Kawakami: Can Steph Curry hold up against everything the Celtics throw at him?

Kawakami: Can Steph Curry hold up against everything the Celtics throw at him?

BOSTON — Stephen Curry could’ve skipped the postgame news conference, but he knew what that would’ve signaled. He could’ve gone right from the locker room after Game 3 on Wednesday to the team bus and probably immediately to an MRI exam to find out the extent of damage to his left leg caused when Al Horford collapsed on it.

Nobody would’ve seen Curry walk. Nobody would’ve asked him how he felt. And everybody would’ve assumed the worst — that Curry was pretty badly injured and in serious jeopardy of missing Game 4 on Friday, with the Warriors already down 2-1 to the Celtics in this series. That the series really might, for all intents, be over.

But Curry walked to the news conference on his own, with a slight limp, answered the questions and then calmly (and maybe a bit more speedily) walked back out. With everybody watching. With everybody asking and evaluating.

Was that a grimace as Curry moved over that uneven spot on the floor? Did he slow down to go up the steps to the podium? Should he have been wearing a boot? What were we really seeing?

I was there. I watched him walk in and out. I asked a question. My conclusion: Curry showing up for that presser was Curry showing us he absolutely believes he’ll play on Friday, though his foot clearly hurts, and there will be many hours of treatment to come to get him back on the floor.

It was, in some ways, Curry telling everybody the series isn’t over yet. There could be more pain to come, but it’s not over.

“I got caught — obviously in some pain, but I’ll be all right,” Curry said of the moment Horford fell on his leg in a fourth-quarter scramble for the ball. “See how it feels tomorrow, and get ready for Friday.”

In probably the most unnerving part for the Warriors and their fans, Curry said the pain felt very similar to the injury he suffered back in March when Boston’s Marcus Smart dove onto the same foot, which caused Curry to miss the final 12 games of the regular season; he didn’t return until Game 1 of the first round against Denver.

“Not as bad,” Curry said. Later, he said: “I don’t feel like I’ll miss a game. Take advantage of these next 48 hours to get ready.”

Smart’s dive in March was far more reckless than Horford’s crash on Wednesday, but nobody associated with the Warriors missed that both involved the very physical Celtics landing on Curry’s leg. The injury occurred with Boston pulling away in its eventual 116-100 victory at TD Garden, so it wasn’t why the Celtics won this game, but the Warriors probably can’t win this series if Curry is even fractionally hobbled.

Curry writhed in pain after the Horford fall but stayed in the game a few more minutes. He looked a bit angry. Then he took a hit in the midsection while defending a Smart drive, grimaced some more, and Steve Kerr took him out with the game already lost.


Steph Curry sat on the bench in the fourth quarter as the Celtics pulled away with a win. (Kyle Terada / USA Today)

But it’s clear the hit from Horford was the lingering issue. And Curry’s teammates knew it right away.

“I picked up my (sixth) foul pushing (Smart) off him because he’s screaming at the bottom of the pile,” Draymond Green said of the additional scrum after Curry lingered on the floor. “Yeah, it is what it is. I’ll take the foul. I’m going to get him off his legs, though.”

I asked Curry: How scary was that moment?

“It’s a big body, obviously,” Curry said, referring to Horford. “I haven’t seen the play, so I don’t know if it could have been avoided or not. I was in that situation with Marcus back in the Bay, and you just want to get your foot out of there. That’s all I was trying to do at that point, knowing the position I was in.”

All this happened after the Warriors were hit hard by the Celtics early, rallied back in the third quarter behind Curry’s brilliance and Klay Thompson’s first red-hot burst of the finals and then once again were overwhelmed by Boston’s size and athleticism in the fourth quarter, when they were outscored 23-11.

All this happened after Curry was by far the Warriors’ best offensive player, scoring 31 points on 12-of-22 shooting (6-for-11 from 3), but also after Curry was relentlessly hunted on the defensive side. He got in early foul trouble, which made him more vulnerable, and the Celtics punished the Warriors by getting him matched up on either Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown.

“Yeah, that’s not a surprise,” Kerr said. “You know, they are going to put him in pick-and-roll. They are going to put a few of our guys in pick-and-roll. Try to make us guard. Steph picked up a couple of unfortunate ones early, but I didn’t think the foul trouble really affected the game.

“We just kept him out there, and I don’t know, did he finish with four fouls? So he played through it really well. He guarded like crazy, and obviously, his shot making was incredible in that third quarter. Allowed us to take the lead, but we didn’t have enough in the fourth.”

Altogether, Game 3 was just more evidence Curry is the Warriors’ main answer for almost everything in this series, and sometimes it’s hard to see how even he can do it all. He has to score. He has to force the forceful Celtics defenders to come at him, which opens up lanes for other Warriors players. He has to hold up on defense. He has to hold up physically when the Celtics come rumbling at him.

And that’s part of one explanation for why Kerr isn’t playing Curry more than 39 to 40 minutes per game in this series, even as the Celtics pile up victories. Curry is doing so much in the time he’s out there, there’s a tremendous risk of dwindling returns. And yes, that he could get hurt again.

“Well, we need him if we want to win this thing,” Thompson said. “I know Steph is going to do everything he can in his power to play. I am really hoping he’s OK, because he’s our identity, and without him, it will be very difficult.”

The Warriors wouldn’t have to lean on Curry this much if Thompson had scorched the Celtics earlier in this series, but he didn’t. The Warriors wouldn’t have to lean on Curry this much if Jordan Poole was having a breakthrough series, but he’s not — he scored 10 points in 20 minutes on Wednesday and continued to have major issues driving anywhere near Celtics center Robert Williams (four blocked shots on the night).

The Warriors wouldn’t have had to lean on Curry this much on Wednesday if Green had played his usual ferocious game, but he was surprisingly off rhythm throughout, with two points, four rebounds, two turnovers and six fouls.

No, once again, the Warriors are relying on Curry. They will need Thompson, Poole, Green and others to play better than they have in the two losses in this series. But the Warriors will win games when Curry takes over, and they will lose them if he can’t quite do it all. Or if he’s severely limited by injury.

So, once again, as happened in the 2013 playoffs (before the title run began) and again in 2016 (and a few minor times after that), Curry has a potential injury issue in the postseason, which means the Warriors’ championship chances are teetering on the brink.

And you could feel the Warriors’ sensitivity to all that when Kerr was asked if keeping Curry in the game a few minutes after the incident meant there were no concerns about Curry’s health.

“I didn’t say that,” Kerr said. “The injury didn’t force him out of the game, but I took him out down 14 with two minutes left because we weren’t going to catch up. … We will know more tomorrow.”

None of this is ideal for the Warriors or Curry, of course. But maybe the diagnosis will be good news for them on Thursday. Or maybe Curry can just gut it out, from game to game, because there is no way the Warriors can survive these finals unless they win Friday and pretty much every time after that. It’s must-win from here on out.

And I believe Curry was sending a message by coming out to the news conference late on Wednesday. He will be on the court Friday and every time after that. The Celtics still have to go through Curry to win the championship. Problem is, the Celtics obviously understand this too.


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(Top photo: Winslow Townson / USA Today)

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