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Atlas Unleashed: Stephen Curry’s Game 4 masterpiece proves he’s a titan of the game

Unlike the Titan Atlas of Greek mythology, Stephen Curry was not doomed to bear the weight of heaven. But as the face of the franchise and undisputed best player, the burden of the Golden State Warriors world had to rest on his 34-year-old shoulders.

The name “Atlas” itself fits what Curry accomplished in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Curry found the inner strength and fortitude to lead the Warriors to a road victory in an extremely hostile environment. He gave orders to his team when all seemed lost. His adventurous shots, frowned upon by a generation stuck in the past, blazed a new trail for the NBA; Now they’re offering the Warriors a way forward, a new life after it seemed like the Boston Celtics were on the verge of wiping it out.

Draymond Green had the worst playoff series of his career. Klay Thompson’s inefficiency stuck out like a sore thumb. Andrew Wiggins – with a 17-point double-double and 16 rebounds – stepped into the roles that Green and Thompson were to fill.

But whether Wiggins, being the Warriors’ most consistent non-Curry Warrior, will be enough for the Warriors to win a championship remains a question. They’ll need more from Green and Thompson – they made some key moves in Game 4, but consistency across the board has to be the name of the game.

Curry was undoubtedly the best player of these finals. His titanic 43-point performance to save the Warriors from a possible 3-1 hole — using 26 shots (7 of 12 on twos, 7 of 14 on 3s) and 71.8% true shooting — was the last in one Series of performances, each worthy of their own place in history. But this one rightly claims its place at a higher level within the pantheon.

A scaled-down view of this series offers a greater perspective — and appreciation — of what Curry has done. In 4 games in the finals, he averaged 34.3 points on an otherworldly shooting split: 50/49/86. His 66.4% true shooting stems from his unanimous MVP campaign, in which he posted a 66.9% true shooting mark.

Curry destroys every conventional notion of what a good defense is. His presence pushes defenses to the limit – and that includes the league’s best defense at the Celtics, whose philosophy has been conservative in screen-and-roll coverage.

They’ve remained conservative even when it comes to what is undeniably the greatest marksman of all time, able to take a shot in a multitude of ways. The Celtics masterfully ended the Warriors’ complicated offense, rendering them largely null and void through a combination of extensive substitutions, persistent on-screen navigation and dominant rim protection.

The cracks in the Celtics’ proverbial armor are smaller than most, but Curry is excellent at poking those holes and threading the needle.

It’s asking a lot of a defense that has proven itself time and time again this season, but the Celtics will need to be spotless and flawless to contain Curry. Even the smallest mistake burned them.

The Warriors didn’t get much out of their patented low post split action, but Curry manages to make three from one. Most teams with a pulse on this action would bring the screener’s defender higher to crowd Curry’s place, but the Celtics rely on their on-ball defenders’ on-screen navigation to catch up with Curry and do the crowding themselves.

But the Celtics’ reliance on the above Derrick White is misplaced (at least in this case – White is otherwise an elite screen navigator). Robert Williams III comfortably falls back to watch his teammate fall back very slightly and be relegated to mere spectator for another curry three.

Even the classic Curry move fell victim to the Celtics, who were otherwise excellent at capturing Curry’s off-ball shenanigans.

Note that the above possession was prompted by a forced switch to Al Horford. Curry easily blows past Horford and gets two feet in the paint, forcing Grant Williams to help. Curry kicks to Gary Payton II in the corner, and Williams – thinking the threat has been contained – finds himself a step behind Curry’s move to the corner.

The Celtics’ reluctance to commit to two bodies blitzing Curry and forcing him to cough up the ball has been a prevailing story. They prefer not to release Curry’s ball protection partner – often Green – into a position of numerical strength against the back line. If they can avoid it, they’ll stay home on their duties, control the Curry action on the ball and live with the results.

Even though the Celtics learned their lesson by being burned by multiple Curry pull-ups against various levels of deep drop, Curry’s unfathomable reach boosted their screen-level hits by one.

The concept of a screen-level encounter itself – more aggressive than your traditional drop, but still relatively conservative than a full double or trap – is skewed by Curry’s cross-generational talents. If the defender with the ball falls behind the screen by even half a second, Curry’s flash release allows him to get the ball out of his hands quickly, with a big one rendered ineffective even at a higher play than usual.

(The common denominator of the above possessions: Horford. The Warriors have made Horford their pressure point to get the goal. If the Celtics don’t put two on the ball, they will get Horford to step forward, make a choice and defend place.)

Curry’s shooting brilliance was at its peak in a game where it had to be nothing less than near-perfect. A few shots swerving left or right, missing their target, or going through too much momentum and the outcome of the game would have been different. But Curry applied just the right amount of touch – as he’s used to – to find his target.

And when Curry had the Celtics on his heels – when any conservative coverage the Celtics tried to throw at him was thrown right back at their faces – they blinked.

A rare sight but one the Celtics tried to prevent: Curry drew two bodies around a green screen, then flipped the ball to green in the short roll. This creates a virtual 2v1 that leaves Horford stuck in no man’s land. Green shoves it to Looney, who finishes and creates a 5-point cushion with a minute left.

It remains to be seen if the Celtics will keep blinking by adding more doubles to their curry coverages. The safe answer is they won’t – their faith in their defenders on the ball is such that they live with ridiculous curry shots and hope all else falls into place.

But Curry puts up monstrous numbers in the pick-and-roll. According to InStat, 43% of his possessions in the Finals involved a ball chute — 16% more than his pick-and-roll frequency in the regular season. He scores 1.23 points per possession (PPP) in games like this – and he’s doing it against a superior defensive line-up.

There are still more hurdles to overcome. The Celtics will not turn and acquiesce; They’ll find a way to respond, make up for their shortcomings, and keep pounding on the pressure points they’ve set themselves. Curry may need to repeat that performance – or his supporting cast need to up theirs.

But the fact remains: Curry has forced this team into a seemingly unlikely series halt against a team built to beat them at every turn. That in and of itself is a tremendous achievement that is worth commending.

If there was ever any doubt that he wasn’t a performer on the biggest stage of them all, surely those doubts must be gone now. Built to carry the load, Curry is a titan of the game who deserves to be regarded as one of the best to ever play the game at the highest level.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown – but if the weight of responsibility is the price Curry must pay, he is more than willing to pay the cost if it means adding another championship to his extensive list of accolades can add.

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