SAN FRANCISCO — The smile widened on Stephen Curry’s face.
The ball just splashed through the net as time expired. This time, Curry did not take the shot. That 39-foot heave belonged to Golden State Warriors guard Jordan Poole. No matter. Curry looked just as ecstatic after the ball went through the rim as if he remained responsible for it.
Moments after the Chase Center crowd roared its approval for Poole’s highlight reel, Curry embraced his teammate both with a high five and a hug. The two had talked all season on how a long-distance shot at the end of a quarter could create game-long momentum. Because of those implications, Curry and Poole even practiced those half-court launches at practices and shootarounds.
“We have a little competition going,” Curry said, grinning. “If you make one during the game, we count it. So, he took the lead tonight.”
Undoubtedly, the most important standings race points to the Warriors’ 107-88 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday at Chase Center. Not only did the Warriors tie the Finals series at 1-1, they ensured a Game 5 on their home floor next Monday following their trip to Boston for Game 3 on Wednesday (9 ET, ABC) and Game 4 on Friday.
Yet, Poole’s 39-footer at the end of the third quarter did more than just extend the Warriors’ lead to 87-64 entering the final period. Poole provided both an instant highlight and growth after struggling through the first six quarters of the NBA Finals. Poole finished with 16 points while shooting 6-for-14 overall and 5-for-9 from 3-point range in 23 minutes off the bench after showing a poor first half (three points on 1-for-5 shooting) and a promising third quarter (six points on a 2-of-2 clip).
“He’s so talented and confident that I have a lot of faith that he’ll figure this out,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “I thought tonight he did a good job of finding his way.”
Poole struggled with finding his way in the Warriors’ 120-108 Game 1 loss on Thursday. After impressing the Warriors both in the regular season and playoffs with improved scoring and playmaking, Poole initially looked overwhelmed on the Finals stage. He finished with nine points while shooting 2-for-7 overall and 1-for-5 from deep, committing four turnovers in 25 minutes.
After teammates Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala scolded Poole for some of those miscues, Poole’s teammates offered more positive reinforcement. Poole vowed he would improve in Game 2 by maintaining his aggressiveness while fine-tuning his decision making.
We talked about it in shootaround a couple days ago. Somebody was going to hit a half-court shot in this series, whether it was me or Steph. I just happened to hit it.”
— Warriors guard Jordan Poole
As much as the Warriors’ fortunes rely on Curry, Green and Klay Thompson, Golden State needed Poole to play well enough to relieve his star teammates’ workload. Yet, Poole did not initially appear up to the task in Game 2.
After closing the final 5:30 of the first quarter with a relatively harmless three points on 1-for-2 shooting and one assist, Poole unraveled in the second period. With Curry resting, he opened the quarter by misfiring on both a 3-pointer and a layup. Poole fell following the latter miss after Celtics forward Derrick White blocked the shot. Then Poole threw his hands up after White jumped over him, which caused White to fall.
Officials reviewed the play to determine whether Poole performed a hostile act. They gave Poole a common foul after determining he threw his hands up to prevent White from stepping on his head. But Poole’s problems just started.
Just over a minute later, Poole missed another layup. Two minutes after that, Poole committed an offensive foul. Kerr then substituted Curry for Poole at 8:11 mark, and that moment appeared it could’ve been the end of Poole’s night. He redeemed himself, however, in the final 1:19 of the third quarter with both a 29-foot step-back with 29.7 seconds left and then his 39-footer at the buzzer. After Andrew Wiggins threw him an outlet pass off a missed shot with five seconds left, Poole dribbled with his left hand just above half court. He then pulled up for the swish.
“We talked about it in shootaround a couple days ago. Somebody was going to hit a half-court shot in this series, whether it was me or Steph,” Poole said. “I just happened to hit it.”
Poole chalked that development to “just being aggressive and trying to make the right plays for the team.” But the Warriors saw Poole change his approach, subtly.
Curry observed that Poole played “a little bit more under control.” The Warriors noticed that Poole did not appear rattled.
“He never wavered. That’s important,” Green said. “He stayed the course, and he didn’t start forcing things. He continued to play within the offense, and then things started going his way a little bit.”
Did Poole’s buzzer-beater also signify a breakthrough moment? The Warriors surely hope so. Beyond Curry’s offensive brilliance (29 points on 9-for-21 shooting), Golden State has received little other offensive help. Thompson scored 11 points on only 4-for-19 shooting, with Wiggins adding 11 points at a 4-for-12 clip. How Poole either sinks or swims moving forward could prove the difference between the Warriors having just enough to relieve Curry’s burden.
“Jordan is still a very young player and learning on the fly,” Kerr said. And when Curry embraced Poole following his buzzer beater, it appeared Poole might become capable of spreading his wings.
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