of anyone in the 2022 playoffs. They’ve come in 79 total minutes. Only two players in the top 20 in fourth-quarter scoring have played fewer than 80 minutes: Curry and Memphis’ Dillon Brooks, who ranks 20th with 43 points in the fourth. (Side note: Poole and Dončić both have played 93 fourth-quarter minutes. Dončić has scored 71 points, Poole 69.)
Curry toyed with Denver down the stretch of a five-game series. Staved off Memphis in a six-game battle. Now, in the first close game of these West finals, he answered Dončić and the Mavericks’ best punch.
The Warriors are halfway to a sixth trip to the finals, and he still hasn’t put together one of his monster games. He was efficient in Game 2 — 11-for-21 from the field, 6-for-10 from 3 — and still rebounded the ball well (he now has 20 in two games). He was great defensively in Game 1 and held up solidly in Game 2 as Dallas put him in a gazillion pick-and-rolls. His 32 points on Friday marked the sixth game in these playoffs he’s topped 30. The Warriors are 5-1 in those games.
He’s tried for the big games, unable to find that hot streak against the pressuring defenses, but the Warriors haven’t been hurt by his lack of one. Because when it was time to put the opponent to bed, Curry kicked in like Indica gummies.
Headed to Dallas, which has already come back from down 2-0 in a series, the Warriors put their streak of 25 straight series winning a road game on the line. If Curry does come up with one of those vintage games, or even again matches Dončić down the stretch, you know what that means?
To this series.
(Top photo: Harry How / Getty Images)