SAN FRANCISCO — People often compare back-and-forth sporting events to heavyweight boxing matches, with each behemoth taking their turn and bludgeoning the other into oblivion, only to see the opponent counter by delivering their own punishment. But even that metaphor doesn’t do justice to Sunday’s tense, exhausting Game 4 battle between the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings.
“What a game,” Kings coach Mike Brown said afterward. “If I’m a fan, shoot, what a game to watch.”
The closest approximation is a pirate ship ride at every amusement park or local fair. After you strap in, the ship starts swinging slowly in each direction, building momentum — similar to Game 4’s 14 lead changes and six ties in the first half. And then things soar at the end, with the wooden ocean liner swinging so high. On the one hand, the terror of falling off your seat forces your white-knuckled, sweaty hands to cling desperately to the crossbar. As the Warriors opened up a 10-point lead in the third quarter capped by a beautiful Klay Thompson corner 3-pointer.
However, when you peak on one side, you know that things must eventually yield to gravity and swing the other way. The Kings regained the lead with a quick, surgical run of 15-2 in less than three minutes to start the fourth quarter. What happened from there was like a pirate ship falling completely off its course, leaving its passengers and visitors screaming with equal amounts of fear and glee.
Perhaps the worst coach’s challenge NBA Steve Kerr’s history left the Warriors with no time in the final two minutes of the game. These things often come back to bite you, and with 42 seconds left, Steph Curry, the owner of genius basketball IQ, made a momentary lapse in judgment, giving Chris Weber company and earning a technical foul. Called a timeout that his team didn’t have.
The technical not only gave Sacramento a free throw, but also a possession where De’Aaron Fox knocked down a pull-up 3-pointer to cut the lead to one point. Curry’s missed shot at the other end gave the Kings the ball back with 10 seconds left, but Harrison Barnes’ final 3-point attempt ricocheted off the rim, allowing the jittery Chase Center crowd to briefly exit as Golden State escaped with an ugly, yet thrilling victory.
They got off the pirate ship alive and that was all that mattered.
“If it’s a regular season game, maybe you come out and you’re a little upset, man, you should never have been tough,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said after the win. “But it’s not. It’s the playoffs and every game is important. Whether we win and control the outcome or fight to win like we did today, you take the win and move on.”
The instant classic featured grand and timely performances up and down every roster, but the mainstays — the stars and series that took the game, from the big to the epic — Curry and Fox, showed off their myriad ethereal talents in the fourth. -Quarter tête-à-tête.
After the Kings erased a 10-point deficit to take a one-point lead with nine minutes left in the game, Curry went to work, scoring seven of the Warriors’ next eight points to suffocate them. His first basket was pure determination — a linear drive that exuded alpha energy and gave the Warriors a lead they never relinquished.
Then a devastating off-rhythm, toe-fake jumper at the 3-point line regained momentum and forced Sacramento to call a timeout in a futile attempt to contain the Chase center madness.
Next, with 7:25 left, he collected a low pass from Green off his ankles and drained a 29-foot 3-pointer on a drive to extend the lead.
“He has ultimate command of our team and the floor,” Warriors center Kevon Looney said of his longtime teammate, Curry. “So he knows when we’re struggling and they’re gaining momentum, and he’s decided to get some buckets and get us back to where we need to be. That’s who he is.”
Against many teams, that would be the end of the story. But Sacramento has an undersized hero who is the NBA’s first clutch player of the year. Starting at the six-minute mark, Fox scored seven straight points on free throws, pull-up jumpers and floaters. He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter alone, capped by a late 3-pointer that tested the structural integrity of Warriors fans’ cardiovascular systems.
“I think he’s gotten better from the regular season to now,” Kings rookie Keegan Murray said of Fox after Game 4. “Shows he can be a superstar in this league. He made tough baskets and kept us at it. That’s it.”
The final play of the game came down to two stars — one for each. Fox caught the ball in the backfield and took a screen from Barnes to intentionally poach Curry. Fox tried a shortcut, but Curry cut him off and forced him to change direction, where he was assisted by Green. With no choice but to make a perfect play from the double team, Fox gave it to Barnes, whose mistake would have been an incredible game-winner and story against his former team.
“We knew Fox could make a shot,” Green said after the game. “He Won the Clutch Player of the Year award. What I don’t do is give him an iso with anyone, watch him work, and live with it. We are not going to live with that. We know. Get someone else to beat you.”
It was the ultimate sign of respect that the Warriors risked an open shot from the 11-year veteran and 37 percent career 3-point shooter rather than watching Fox make a contested jumper. Whether that’s any question after his brilliant, All-NBA regular season, Fox has proven in his first playoff appearance that he deserves a place in the pantheon of today’s greatest stars.
Game 4 was more about the two superstar guards, but Curry finished with 32 points on 5-of-11 3-point shooting, while Fox had 38 points and nine rebounds. Finding out what the defense gave them during the series, it’s amazing to imagine what they have in store for us in Game 5 of what turned out to be one of the most entertaining NBA playoff series in recent memory.
The best part is that both Curry and Fox are dynamic scorers who can each strike at any moment without advanced warning.
“I’m always looking for my shot because there’s always going to be a double team or a drop or a lot of attention. So just because I’m not shooting doesn’t mean I’m passive,” Curry said after the game. 4 wins. “It means you read the defense to make the right plays, move the ball, welcome attention or double teams and find open shots for other guys.
“But the more you do it at 48, the harder it is to defend and I find some openings. After that you always have to be ready and confident that you can knock down those shots.”