OAKLAND, Calif. — With the Warriors short three of their best players for Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Stephen Curry ran himself ragged, carried all the offense he could, and managed only to produce a bit of trivia. This was the night that Curry scored more than he ever had in a playoff game: 47 points on 31 shots, eclipsing a previous career best that had stood since 2013. It was also night that the Raptors, with the benefit of a full roster, overwhelmed even his best efforts for a 123-109 win of Game 3.
It’s an odd thing, to see how the deck is stacked in advanced, and still know that the cards must be dealt. The only way Golden State had any chance of winning Game 3 is if Curry hand delivered enough scoring to make it so. He nearly did; if a shot wasn’t attempted or set up in some way by Curry, it wasn’t likely made. Even when he did set the table, the Warriors’ shooters and bigs struggled to convert against the pressure of the defense and under the weight of the circumstances. It’s challenge enough to beat the Raptors, and a long shot at best for the Warriors when Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Kevon Looney are excluded. For Curry’s teammates to shoot just 37% from the floor leaves no doubt.
“We need him to continue to be aggressive like he's been,” Draymond Green said. “And all of us got to continue to fill in and be better.”
This game was a time capsule: a one-off (the Warriors hope) in which Curry attempted 31 shots, his most in a playoff game since a bonanza against the Blazers in 2016. The floor was shrunk and its spacing compromised. Driving lanes were littered with defenders smart enough to keep in Curry’s way and long enough to affect his shot. It was a glimpse into another world. Curry’s rise dovetailed so nicely with Thompson’s and Green’s, and coincided with the signings of Durant and Andre Iguodala. There was always a need for him to score, but never this acutely. After all, Wednesday was the first playoff game that Thompson had ever missed. The only evidence we had of Curry in the playoff crucible came with one of the best shooters in history at his side. One defender was always hugging up toward the sideline, out of the play and at the cost of the defense’s rotation.
With it removed, Curry thrived anyway. Even when there was no other Warrior on the floor worth guarding, he found ways to confound an entire defense—whether with range or the threat of it. “When you lose an All-NBA type basketball player in Klay and an All-Star, it definitely changes their team,” Kyle Lowry said. “But Steph had an unbelievable game.” It was not a given that Curry would deliver in this way, the same as it was never a given that LeBron James would produce as he did for the injury-deprived Cavs, or even as Kawhi Leonard has in these playoffs when the Raptors were at their most uneven. A performance like this can’t be taken for granted—even if the final score bargains otherwise.
“I mean, we fought,” Curry said. “But we lost.”
That result seemed likely the moment that Thompson was ruled out. Still, Curry played 43 hard-fought minutes to test the outcome’s resolve. On this stage, there is nothing to do but to try. Every game is crucial. You have to fight for every shot. You have to scramble through every rotation. You have to try to accomplish something that even basic math and logic would make to seem impossible, because what if it’s all wrong? The only way to know any loss for certain is to suffer it, and Curry did so impressively. On the way down, he created every shot he could and made the Raptors answer every run. When his teammates couldn’t play well, they controlled what they could.
“We went out there and played hard and we lost,” Green said. “We didn't go into this game thinking we're not going to play Klay or Kevin or Loon or anybody else, and we're just going to give this game away, should they play well. They knocked down I think 17 threes. You got to give them credit.” It was the Raptors who made Curry’s 47 points the most of these playoffs in a losing effort. It was their precision that made a dazzling performance into an act of futility, their diligence that scraped this showing bare, leaving it hollow.
Performances like this one are often lost to time. Some narratives can be advanced in defeat, but this game didn’t tell us anything about Curry and the Warriors that we didn’t already know. Durant and Thompson are obviously, inarguably important. Curry is a great scorer who scores in ways we’ve never seen, and through means that defenses cannot stop. There was nothing revelatory about the way that Steph scored, only that his complete scoring game manifested as clearly as could be expected. This was a superstar playing his game, imposing his will, and—for reasons largely beyond his control—losing in the process. It was all Toronto could do to make Curry work, and to score so much collectively in response as to dictate how a night like this would be remembered.
“Listen, we were trying to play [Curry] as straight-up as we could,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “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?” It doesn’t. Curry scored anyway, and the Raptors got what they came for.