Much like they did in Game 3, the Portland Trail Blazers were having their way against the defending champion Golden State Warriors on Monday night.
The only difference here is that Golden State had an ace in the hole in the form of two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry, who was active and coming off the bench after missing the past two weeks with a sprained MCL.
Not a single person, Curry included, knew how he’d respond once he took the court about midway through the first quarter.
It wasn’t about his knee. After all, the Warriors wouldn’t have activated Curry if there was concern over the injury.
Instead, it was all about a player that had suited up for the equivalent of one game over the past three weeks being tasked with getting his playing feet back in the midst of a heated playoff series. A series that was going to change on a dime one way or another Monday night.
Curry entered the fray with his team down 16-2 halfway through the first quarter. He proceeded to miss his first nine three-point attempts, an obvious sign that the rust was still there.
Despite this, Curry’s simple presence on the court made a huge difference for the next two-plus quarters as he helped keep Golden State afloat in its attempt to avoid a 2-2 series tie and its first losing streak of the season.
Curry looked spry. His knee wasn’t bothering him. His ankle was an afterthought. And once Curry got his sea legs under him, the rest of the National Basketball Association was put on notice.
It all started when a usually mild-mannered Shaun Livingston lost his cool in the second quarter after the officials missed a blatant foul call (one of many horrible calls throughout the game). Livingston had some choice words for official Scott Foster, who tossed him in the matter of seconds.
This hampered the Warriors’ philosophy of putting a limit on Curry’s minutes. A limit that included him playing just 25 minutes in the game.
With the Warriors’ backup point guard out of action, Curry was going to be forced to go extended minutes (37 to be exact) in a game against a red-hot Blazers squad having not suited up in two weeks. All this while the Warriors were looking to take a stranglehold on the series.
Curry’s response was absolutely ridiculous. Ridiculous on a there are no words to explain what we just saw level. Curry ended up scoring 27 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a NBA record 17 points in the extra stanza.
It was a defining performance from a player that’s now giving us new expletives to use when describing him.
For Curry, and in the overtime period in particular, it was his way to tell the rest of the Association that he was back.
Let’s get a look at the facial expression of one Paul Allen, the owner of the Blazers and the Microsoft mogul:
— OffDutyRef (@Feelforthegame) May 10, 2016
That’s the response pretty much everyone watching the game had. Curry’s “I’m back” moment told us a story of a superstar that wasn’t prepared to let this postseason go by without him making a mark. Without him making a mark that reminded his head coach of a player from a bygone era.
A player that everyone of elite status has been compared to since he hung up his sneakers.
"The similarity [with Michael Jordan] is the awe-inspiring plays, the jaw-dropping plays." Steve Kerr on Stephen Curry
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 10, 2016
Curry himself was unusually chirpy in the game, continually turning his attention to the Blazers bench and the home team’s fans after hitting big shot after big shot in the overtime period.
As mentioned above, Curry’s 17 overtime points represent a new NBA record. All said, he scored all but four of the Warriors’ points in that final period.
All this came with the Warriors facing the real possibility of having to engage in a dogfight to just earn a trip to the Western Conference Finals following a record-breaking 73-9 regular season.
Down by 10 points at the half and without one of their top reserves, the Warriors needed someone to step up and play hero ball. That’s exactly what Curry did after starting the game extremely slow from a shooting perspective.
In the end, Curry didn’t only squash the Blazers’ hopes of potentially pulling off one of the greatest upsets in playoff history, he put the rest of the NBA on notice.
This performance came just one day after LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers completed their second consecutive sweep to start the playoffs. It came with James and Co. having redefined three-point success in postseason play during their four-game sweep of the Atlanta Hawks.
It was almost as if Curry was telling James and the Cavaliers — a team Golden State may very well face in the NBA Finals — that he was back. That this was his league. That the time of James defining basketball in the Association was over.
More than his stirring on-court performance, Curry’s demeanor while awing millions of spectators tells us a story of a player that’s arrived. Not on the court. Not in the truest sense of the word. Instead, that’s he’s taken over that mantle. He’s the one we look to when attempting to explain away today’s NBA to others.
The “I’m back” moment. That point where most in Northern California knew Curry was about to go off. That look on his face. It’s something those of us who have watched the Warriors on a religious basis have come to know. It’s something the rest of the Association found out first-hand on Monday night.
Curry will now accept his second consecutive MVP award on Tuesday, the day after he put up 40 points in a stunning performance. A day before his Warriors look to finish the Blazers off in five games in Oakland.
And likely, a week before the defending champs take on either the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder for a chance to return to the Finals.
It’s in this that Curry acted as the teller of story time to a tired audience during what was a drawn-out late-night game in the Pacific Northwest. It’s in this that he didn’t just wake up a basketball audience, he stirred the echoes of the greats of the past.
It was Curry’s true defining moment.
A defining moment that will be remembered for years. A defining moment that will surely be surpassed by a player we can legitimately conclude to be the best on planet Earth. Curry’s performance Monday night ended this debate.
It created greatness in the face of adversity. It was his flu game. And the rest of the NBA should be concerned.