OAKLAND, Calif. — With two of their stars sidelined by injuries, the odds were stacked against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday. Tied 1-1 in the series, Game 3 of the 2019 NBA Finals felt like a throwaway.
But thanks to Stephen Curry's 47 points on 14-of-31 shooting, eight rebounds and seven assists, the Warriors were somehow able to keep things close against the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors recaptured home-court advantage Wednesday with a 123-109 win against a depleted Warriors team. Golden State has no more room for error. Even if Klay Thompson and/or Kevin Durant return in Game 4 or beyond, the Warriors need this version of Curry to keep showing up for them to win the title.
This is not how Curry usually plays. It's not how he likes to play, either. When asked after the game whether he felt extra pressure to shoot the ball without his co-stars, he responded affirmatively.
"For sure," he said.
Perhaps the most unselfish superstar in NBA history, Curry has made it a priority over the years to be a part of the system rather than dominating it. That approach has resulted in three championships to date.
But the circumstances have changed now.
Curry's impact on the game doesn't always show up in the box score. His presence alone garners 10 eyes from the defense at all times. The threat of his shooting changes how the Warriors are defended.
But at some point, that gravity has to turn into points.
That happened Wednesday, and it allowed what felt like a fringe playoff roster to keep most of an NBA Finals game within 10 points for most of the night.
"Steph was incredible," head coach Steve Kerr said afterward. "The stuff he does is, he does things that honestly I don't think anybody has ever done before. The way he plays the game, the way he shoots it and the combination of his ball-handling and shooting skills, it's incredible to watch."
Great offense usually beats great defense, but the Raptors had success frustrating the Warriors offense with progressive thinking.
There are two schools of thought on defending superstars: throw all of your resources at the star and let the role players beat you, or allow the star to go off but make sure it's a one-man show. After applying the box-and-one defense in Game 2, the Raptors elected to go with a more straight-up approach Wednesday, guarding Curry individually or collapsing on him.
It worked. Curry played well, but his teammates couldn't offer enough to put them over the top.
"They were throwing bodies at him," Warriors forward Draymond Green said afterward. "I think y'all might have talked Nick Nurse off the box-and-one. He folded under pressure a little bit, I think—I'm just playing. But they definitely threw bodies at him, and we got to do a better job of when they're throwing two and three guys at him of converting.
"That starts with me. If I was better, we probably would have won that game. But he was amazing tonight. Not that he's not amazing pretty often, but tonight was a special performance for him, and he definitely does stuff that I don't think we have ever seen anyone ever do, and we probably won't see anyone ever do it again."
Green is supremely talented, but like the other Warriors who suited up Wednesday, shooting and scoring is not his forte. When Durant and Thompson return, they'll take pressure and defensive attention off of Curry, making it that much harder for the Raptors to contain him.
He needs to capitalize on that.
Curry was as aggressive in Game 3 as he's ever been. He took 31 total shots and drew 14 free throws. He put pressure on the rim to collapse the defense. He chased pull-up threes like it was 2015.
"After two games, you start to get a feel of what's available on that end of the floor, just trying to make the right reads," Curry said afterward. "And for the most part, we, not even myself, just we were aggressive getting to the paint and swinging the ball out."
"Listen, we were trying to play as straight-up as we could," Raptors head coach Nick Nurse explained. "We wanted to get back to doing what we normally do. We didn't do anything really early in the game other than just try to play him. He had a ton in the first half. We tried to up our presence on him a little bit with some double-teams, but it doesn't really matter, right? I mean, all that matters is—my dad used to tell me the stats don't matter, just the final score. So we'll just take the win and be thankful for that."
Although Curry's heroics came in a loss that puts the Warriors down 2-1 in the series, it should unearth a mentality that carries the Warriors the rest of the way, even if/when Thompson and Durant return.
Sometimes to their own detriment, the Warriors make it a priority to run their motion-based, egalitarian offense. It makes them special. Curry got plenty of his shots in that motion offense, and that unlocks the rest of the team's chances.
But in tight, late-game situations, it's high pick-and-roll time.
Wednesday should serve as a reminder of what Curry can do when he's fully unleashed.
Follow Will on Twitter, @wontgottlieb.