Brilliant Curry, transformed Wiggins lead Warriors back to glory
Almost from the moment the Golden State Warriors became the Warriors — a modern NBA dynasty playing basketball in a ‘new’ way that has come to define the sport — they have owned the third quarters of key games.
But even by their standards, and even by the standards of Steph Curry, the baby-faced assassin who has been the Warriors’ heartbeat during their near decade of dominance, this was ridiculous.
Curry was on one of his trademark heaters just after halftime of Game 6 when he pulled up for three from the NBA Finals logo at TD Garden on Thursday. It dropped, as did the Boston Celtics’ shoulders, collectively. And Curry turned to the crowd, gestured at his finger and told them: “I’m looking for a ring.”
He found it. He earned it. The 34-year-old finished off his best Finals performance in six tries and finished off the Celtics with another three late in the fourth quarter that he celebrated by jogging back up the floor while signalling that he had put the Celtics to sleep.
Andrew Wiggins, the kid from Thornhill, Ont., who has changed minds and won hearts with the Warriors, helped him put out the lights.
There was no question of who the Finals MVP would be as Curry was the fulcrum around which everything revolved for the Warriors as they completed their climb back up the NBA mountaintop after two injury-plagued seasons that ended in the draft lottery
Curry finished Game 6 with 34 points on 12-of-21 shooting and added six rebounds, five assists and four steals in the 103-90 win. He finished the series with averages of 31.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, five assists and two steals while hitting 43.7 per cent of his threes, all against a Celtics defence that had been shredding opponents all season and post-season but was helpless against Curry.
The Finals MVP Award is his first and should serve as the ultimate rebuttal for the small minority who felt the need to point out that he’d never won the honour previously as some kind of gap on his resume.
“I’m thrilled for Steph,” said Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who won his ninth NBA title – five as a player and four as a head coach. “To me this is his crowning achievement in what’s already been an incredible career.”
The Warriors needed Curry in a way they never had before.
These weren’t the Warriors that went 73-9 or that had Kevin Durant as the ultimate superstar luxury item. This was a 53-win team that was relying on a shooting guard coming off two potentially career-ending surgeries in Klay Thompson; and a small forward making his first deep playoff run after having been labelled a bust in some corners in Wiggins. Draymond Green couldn’t score anymore and their fifth starter, Otto Porter, was another reclamation project. Their bench was young and unproven.
The Warriors were going to go as far as Curry would take them, and he put them on his deceptively strong, broad shoulders and took them all the way.
“This one hits different for sure, just knowing what the last three years have meant, what it’s been like from injuries to changing of the guard in the rosters,” said Curry, who collapsed in tears at the final horn. “… I can say it now, I don’t know how many teams could carry that as long as we have with the expectations of comparing us now to teams of past and make it to the mountaintop again.
“So a lot of people in that locker room that are enjoying this to the fullest, and they should, because of who we are as a team. It’s pretty amazing.”
But Curry wasn’t the only Warrior who used the Finals to change a personal narrative. Wiggins completed his transformation from someone viewed as an empty calories scorer on weak teams in Minnesota to an elite two-way wing who put together some of the best basketball of his career at the most important moment.
Wiggins has always showed the ability to rise to the occasion in his career, it’s just that there never seemed to be enough occasions. Some of that was on him as a former first overall pick in 2013 who often didn’t play with the kind of intensity that might have been expected and some of it was playing in a Minnesota organization that could never seem to get things right.
With the Warriors his job description was trimmed — defence first, score opportunistically — and as the playoff run went on he seemed to keep finding new ways to bring his never-ending well of talent to the forefront. He provided hustle plays on the offensive and defensive glass, timely scoring all series long and proved a thorn in Jayson Tatum’s side, holding the Celtics star to just 36.7 per cent shooting and helping hound him into 23 turnovers for the series and five in Game 6.
Wiggins averaged 18.3 points and 8.8 rebounds for the series after putting up 18 points, six rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks in Game 6.
“Man, there are just a lot of great people here. Great people here that challenge you. They hold you accountable,” Wiggins said earlier in the series about why the Warriors have been such a great fit for him.
“The support system, everyone on this team, this organization, they support you and they want to see you do good, and they put you in a position to do good … And I feel like I’m pretty easygoing, so I just came in here and hoop. I’m playing basketball, and I’m playing hard, and I feel like people respect that. And I’m just trying to win. At the end of the day, no matter what it takes or whatever they need from me, I’m here to help them win. “
For friends, former teammates and coaches, seeing Wiggins get his due has been a joy.
“I am not surprised,” said Gus Gymnopoulos, who coached Wiggins at Vaughan Secondary. “He’s always been a winner and an amazing person.
Said Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who played alongside Wiggins at Huntington Prep: “I don’t think Andrew’s ever wanted to be a superstar. I don’t think he ever wanted to be the No. 1 guy who touched the ball all the time. He’s happy doing what he’s doing. You’re seeing him in an organization where he’s valued, where they love him and where they’ve put him in position to be successful and it’s evident how good he really is.”
How good the Warriors really are and can be again is another question. Only a handful of teams have won as many as four titles in eight years, and there’s no reason to think they can’t keep going.
Curry, at 34, remains at the peak of his powers. Thompson was still finding his legs after missing two seasons due to injury, and should be better next season. Wiggins is just entering his prime at age 27 and the Warriors have proven adept at developing young talent to help extend the window their veterans have propped open for nearly a decade now.
But if they can’t pull it off, if the stars don’t align one more time, this title and this performance by Curry, Wiggins and the rest of the Warriors will cement their legacy.
Not that Curry needed it, but it’s always good to be able to remind people who the man was, and when, and the 2022 NBA Finals is all anyone will ever need to see.
It was worth wondering if the Celtics would take advantage of playing at home. Remarkably, Boston came into Game 6 just 6-5 in front of the raucous crowd at TD Garden in the playoffs, including splitting the first two games of this series.
Predictably, the Celtics came out flying. Jaylen Brown had an early pull-up jumper and both he and Tatum got clean looks from three after the Celtics started the possessions by posting up point guard Marcus Smart and taking advantage when the Warriors sent a second defender.
A 12-0 run had the Celtics up 14-2. But the Warriors defence stiffened. Brown and Tatum each got in trouble by over-dribbling, Wiggins helped the Warriors get on track with a triple from deep, and slowly Golden State began chipping away the early momentum.
It flipped entirely late in the first quarter when Green — the Warriors lightning rod whose offence has become an afterthought — hit his first three of the series on a set-up from Curry.
Curry then shook loose in transition for a three of his own, his first after missing all nine of his attempts in Game 5 and his first in Game 6. After a block by Wiggins on Tatum, Jordan Poole hit another in a series of remarkable threes in the series, this time a banked triple and the Warriors led 27-22.
But the Warriors were just getting started. They opened the second quarter on a big run that featured all the Celtics’ biggest problems from their lost quarters in this series — rushed shots from two; and tunnel vision on penetration leading to Boston turnovers. It allowed Golden State either additional possessions or easy looks in transition and it all added up to a Finals record 21-0 scoring run and a 37-22 Warriors lead.
The Celtics made a push of their own but the Warriors were ready. It was as if they could smell the finish line, and after escaping with a win that were lucky to get in Game 4 and then racing away from Boston in the fourth quarter of Game 5 they could sense that their chance was at hand.
Curry sliced the defence off the bounce for a lay-up to push the Warriors’ lead back to 15 before Green found a cutting Thompson for a lay-up. Thompson then curled off a screen for a three and the Warriors’ lead was as large as 21.
The Celtics looked flummoxed. Tatum is one of the NBA’s most gifted players, but he found himself throwing up off-balance, backwards lay-up attempts in transition. The Celtics are 2-14 in the playoffs and 0-2 in this series when they make 16 turnovers or more and they made 13 in the first half alone — against just 12 assists — with the giveaways accounting for 11 Warriors points. Golden State was also dominating the offensive glass, 9-2, as the Warriors had 49 shots to just 36 for Boston.
The Warriors looked like they were going to run away from the Celtics in the third – Curry’s ring-seeking logo triple was his third and the Warriors’ sixth in the first six minutes of the quarter. But the Celtics didn’t relent. Threes by Smart and Brown and a three-point play by Al Horford as part of a 16-4 run helped cut the Warriors’ lead to 10 to start the fourth quarter.