SAN FRANCISCO — Damion Lee didn’t choose words for his description of Stephen Curry’s fourth quarter. Instead, he mimed it.
First, Lee pulled an invisible strap over his right shoulder, then with his right hand yanked down on another strap to tighten the fit. Then another invisible strap went over his left shoulder, followed by a downward tug with his left hand. He pulled one final pair of imaginary straps across his chest and fastened them in the middle.
“That’s what 30 does,” Lee said, finally using words as he leaned forward slightly, hopping a bit to highlight the weight of the metaphorical load being carried. “He put us on his back.”
The Warriors needed their superstar on Monday, their closer. Not the consumer team player setting screens and standing in the corner, his part to make the offense work. Not the deferential point guard inviting the attention and double teams to liberate his teammates. They needed Curry’s greatness, not his gravity.
Lee’s apt analogy aside, it wasn’t a backpack Curry put on before checking in with 8:37 left and the Warriors down 79-72. It wasn’t a cape he slipped into before saving the Warriors with 18 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter, lifting Golden State to a 101-98 win and a 3-1 lead in these Western Conference semifinals.
It was a pair of shoes.
While sitting on the bench to start the fourth quarter, as part of his normal rotation, Curry watched as Memphis went up by 12, its largest lead of the game. He calmly changed his shoes while a nervous energy filled Chase Center and the Ja Morant-less Grizzlies started to taste the victory that could drastically change the series.
He switched to his purple Curry 4s, the same ones he wore in Game 3. Actually, they were lavender — fitting considering the stench from the Warriors’ offense needing to be covered.
“Shock the system a little bit,” he said of his sneaker swap.
Some 40 seconds after checking into the game, Curry was converting a three-point play in the lane. And though he missed his free throw, the next time down he made his third from deep, pulling the Warriors to within three. The air of Chase Center freshened instantly.
The next offensive possession, he went for the typing 3-pointer. Curry didn’t make it, but it was clear his vibe had changed. He was feeling good. The bounce in his step, the conviction of his stepback and launch, though he missed — he understood the assignment.
“That’s just Steph,” Klay Thompson said. “He has that mindset where he is the best shooter of all time and it just takes one good look at the rim or free throw and, when that happens, the floodgates open.”
In Game 2, Morant had the Memphis fans roaring with his near-perfect fourth quarter. He scored 18 to save the Grizzlies from losing both home games. Monday was Curry’s turn to deliver the Warriors from a demoralizing defeat. They were in danger of their ugliest loss in a season that featured quite a few. They were on the verge of losing the home-court advantage they claimed in Game 1 and succumbing to the drama and emotion that seemed to suck the life out of them.
The Warriors’ needed a jolt. The absence of Morant seemed to rob the Warriors of urgency. The controversy about Jordan Poole’s role in Morant’s injured right knee seemed to bore them. The sudden death of former NBA and Michigan State player Adreian Payne broke the heart of his friend Draymond Green and brought a cloud of sadness to the Warriors locker room. Then coach Steve Kerr was pulled out of action after testing positive for COVID-19, moving assistant coach Mike Brown to the big chair a day after he was hired to coach the Sacramento Kings next season.
Then, in addition to the aforementioned contexts (or maybe because of them), the Warriors scuffled so mightily for most of Game 4, even missing their first 15 attempts from behind the arc.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well,” Andrew Wiggins said. “But our defense was okay. Our defense was solid. As long as we kept the game close coming down the stretch — and Steph made big plays, big plays.”
The Warriors have gotten off to problematic starts in every game of the series so far. Their offense needs a new alternator.
The first six minutes of each game are like the Warriors deciding to add to the degree of difficulty. In Game 1, they scored 12 points with two turnovers in the first six minutes. In Game 2, 10 points and four turnovers. In Game 3, eight points and four turnovers. The same for Game 4.
The problem Monday, though, was how it snowballed. The slow start grew into the lowest-scoring half for the Warriors in a playoff game since Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals. But this wasn’t at the end of a long, grueling, historic season and against LeBron James and Kyrie Irving playing the greatest ball of their lives. This was against a Grizzlies squad that just gave up 142 points two nights ago.
“Early on, I thought we were playing a little frantically,” Brown said. “I felt that we have done that before in these playoffs. We have been pretty frantic to start the ballgames and then we settle down.”
Losing this game would’ve haunted the Warriors. It not only would’ve given home-court advantage back to the Grizzlies, but also would’ve given the demoralized No. 2 seed some life after losing Morant and getting smacked around in Game 3. The Warriors could for sure have won in Memphis in Game 5 and come home and closed it out in San Francisco in Game 6, especially if Morant doesn’t return. But a 2-2 series would have left the door cracked for a momentum shift. Insults. Positive COVID-19 tests. A hot shooting night from Dillon Brooks. Anything could happen.
The Warriors needed to handle business at home. Because Curry did what he does, the Warriors can put Memphis away on Wednesday.
“It was just not letting the first three quarters influence the fact that we still had a chance to win the game,” Curry said. “So just understanding we’ve been here before. Whether we won or lost, the intentions of how we could give ourselves a chance in the fourth quarter was all we focused on.”
Memphis had Brooks, who was ejected early in Game 2 and suspended for Game 3, glued to Curry for most of the game. The Grizzlies’ big adjustment was dusting off center Steven Adams and going big with their lineup. Having Adams on the floor kept Jaren Jackson Jr. from having to play center, instead he was able to play to his strength — a free safety type of role where he can help all over the court and flex as one of the best help shot- blockers in the NBA. The tandem of Adams and Jackson was quite the barricade in the paint.
In Game 3, the Warriors dominated the paint, which was wide-open as the Grizzlies pressed up to take away 3-pointers. In Game 4, with two Memphis big men on the floor, the Warriors settled for 3s. When they did attack, they often fell victim to a collapsing paint and a thicket of swiping arms. None of it was working until Curry switched to the pastel purple kicks.
Curry played the first three quarters in a pair of his signature shoes honoring late TNT broadcaster Craig Sager. This has been a year in the works as Curry, a big fan of Sager, wanted to support the SagerStrong Foundation. His widow, Stacy, broke down in tears when she learned of Curry’s plan to wear a specially designed pair of shoes that would be auctioned off after he gave them. Curry used a print Sager wore from the last time he worked a Warriors’ game as part of the design.
But the charitable cause seemed to benefit Memphis as much as the SagerStrong Foundation. Curry was off his game in shoes he surmised were not broken in well enough. He missed his first five 3s and was 2-for-10 through three quarters when he made the switch. The psychological trigger worked as it helped him shift to a different mindset.
In the first round, Curry put Denver to bed down the stretch. In this pivotal second-round game, he needed to wake up the Warriors. His 18 fourth-quarter points powered a surge that came in the nick of time. After totaling 38 points in the first half, Golden State had put up 39 points in the fourth quarter to flip a game short-handed Memphis controlled.
“The great part about Steph,” Brown said, “he’s got to be the easiest superstar to be around. I hate to say, I don’t know if he has a great memory — which is fantastic. You need that in his position, because he missed shots that he can make in his sleep. And so because he doesn’t think about it or think about the past or dwell on it too hard, he always thinks that the next thing is going to happen in a positive manner for him.”
The Warriors’ deficit was just two points after Curry found Thompson, who’d just checked in, for a baseline jumper. The Grizzlies’ lead was down to one point after another 3 from Curry, who rejected a screen and rattled one home with 5:01 left. Curry is now 6-for-15 from deep (40 percent) in the fourth quarter in this series and 8-for-30 from deep (27 percent) in the first three quarters.
Golden State finally tied the game at 90 after Curry’s baseline fade-away over two defenders with 3:25 left. The Warriors claimed their first lead, 94-93, with 45.7 seconds remaining when Curry swished a pair of free throws. He made eight straight in the final minute.
After missing 10 free throws in the first round, Curry is 27 for 29 from the free-throw line against the Grizzlies. He missed his first one Monday but closed with eight straight, all of them high-pressure free throws in the clutch.
The last two came after Green blocked a Jackson 3-point attempt, the clinching defensive stop to finish off the Grizzlies. Curry corralled the rebound and was intentionally crowded. He immediately ran to the baseline underneath the basket and laughed up the fans. He skipped along the baseline, bouncing with excitement as the Chase Center crowd responded with never-before reached decibels.
The Warriors’ closer had delivered and it was pandemonium. With a hint of lavender.
Slate: Five factors: How did the Warriors pull out a Game 4 win over the Grizzlies late?
(Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)