BOSTON — “We here.”
More than the usual excellence was required from the Golden State Warriors, more than just winning a road game for the 27th straight series.
The Boston Celtics have been growing in confidence over the last several days, understanding how close they are to breaking through and asserting a competitive arrogance that borders on champion-like.
The night demanded not just precision and concentration, but an extra something only a special few can summon, particularly in environments where hostility is just as intense from the stands as the determined opponent.
It wasn’t the defining play of the game, one that seesawed for the next hour and a half, but Stephen Curry felt it was necessary to make an early statement to the Boston fans — a message that reverberated some 25 feet to his right, to the Celtics bench.
He sprinted back, picked a face in the crowd and let an adrenaline-fueled release from his lungs after releasing something picture-perfect from his fingertips.
“That fire was me just trying to show that we are here tonight,” Curry said.
It was arguably Curry’s best NBA Finals game, even though the numbers say he’s slipped slightly from his highest highs.
But it was his most desperate and determined performance — 43 points, 10 rebounds, four assists in a series-turning 107-97 Game 4 win at TD Garden.
The Boston Celtics exerted so much force in Game 3’s decisive win, it was expected they would treat the opportunity as a gift and apply more pressure on a hobbled Curry and doubting Draymond Green.
The response was expected to come from Green — he the master of force and emotion — but instead, it was the smallest member of the Warriors’ first five who preened and flexed, standing up to the Celtics.
In previous years, Curry’s emotions could’ve been perceived as delightful arrogance, but in these NBA Finals, Curry’s actions were of defiance. His second-to-last field goal, a floating runner from the free-throw line, produced audible gasps all around Causeway Street.
Falling behind 3-1 wouldn’t have been a death sentence, but everyone could see what was coming if the Warriors didn’t throw some cold water on a Celtics team drunk on confidence — a spot Curry and the Warriors have been in and taken the business end of a bad Finals loss.
But they were much younger men then and can’t afford the variance. Curry can’t afford to waste a step of motion this series, playing with the concentration and awareness this all falls on those once-slender, now-sleek shoulders.
This isn’t a great series for Green matchup-wise, and he’s struggling more than expected. Klay Thompson, a subtly defiant one, is playing after two devastating lower-leg injuries.
By comparison, Curry is the healthiest player of the experienced ones, best equipped for desperation and explosion.
The howls in the halls of TD Garden, accompanied by the traveling party chanting “Warriors” in the immediate aftermath of an improbable win was in perfect contrast to what Curry termed “shenanigans” — unsavory phrases aimed at Curry, Green, Thompson and anyone else wearing Warriors black on the night of a “white out.”
“We rely on Draymond bringing that energy and fire throughout the course of the season, and year after year,” Curry said. “Whether that’s their crowd, their team, our team, whoever wants to see that energy and that fire, we feed off of that.
“You can want it so bad, you kind of get in your own way a little bit and everybody feels a little bit of pressure, and it can go the opposite way. I wanted to try to leverage that in a positive direction for us to start the game.”
If there was any doubt the Warriors didn’t treat the Celtics as clear and present danger, Steve Kerr tossed in a wrinkle, starting Otto Porter Jr. instead of Kevon Looney — if nothing else, to change the juju and free Curry for slivers of light.
Kerr had the gumption, or downright desperation, to bench Green through critical stretches of the fourth quarter, not giving one damn about Green’s displeasure.
Ned Flanders, he is not.
“I don’t ever want our players to be happy if I take them out. Draymond is incredibly competitive,” Kerr said. “I didn’t see any reaction.”
Green stayed mentally engaged, and so did Looney, who turned the game around in the first quarter when he entered, finishing with a big bucket late and 11 rebounds in 28 grinding minutes.
If the Celtics felt like they could punk the Warriors, one could see why. Bigger, taller, more physical and athletic, quicker to loose balls and probably hungrier in the aggregate.
“Just stunning. The physicality out there is, you know, pretty dramatic,” Kerr said. “I mean, Boston’s got obviously, [the] best defense in the league. Huge and powerful at every position, and for Steph to take that — that kind of pressure all game long and still be able to defend at the other end when they are coming at him shows you, I think this is the strongest physically he’s ever been in his career, and it’s allowing him to do what he’s doing.”
In theory, that would affect Curry more than the rest, especially coming off his foot injury from Game 3. Maintaining he would play, predicting he’d pull off a defining game would be wishing on a star.
But stars defy logic, even though history has shown the supernovas produce their best offerings in June at earlier stages. Magic Johnson’s defining Finals game came as a rookie, his sixth on the big stage — same as Isiah Thomas, on an ankle held together by duct tape and the Almighty.
Shaquille O’Neal’s best was his first trip in L.A., and Kobe Bryant’s “hello world” occurred in that same series against Indiana in 2000. Larry Bird’s best game in the Finals came when he was 27, during his second visit. Michael Jordan? Well, pick one. Same with LeBron James.
Curry’s 32nd Finals game came under his most difficult circumstances, at some point realizing he would only have a morsel of help but had to keep his mates engaged for preparation when “we here” turned into “we taking this.”
He stared down Marcus Smart and whichever long and rangy defender Ime Udoka threw at him, fought off moments where the Celtics tried hunting him on defense and threw caution to the wind in going to the glass — putting that foot in tender territory.
He threw his body into the shot-blocking clutches of Robert Williams III, and lived to tell about it — flexing on the way back.
And when that moment came, when the Celtics went right into old habits, the Warriors stepped into their old roles and assumed the position. Thompson gamely competed even after missing wide-open looks, then hit that go-ahead triple with 4:24 left for a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“I think I have seen him show that much emotion, and the heart on that man is incredible,” Thompson said. “You know, the things he does we kind of take for granted from time to time, but to go out there and put us on his back, I mean, we got to help him out on Monday.”
There wasn’t a spectacular teammate around him, just those doing work in the margins to keep the Celtics from feeling too comfortable, like Andrew Wiggins with tireless legs on Jayson Tatum and endless hops for 16 rebounds.
It came down to Curry, who yelled out again in jubilation after his final triple of the night put the Warriors up six.
They didn’t steal the game — Curry snatched it from them, and dared the Celtics to take it back from him, backpedaling with his tongue out.
Boston knows it has multiple paths to win this series, but failed to choose it. Golden State has one, and it feels like the surest of all.
That path is a threat to do it again, announcing his presence with a resounding “we here.”