Wednesday night at Staples Center, during the decisive third quarter of the Warriors’ 103-100 heartbreaker to the Los Angeles Lakers, Stephen Curry turned to teammate Jordan Bell while Golden State’s 13-point lead slowly faded away. “I missed this,” he said.
For Curry, it had been two years, a broken right hand and a 15-win season since he last played in a game with such stakes as the 7-8 matchup in the first round of this week’s play-in tournament.
Now the three-time champion must galvanize his teammates for a game with even more on the line in Friday’s win-or-go-home meeting with the Grizzlies. A win extends Golden State’s season and clinches a series with the No. 1 seed Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs. A loss would end a potentially feel-good season with two straight losses.
“It’s what you live for,” Curry said. “It’s what you work so hard for. It brings out the best in you in terms of your competitiveness and all that. I love it. So we can run it back Friday and, hopefully, all next week.”
The Warriors were proud of their effort against the defending champion Lakers, who slipped into the play-in round because of lengthy injuries to stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the regular season. Curry beat constant double-teams to score 37 points in 41 minutes, and forward Andrew Wiggins held up well defending James. But Golden State was also frustrated with how it struggled in the third quarter.
After Curry’s buzzer-beater put the Warriors up 13 points at halftime, Golden State turned the ball over eight times in the third. The Lakers turned those turnovers into 12 points, seizing momentum heading into the fourth and setting the stage for James’s game-winning 3-pointer in the final minute. Coach Steve Kerr described the loss as “a bitter pill.”
Despite the letdown, Curry and his teammates must bounce back quickly from a physically and emotionally taxing night. The Warriors have claimed the final stretch of the regular season — in which they won 15 of their final 20 games including a Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Grizzlies — had a playoff feel. But that does not compare to the challenge that awaits in Friday’s do-or-die game against Memphis, who defeated the San Antonio Spurs in the West’s other play-in game on Wednesday to advance.
It will be up to Curry, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney and Kerr to set the tone for a largely inexperienced team on what is poised to be another emotional and physical night.
“Steph, Draymond, [Looney], they’ve been in the playoffs year after year,” Kerr said. “This is what the playoffs are about. Every game is hugely emotional. And you always have to respond one way or the other. Whether you’re coming off a win or you’re coming off a loss, it’s all about just leaving that one behind and getting ready for the next one.”
Make no mistake, the Grizzlies present a challenge. Although Golden State won by 12 Sunday, it pulled away only in the final minutes. Like the Lakers, the Grizzlies are big and strong. Center Jonas Valanciunas had 29 points and 16 rebounds and guard Dillon Brooks hounded Curry on defense before fouling out with six minutes to go. It took 46 points from Curry to lift his team to a win at Chase Center.
In the rare instances that Curry, 33, has struggled this season, he’s been physically exhausted. The NBA’s scoring title winner has never worked harder on offense and, after playing 81 minutes in two games, he’s logged his two highest non-overtime minutes totals of the season this week. To advance, it will take a complete and resolute team effort.
“We’ll be ready,” Curry said. “Right now, it sucks. … Walking in the locker room, guys are upset, angry, frustrated that we didn’t get the job done. We know [the Grizzlies are] going to come in with the same desperation we’re going to have.
“It’s the biggest game of the year.”
Contributed by local news sources