Stephen Curry was elite in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The Warriors need to ask him for more

SAN FRANCISCO — The Warriors are in the NBA Finals because when Stephen Curry steps in, they’re doing great.

Of course, they lose a relay here and there. But, usually, the ball was in the hands of Jordan Poole. Klay Thompson was free to chase shots and find a rhythm. Players like Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II and Nemanja Bjelica made enough opportune plays on either side. And Draymond Green, the defensive anchor and vocal leader, made sure everything worked.

For most of the season, and well into these playoffs, that was enough. For up to six minutes, coach Steve Kerr and his superstar could be patient and confident as Curry sat with a towel over his head. You could count on the “others”, as Shaquille O’Neal calls them, to keep him in place.

But after Game 1, it doesn’t seem like such a safe bet. Not against this Boston defense. Not when the Celtics counter with Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown on the field at all times.

This new reality – and the urgency required – was highlighted by Curry after the Warriors’ epic fourth-quarter collapse that led to a 120-108 loss to Boston. All season he trusted the rotation patterns, trusted his teammates to get through it and enjoyed the rest. But now it looks like sitting on the sidelines too long just won’t be enough.

“At most,” Curry said, “we have six games left. Make the necessary adjustments.

That’s as close as he’ll come to saying he’s ready to play 40 minutes. Or 42. Or 45. Whatever it takes. Against this formidable match, he may have to.

It’s less about getting Curry onto the pitch and more about applying constant pressure. It’s the best defense the Warriors have faced in these playoffs. The Celtics’ resistance is ideally set up against the Golden State offense.

Golden State felt some of that against Memphis. But there were weak points to attack. There were smaller defenders that could be overpowered. The Grizzlies had defensive gaps that eventually surfaced. But Boston is a relentless bunch. They punish finesse. Beating them requires a certainty of response, a force to lean on against theirs. The Warriors don’t have many options to oppose it. So they will need more curry.

It takes a great offense to beat a great defense. It takes exceptionalism to disconcert this Boston. And what’s clear from Game 1 is that Curry is the Warriors’ only troublemaker. He torched Boston in the first quarter, punishing the Celtics’ drop coverage and the space they gave him to the tune of 21 first-quarter points. Normally, this is enough to soften a defense. But the Warriors let off the gas a few times Thursday, and it cost them dearly.

Now they face a must-watch game on Sunday. They can convince themselves that they still have home-court advantage given that they always win a road game in a series. But losing two home games to start a series is a hole that may be too deep for them.

“Well, it’s never fun and it hurts on the biggest stage, obviously,” Thompson said. “But like Draymond said, there’s no reason to panic. I still like our chances, and we’ll go home and digest what happened. I know we will be better in the second game.

The urgency is raised. The Warriors can no longer wait for things to fall apart to adapt. They can’t steal that many minutes and hang on passively. They can’t afford to keep two non-shooters down for too long.

Against Boston, settling just feeds them. The Celtics are tyrants on defense. They crawl in swimsuits. They push the tenacity of their opponents, attack their composure. The best response to aggression is aggression.

When Curry played all 12 minutes of the first and third quarters, giving the Celtics no breaks, the Warriors scored 28 and 38 points respectively. Curry took 17 shots in those two quarters, and open eyes abounded for the Warriors. Porter took advantage, making his first four 3s. In the third quarter, Wiggins capitalized, scoring 13 points as the Warriors built their 15-point lead.

Golden State scored just 22 points in the second quarter and 16 in the fourth quarter. It’s no coincidence that Curry took a total of eight shots in those two quarters.

“Obviously we made adjustments, but it was also, we kind of rushed,” Curry said. “And I don’t think we were smart enough in some of these situations to try to find the right matchups and try to create the right shots. And then it’s also difficult because you take the ball out of the basket the same way they were shooting the ball. So it was a combination of both.

It’s not just that Curry starts these quarterbacks on the bench. Even when he returns, he has to get back into rhythm, which forces his teammates to be the creators, the aggressors.

But Poole has been hampered by physicality throughout the playoffs, and good rim protection thwarts his drives. He is not yet the same powerful creator against these strong defenses. He was 2 for 7 with nine points and four turnovers.

And Green doesn’t quite have the edge against those long, athletic Celtics defenders. When he gets the rebound and pushes it in transition, he doesn’t get the separation he’s done against other teams. Boston tracked him down in Game 1, meeting him on the rim. It was 2 for 12.

And Thompson is forced off the 3-point line – sometimes pushed past it – by pressure from the Celtics. It forces him to create his own shots and dribble in spots, which has proven to be suboptimal for Thompson throughout these playoffs. It was 3 for 7 inside the arc and the same behind.

The Warriors don’t just need more curry; they need him to constantly pressure Boston. The attention he’s getting, especially after the Celtics have had a dose of what happens when they don’t sound the alarm with him, is the crack in the door the other Warriors need on offense. If they play against a Boston right defense, advantage the Celtics. But if they’re playing against a Boston defense reacting to Curry, the Warriors have an advantage.

“They have good size and good athleticism in just about every position,” Kerr said. “They put a lot of pressure on you. But I think we had a really good time. We had 38 in the third quarter. We had a good run there. It was especially the fourth quarter that got us. We are therefore confident in our ability to score against them.

The plan to beat the Celtics has been laid in previous series. Greatness gives them problems. Greatness with support beats them. In the Eastern Conference Finals, Miami’s Jimmy Butler put constant pressure on Boston’s defense. He just didn’t get much help. When he wasn’t on, the Heat didn’t have much of a chance except for Game 3 when Bam Adebayo was dominating. In the Eastern semi-final, it was Giannis Antetokounmpo who broke the defense to set up his teammates. When Jrue Holiday was productive, Milwaukee won.

All six of the Celtics’ losses in the playoffs came from superstar performances. Antetokounmpo and Holiday averaged 52 shots combined in Milwaukee’s three wins. Two of Miami’s three wins over Boston came when Butler threw 41 and 47 shots, respectively. The other featured 31 attempts from Adebayo.

When the Warriors offense didn’t have Curry attacking, it just wasn’t as powerful. The curry was piping hot in the first trimester. But he sat for the first six minutes of the second quarter and fired just one shot in the first seven minutes. And by the time he took it, the Warriors lead had fallen to two. His hot start was spoiled as Boston went to halftime with a lead.

The beginning of the end came with Curry sitting down to start the fourth. He sat down first 2:25. That’s all it took for the Warriors to lose control of the game and ultimately home-court advantage in the series.

Four possessions to start the fourth quarter fueled the Celtics and sparked a Warriors-controlled game revolution. A missed Thompson 3. A missed Poole 3. A fadeaway from Andre Iguodala missed when the shot clock ran out. Then, with the offense stagnating, Poole did the right thing by trying to drive. But even when Poole stepped on Payton Pritchard, Robert Williams loomed in the paint. With Green and Iguodala on the field, the Celtics had two players to sag and could pack the paint without fear. Poole tried to pass out after being stopped in the lane, but landed out of bounds.

During that streak, the Celtics got two Jaylen Brown jumpers, the latter a 3 and a Williams dunk. The Warriors’ 12-point lead to start the fourth was reduced to 92-87 in what seemed like the blink of an eye. Curry came back, much earlier than normal, but the momentum was already pouring out. Also, nine seconds after Curry returned, Iguodala committed another turnover that led to a Pritchard layup. Three point game.

Granted, we’ve seen the Warriors offense sputter with Curry. He’s not above turnovers or missed shots. But on Thursday, he was in the top flight and the Warriors needed more of him. Maybe throwing it in the fourth, and getting it to attack, was the move when Boston signaled it was going for a final push by starting the quarter with its best five.

The other option is for Poole to find his place. It is certainly possible. It just doesn’t seem plausible how these playoffs went. If that changes, it would be a huge boon for the Warriors.

Until then, reserve Curry for 40+ minutes. His greatness is the Warriors’ best remedy for the Celtics’ migraine. The Warriors have spent most of this season securing his departure time. But they can’t afford to sit him for too long.

Related Reading

Roofer: The Warriors struggle to defend the 3-point line
Kawakami: Warriors show calm after collapse
Weiss: Jayson Tatum posts 13 assists in win
King: Celtics resolve Steph Curry and Warriors in Game 1

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(Photo: Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

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