SAN FRANCISCO — The NBA Finals are all about two-way players.
Every possession is vital in this round. The competition is ruthless. Any weakness will be found and turned into a liability.
Can’t shoot? The ball is going to find you and that shot clock is going to be approaching zero.
Can’t defend? You can bet you’ll be targeted.
And it won’t stop until you make it stop. Teams will run the same set 50 times in a row if it works. A championship is on the line, after all — who cares about style points?
One-way players can make hundreds of millions of dollars, have signature shoe deals, and be in every other commercial on TV.
They might even play a few games in the playoffs, too.
But if a one-way player is the star of a team, that squad is not competing for a championship. They’d be lucky to sniff the Finals at all.
So it’s a good thing for the Warriors Steph Curry is a two-way star.
The Warriors won Game 2 of the 2022 NBA Finals the same way they won countless games throughout their six title-round runs: They stomped their opponents in the third quarter.
The Warriors won the third 35-14 Sunday night en route to a 107-88 win, evening the Finals at 1-1.
Even the Warriors’ formula for winning the third in Game 2 was tried-and-true. The Dubs locked down on defense and turned those stops into transition offense opportunities.
Curry scored 14 of his 29 points in the frame, knocking down shots that no one else in the NBA would dare shoot, before he went to the corner to create space for Jordan Poole, who, despite being unplayable for the first six quarters of the series, had six quick points (including a half-court buzzer-beater) and a slick assist in the final 65 seconds of the frame.
But you already know that Curry and the Warriors can score in bunches.
Thirty-foot, off-the-dribble 3-pointers? Ho-hum, right?
What changed the game in the Warriors’ favor Sunday wasn’t just Curry’s offense, though.
It was his defense.
Yes, Curry was a bulwark in Game 2 and two great defensive possessions from the Warriors’ point guard proved to be as important as any of his 3-pointers Sunday.
Let’s be clear: Curry wasn’t the anchor of the Warriors’ outstanding defensive performance in Game 2. No, the bulk of credit needs to go to Draymond Green, who came out from the opening tip with a score to settle with himself after a terrible Game 1. Kevon Looney’s interior defensive presence deserves buckets of praise as well.
But Curry did more than hold his own on the defensive end.
If not for his lackluster defensive reputation — one he can’t seem to shake — this wouldn’t be anything to mention. He’s been great on defense all season. But it deserves a call-out after his performance Sunday.
With less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter, it did not look like the Warriors were going to be running away with anything but a 0-2 deficit in the Finals. Yes, a back-and-forth affair had turned the Warriors’ way to start the third quarter, but neither team’s offense was terribly effective. And Boston was mounting a comeback, with Jayson Tatum’s 3-pointer with 4:30 to play putting Golden State up only six points.
After the make, Warriors coach Steve Kerr stood up from his chair on the Dubs’ bench after the shot and implored his team with big gestures and a yell to push the ball up the floor.
He could sense the game slipping away. He needed more energy, more effort from his team.
He needed Curry to take over.
Sure enough, with Curry on the ball, two passes led to Otto Porter getting an open 3-pointer in the corner, relieving some pressure.
But Boston wasn’t done yet, and Celtics center Al Horford found himself defended by Curry after an offensive rebound on the subsequent possession.
Horford is 36 years old and has at least six inches and 50 pounds on Curry. He is a future Hall of Famer because he knows what to do in situations exactly like the one that was unfolding on the right block.
Horford put his back into Curry, took two dribbles, and spun to the opposite side of the hoop for a layup.
Only Curry didn’t bounce out of the way. In fact, he had pushed Horford into the path of Porter on the opposite block.
Now Horford was double-teamed. Porter made a swipe for the ball while Curry backed off the big man.
The Celtics center panicked and tried to pass the ball to a teammate under the hoop. But there was Curry—he had read the play to perfection and stole the pass.
The Warriors pushed the ball the other way. Two dots.
On the next possession, Curry found himself in the action again. Celtics backup point guard Payton Pritchard had the ball and Curry as his only defender in the corner with the reset shot clock winding down from 14 seconds.
Pritchard tried to dribble around Curry for eight seconds—no dice. Defeated, he weakly threw the ball across the court to Derrick White, who didn’t expect the pass and traveled upon receiving it.
Curry pushed the ball up the floor off the stoppage. Two screens later, he knocked down a 3-pointer.
And then he deflected a pass on the defensive end, allowing the Warriors to reset their defense, resulting in an ugly Celtics 3-pointer and a miss.
Curry countered with a 3-pointer from 30 feet away.
The Warriors slipping 6-point lead had turned into an 11-0 run. In less than 80 seconds of game time, Curry had completely flipped the game with his offense and, more importantly, his defense.
This kind of defensive play wasn’t a fluke or a one-off, either. Curry has done things like that all season—for multiple seasons now, in fact. Say what you will about defensive analytics, but Curry was second in the NBA in the regular season in defensive win shares, sandwiched between No. 1, Tatum, and No. 3, Boston’s Jaylen Brown.
“Teams used to try to call him into every action, and just try to pick on him. That doesn’t work anymore,” Green said. “He’s able to hold his ground, so you’re not able to bump him off his spot, and that’s been huge for us. I’m not shocked he’s playing that type of defense.”
And this postseason, Curry has needed to be even better on the defensive side of the floor, as he’s been asked to pick up serious slack with the Warriors’ rotations tightened and the rest of Golden State’s backcourt struggling on defense with the long absence of Gary Payton II.
Let’s be honest: Poole is a turnstile and Klay Thompson’s play has been up-and-down on that end of the court, too.
So Curry has been tasked with being a two-way player—no possessions off.
He has more than held up under that stress.
“He just doesn’t get enough credit for his level of conditioning, physicality, and defense,” Kerr said.
Mentioning conditioning first was no mistake from Kerr.
Every great player has a superpower. Curry is incredible at shooting from incredible distances, but the real separating factor is that he does not tire.
And, sneakily, he is crazy strong.
“It’s pretty dramatic, the difference,” Kerr said of the Curry he met in 2014 and the Curry on the court today, eight years later. “The guy’s amazing. He just keeps working on his game, his strength, his conditioning year after year.”
“It’s not like one thing you do in the summer,” Curry said of his conditioning. “It’s an accumulation.
“I do pride myself on trying to be the hardest worker, the most consistent worker. Maybe the last two or three years, you work a lot smarter than harder… But it’s that old saying, like what you do in the summer shows up at moments like these.”
There are other stars in the league who do not consider defense part of the profession. It’s a nuisance for some, a time to rest for others.
Defense — and consistently improving at it — Curry said, is also known as “my job.”
That mentality tells you everything you need to know about Curry and why the Warriors find themselves competing for a fourth title since Kerr took over as head coach.
Curry’s accomplished everything anyone could ever dream of in the NBA. He’s the greatest shooter of all time. He turned the Warriors into one of the premier franchises in professional sports. He has three titles, two MVPs, and will have a bust in the Hall of Fame and at least one statue outside of Chase Center — the building his great play built.
There’s only one honor that’s not in his trophy room.
It’s been 15 years since a non-wing won NBA Finals MVP.
Because they are built to impact the game on both sides of the floor. They are two-way players. And the best two-way player usually wins the series and wins Finals MVP.
And while there’s no doubt that the reputation of Curry’s lackluster defense early in his career — a time when he was too light, too weak to check two guards, much less the big men he’s switching onto these days — is stuck on him, it’s simply not a true representation anymore.
He is a two-way player these days thanks to hard work and perhaps some naturally occurring dad strength.
And that’s the kind of player that can lead his team to a title and pick up two pieces of hardware for the trouble.