BOSTON — It all started with Steph.
The six NBA Finals appearances in eight years for this Golden State Warriors was that no one saw coming. The fourth championship, which they won Thursday, when his play in Game 6 was so sublime that he demanded another ring be put on his finger midway through the third quarter. The elation and affection were there for all to see as the Warriors hoisted the trophy on the TD Garden floor and partied until the Boston sunrise neared.
Long before Wardell Stephen Curry would inspire one of the most unique dynasties in league history, with his audacious shooting and selfless style setting the tone for the joyous journey that was to come alongside Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and all the rest, he was the wispy kid from Davidson who spent his early years at the next level living an underdog existence. His welcome-to-the-NBA moment came in 2009, when his backcourt mate, Monta Ellis, announced to reporters on media day that it would be impossible for them to play alongside one another and win.
“Just can’t,” Ellis famously said.
Curry was once benched for a journeyman named Acie Law — at the end of the veteran’s underwhelming career, no less. He suffered through years of ankle injuries that made him wonder if he’d ever be able to truly shine in the pros. Forget about greatness. The notion of him being a productive, full-time starter was once in serious question.
And by the time job against the Celtics was complete, with Curry winning his first Finals MVP in the form after averaging 31.2 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals, there was the fact that his latest crown came in the same sort of against-all-odds fashion as his storied career began.
“Steph ultimately is why this run has happened,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Curry had 34 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and two steals in the Warriors’ 103-90 win in the closeout game. “I’m happy for everybody, but I’m thrilled for Steph. To me, this is his crowning achievement in what’s already been an incredible career.”
Make no mistake, this season was a far cry from the Kevin Durant years, when the Warriors entered every season as the heavy favorites. Though Golden State won two more games than the Celtics during the regular season, the Warriors lost 16 of 28 games in a brutal stretch run that was marred by injuries to Curry and Green after a sizzling 41-13 start.
Were they “Gold Blooded,” as the team motto would later claim, or fool’s gold? It looked like the latter by the time mid-February rolled around.
Thompson’s early-January return from a two-year absence was the stuff of Hollywood scripts, as he’d battled back from the ACL tear he suffered in the 2019 finals and the Achilles tendon tear he hardened a year later. But it also came with complications, and it was quickly apparent that the “Splash Brothers” storyline of old had been forever changed.
Not only did Thompson need time to find his sea legs again, but the Warriors had pivotal new players to take into consideration. Andrew Wiggins, the former No. 1 pick who came their way in the D’Angelo Russell trade with Minnesota in February 2020, had blossomed on both ends under Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his staff. Jordan Poole, the high-scoring guard who was taken 28th out of Michigan in 2019, was quickly becoming a key piece of Golden State’s new core. As all these roles and responsibilities changed, with the new players integrating with the old, questions about how this iteration of the Warriors would function emerged. A title run seemed wholly unlikely.
The Celtics, who started the season 23-24 only to boast the league’s best record after Jan. 23 (28-7), enjoyed the inverse experience. And by the time the postseason arrived, when Boston boasted not only a No. 1-ranked defense but also a core that had been to the conference finals in four of the past six seasons, the Celtics looked worthy of title-front-runner status.
Even with Curry playing well from the start of these finals, the Celtics still looked fully capable of finishing this job after their 116-100 win in Game 3 that gave them a 2-1 series lead. Like the Warriors, these Celtics were a defensive-minded, mostly homegrown group that was built to contend for the long haul. First-year coach Ime Udoka even spoke with reverence about everything the Warriors had been able to accomplish while making it clear his team wanted nothing more than to replicate it.
“Six out of eight years (in the finals) for them is impressive, especially with some of the injuries they’ve been through,” Udoka said before Game 3. “They’ve stayed consistent. It’s a model for what we want to do here and build and grow into.”
But Curry had other plans.
His Game 4 masterpiece — 43 points, 10 rebounds, seven 3-pointers — was arguably his finest moment on a finals stage. Curry howled at the raging Celtics fans early on, then kept his hot streak going until the very end.
The Warriors returned to their “Strength in Numbers” roots in Game 5, when Curry shot 7 of 22 overall and went 0-for-9 from 3-point range). Wiggins, Thompson, Gary Payton II, Poole — they all supplemented Curry’s lack of scoring in the 104-94 Warriors win.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier after a 0-for-whatever type of knowing,” Curry said, “just the context of the game, the other ways you tried to impact the game and the fact that, you know, you had four guys step up in meaningful ways. … Yeah, there’s a fire burning, and I want to make shots, but the rest of it is about how we win the game, and we did that.”
Three days later, when the Warriors were back in front of that brutal Celtics crowd that summarized the “F*** Draymond” chants in the first quarter, Curry finished his best finals yet in emphatic form. With 6:15 left in the third quarter, he buried a 29-footer from the “NBA Finals” logo over Robert Williams and Marcus Smart to put the Warriors up 22, then pointed to his ring finger while staring into the stunned crowd.
The Celtics, who cut the lead to 10 entering the fourth quarter, weren’t done just yet. But Curry, who had 13 of his 34 points in the fourth and gave his patented “night-night” gesture after his seventh and final 3 with 3:17 left, ended them for good from there.
It all ended with Steph too.
As the final seconds ticked away, the 34-year-old was awash with emotion. With his hands on his head, he fell to the parquet floor and cried. Curry and the Warriors had done it — again.
“It was definitely overwhelming,” Curry said. “It was surreal because you know how much you went through to get back to this stage, and nobody (understands), unless you’ve been on that floor, you just grind day-in and day-out.
“It all paid off. Didn’t know how it was going to happen. Didn’t know what the environment was going to be like. You imagine what the emotions are going to be like, but it hits different … I just wanted to take in the moment because it was that special.”
This essay is the introduction to “Heart of Gold,” The Athletic‘s commemorative book about the Warriors’ 2021-22 season. Order a copy today for just $16.95, plus shipping and tax. Books will ship the week of July 4.
(Photo: Kyle Terada / USA Today)