BOSTON — There are only two constants in the otherwise unpredictable 2022 NBA Finals: A lack of consecutive wins for either team and a lot of Steph Curry. Both rang resoundingly true Friday when the series tensed up and became a best-of-three.
Here are five takeaways from a tightly-contested Game 4 that saw the Warriors pull even and the Celtics lose momentum:
1. Steph Curry’s foot was healthy enough to press the pedal
Late in Game 3, when he fell to the floor and Al Horford fell on him, Curry released a scream that was heard from here to San Francisco. Well, two nights later, he yelled again — after hitting a 3-pointer in the first quarter to let everyone know what was coming.
So: About that left foot he and the raised red flags? All good, just like those jumpers he dropped all night.
By the time that early 3-pointer fell, Curry was already on a roll and the foot was already a non-issue. Any lingering pain was replaced with a different kind of burn, perhaps fire and raging spirit. Curry was in for an epic night, a defining night for him in the Finals, where in the past he hasn’t always been at his peak.
“I don’t rank my performances,” Curry said, but this was a no-brainer top-rated showing.
It was a chilling sign for the Celtics, who were mostly helpless against the carnage done by Curry and his first 40-piece of the 2022 postseason. The aggressiveness, the efficiency and the consistency — and also the diversity; he hit floaters and layups and 3s, everything in the bag — was all apparent from start to finish.
“The heart of that man is incredible,” said Klay Thompson.
What this says is Curry, through four games, is clearly on a mission to (a) win the championship of course, and (b) show he can do so with an unpredictable Klay and invisible Draymond Green, and though he won’t admit it, (c) win his first Finals MVP award. Oh, and doing this against a tough defensive team such as the Celtics, that’s a bonus, should Curry and the Warriors pull this off.
After getting 19 points in the first half and 14 in the third quarter, Curry needed a strong fourth quarter because those have been troublesome for him this series and the game was still a tossup. A few switches to get favorable matchups and jumpers followed, and the job was done, with 10 rebounds a bonus on the tally.
The Celtics haven’t broken the Curry code yet this series; he has 137 points in 148 minutes, while making half of his shots (and his 3s). This is clearly Boston’s biggest worry — and the Warriors’ main comfort — as the series creeps toward a conclusion.
2. Steve Kerr actually made an easy call on Draymond
At least there was good news, finally, for Green after another tough night. The Warriors won, and he was rested enough to have plenty of oxygen for his podcast.
Both were possible because Kerr sat Green for Kevon Looney midway through a tight fourth quarter — and perhaps as a result, the Warriors’ chances increased. This was quite an about-face for a player who served as the soul of three previous championships and carries an understandable amount of pride into every interaction.
But for whatever reason, Green was shook Friday and really has seemed to be throughout much of this series. In no specific order, he’s too spooked to shoot, collects fouls, gets drawn into conflicts with Celtics and the referees, earns the ire of TD Garden fans and hasn’t put his fingerprints on the series so far.
In Game 4, Green made only one significant play — when he returned to the game and fed to Looney for a dunk with 64 seconds left that gave the Warriors a five-point cushion and doused the Celtics’ ambitions. Otherwise, it was a mild effort by Green and a forgettable two-game stay in Boston, capped by a fourth-quarter removal.
“Well, Looney was playing so well and Jordan Poole was playing well, so we just stayed with that group,” Kerr explained. “Draymond’s the ultimate competitor. Came back in, made huge plays down the stretch. He finishes a game with four steals, eight assists, nine boards.”
The numbers were indeed respectable. For most players. For a three-time champ and self-professed best defender in basketball, those figures didn’t give a true and complete picture. In some ways, the Warriors are still waiting for Draymond to show up.
3. Will Celtics regret their fourth-quarter flop?
First, some context: Curry was brilliant and the Warriors’ defense in the moment of truth was rigid. Give Golden State that much.
But there are indications the Celtics squandered this opportunity just as much as the Warriors took it. They were up five midway through the fourth. They were at home (more on this later). Nobody was in foul trouble. Thompson, to this point, was streaky and the Warriors were being carried by one player. Boston had already proven to be fourth-quarter-ready in its Game 1 win.
In other words, most of the factors were in the Celtics’ favor, until they quite literally turned them all over. Their possessions were sloppy, they couldn’t contain Curry, they desperately resorted to 3-point shots and basically faltered whenever it counted.
“We had our opportunities tonight, especially when we did have a five and six-point lead,” said coach Ime Udoka. “It felt like we didn’t have our best possessions, and kind of let them back in the game, whether it was turnovers or poor offense. That’s gone along with our season, especially this postseason. We had to do it the difficult way. We have been battle-tested throughout some series, Milwaukee, Miami. We have to do it again.”
4. When is Jayson Tatum making a superstar statement?
The Celtics are still waiting for the Jayson Tatum who took on the Bucks and the Jayson Tatum who toppled the Heat. That Jayson Tatum, through four games of the Finals, is still waiting to check in at the scorer’s table.
Look: Tatum wasn’t terrible Friday; he just wasn’t terrific, once again. He was doomed by poor shooting — needing 23 shots to score 23 points — some sloppy decision-making, which led to some of those contested shots and six turnovers.
His only basket of that quarter came with 10 1/2 minutes left. This means he went AWOL down the long stretch and was noticeably silent when the Celtics begged for a savior.
Contrast this to the First Round Tatum, Second Round Tatum and the East Finals Tatum. It wasn’t too long ago when he had a career-defining 43-point masterpiece against the Bucks and in a two-game stretch had 80 points and another game with 13 rebounds. There were times in that series when Tatum was the best player on a floor he shared with a two-time MVP and NBA champ (Giannis Antetokounmpo). Then against the Heat, he closed out strong, averaging 28 points and 10 rebounds in the last two games. And he started the postseason by out-dueling Kevin Durant.
Right now? He’s still trying to one-up Curry, but he won’t achieve that with 33% shooting for the series and turnovers that always seem to surface at the wrong time for Boston.
“I know the level I can play at and it’s on me to be there more often than not,” Tatum said.
5. Home court means nothing, not yet at least
The Celtics and Warriors have demonstrated that homecourt advantage, at this late stage of the season, is vastly overrated, once again. When two superior teams meet, the city and the name of the arena rarely ever matters. And sure enough, Boston and Golden State have supported that theory, taking one game each in the other’s living room.
It’s now 27 straight playoff series with at least one road win for the Warriors, which is an NBA record. And in these playoffs, the Celtics have won eight times on the road, in such places as Brooklyn, Miami, Milwaukee and San Francisco.
This means the remainder of the 2022 Finals should not, and perhaps will not, be dependent on where it’s played, no matter the noise level. Coach Steve Kerr had a perfectly reasonable answer for the Warriors’ road success in the Steph Curry era.
“Well, you have a group of guys who are going to be in the Hall of Fame someday: Steph, Klay, Draymond,” he said. “These guys are the constant. They have been here together throughout that span. So they are not only gifted but they are incredibly competitive, and that’s what it takes to win on the road. You have to summon that kind of will and intensity and passion, and those guys have that.”
Translated: Talent wins no matter the setting.
Now we await what comes next, with the first stop in San Francisco, followed by a guaranteed return to Boston. For whatever that’s worth.
Marcus Smart: “We take a loss and we bounce back. That’s who we are. It’s who we’re going to continue to be.”
Klay Thompson: “We have reestablished home court … we’ve got to play with that same force we had in the fourth quarter, come Monday.”
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