PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Golden State Warriors bested the Portland Trail Blazers 132-125 in overtime to take a 3-1 series lead, which was less astounding than watching Stephen Curry finally scrape and claw his way back to top form over the course of this tightly fought contest.
Perhaps the best way summarize Curry's performance on Monday is with this stat: Curry missed his first nine 3-pointers and later scored 17 points in overtime -- an NBA record.
There were murmurs that something was afoot. It seemed that Saturday saw a shift, a turning of the corner in Curry’s recovery. Warriors coach Steve Kerr initially listed the star's return as doubtful. Then on Monday morning, he changed that status to questionable. Then, suddenly, around 9 p.m. ET on Monday night, it stopped being a question: Stephen Curry was going to play. Kerr announced it around the time of Curry’s warm-up, the start of which sent a rumble through the pregame crowd. The reigning MVP was back, finally and surprisingly.
There was, however, the matter of whether Curry would start. The Warriors elected to stick with Shaun Livingston to start, a look that had served them well in Curry’s absence. On Monday night, that lineup started disastrously, due in large part to some attentive Portland defense. The Trail Blazers were aggressive in taking away Golden State’s initial actions, and the Warriors failed to counter.
At the six-minute mark, it was 16-2 Trail Blazers as Curry strutted into the game. Golden State immediately got a stop, followed by a Draymond Green corner 3 in transition. Curry did not emerge from basketball purgatory looking totally himself: His legs might have deceived him on his first nine missed 3-pointers. But his introduction appeared to galvanize the slumbering Dubs.
"My confidence never wavered," Curry said postgame. "I don’t think you shoot nine shots from 3 without making one if you don’t have confidence."
Near the half, the Warriors got perhaps too revved. With 1:36 remaining in the second quarter, Livingston got knocked in the head on a successful layup attempt. Livid, he went right at veteran official Scott Foster, earned himself a technical and then pushed that into a vigorous ejection. Now the Warriors had Curry back but little insurance.
"Put us in a tough spot, obviously," Kerr said after the game. "Especially with Steph's comeback, whatever you want to call it. We were expecting to play Steph maybe 25 minutes and just monitor him and see how he held up. And he looked like he -- once he got going, he didn't look tired."
Golden State still had ad hoc point forward Green, a man who’s making a bid for more than just All-Star status these days. A sequence around the four-minute mark of the third quarter demonstrated his influence: Green made a 3-pointer off a good find from Curry. On the ensuing possession, he swooped in to block a Damian Lillard dunk. After Curry missed a transition 3, Green found himself in a similar situation on the next possession, swatting Mason Plumlee before the big man’s dunk motion could even get started. The resulting Warriors' possession ended in a Klay Thompson 3-pointer -- and their first lead of the game.
With 4:35 left in the fourth, Curry finally brought back the familiar with his first 3-pointer and blessed it with a shimmy celebration. Unfortunately for Golden State, Portland star shooter Lillard was also waking up from a slumber. He dealt the Warriors a serious blow with a 30-footer to put Portland up by two with 2:47 remaining in regulation.
A sequence of well-executed sets (especially a play for a Harrison Barnes 3-pointer) saved the Warriors.
And on the final play of regulation, the scene was set for Curry, but reality didn't follow the script. Curry threw a few fakes at Lillard before driving and missing on an awkward runner off the glass.
It was merely a preamble, though.
Overtime was Stephen Curry’s opus, an announcement that he has returned in full, plus a reminder of why the team had missed him so much. Gone were the hesitations before he unleashed. Absent were high arcs sailing wide right. Curry was on point, finally comfortable and set on ending the Trail Blazers.
"I think I told him, 'Try to go 5-for-6 the rest of the game,'" Kerr joked after the game about what he said to Curry heading into overtime. "Nah, the only thing I talked to him before the game was, 'Try not to do too much too early.'"
Portland could do little as Curry torched them on a final flurry of six consecutive shots, three from beyond the arc. Between the time Curry came back in the game at 4:53 in the fourth quarter and the end of overtime, the returned MVP scored 23 points. The Trail Blazers scored 25.
"It took me awhile to get back in the flow," Curry said when reflecting on his first game since April 24. "When you miss three weeks, it’s really weird to walk back on the court. Like, the crowd out there going crazy and that competitive atmosphere again. So, just trying to get my bearings straight, make some plays and try and get a rhythm. And it took 48 minutes and things finally clicked."
His fall in Houston was a reminder of the fragility of a title run. His return was a reminder of how indomitable Curry is when he’s right. The MVP is back.