Mariotti: Curry’s bounceback, Kerr’s defensive changes fuel Warriors in Game 4 rout

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — If it happened in a dunk contest, the judges would have heckled him out of the arena. Stephen Curry caught Andre Iguodala's pass in elegant stride, like the wide receiver he could have been, and had nothing in front of him but 30 feet of hardwood and a cylinder. He dribbled into the paint, launched his body, extended the ball with his right arm …

And clanked it on the iron.

For a nanosecond Monday night, as the ball hung there on the rim in FedExForum, America was asking again: This is the Most Valuable Player of the NBA? First, Curry lost his lethal jumpshot, now he had no vertical leap. Time for a recount? But then, suddenly, the alien potion that had entered his bloodstream the past week either wore off or showed mercy. The ball had just enough momentum to roll into the basket, and, like that, the so-called MVP Hangover was over.

The rest of the night, in this Game 4 that Steve Kerr called the “moment of truth” for the Warriors, Curry was dazzling us all again. He regained his shooting stroke with a 33-point show in a 101-84 blowout of the Grizzlies, but more than that, he recaptured the joy and energy for the game that defines him. “Steph gets eight boards,” Kerr pointed out, knowing rebounds connote energy and will. Whether it was pumping his fist after hitting a long jumper, driving to the hole and whipping a pass to David Lee for an easy basket, wisely passing up a 3-pointer to settle for a 10-foot floater or shifting left to right and pump-faking and making a 17-foot leaner that drew a foul, this was the Curry that will popularize the NBA playoffs much more than LeBron James blowing off his coach to win what resembled a football game.

When Curry is carefree and dynamic, the Warriors remain the most fun attraction in the sport. They answered their first serious challenge of a magical season in Game 4, quieting not only the yokels in the stands but those of us who wondered if Curry and his mates weren't built for a long postseason run. The Western Conference semifinal series isn't over, merely tied now at 2-2, but the Warriors own the home-court advantage again. And they have their superstar back after his mojo vanished in two bad losses.

“That's how we're supposed to play,” Curry said. “We were very disappointed but very optimistic about having another opportunity on the road to get a win. You get frustrated about missing shots and how you play, but you never get down on yourself. We are competitors, and as long as there's another game, you have an opportunity to change it.”

Almost nine minutes passed before Curry took his first shot. Then came the dunk that wasn't. Kerr didn't mind at all because Curry wasn't forcing the issue, a patience that resonated through the team all night. “I thought his mindset changed,” Kerr said. “He wasn't shooting a lot early. He was getting the ball moving, which was our focus. Then the game came to him, and once we moved it and he got an open look, he got into a better rhythm. And that's the whole idea.”

With that familiar rhythm comes the accompanying swagger and league-leading defense. This after Kerr — who needed to make a series-changing strategic adjustment after appearing to be an overmatched coach — did just that with a shrewd maneuver. Andrew Bogut as a paint-clogging rover responsible for Tony Allen? Harrison Barnes guarding Zach Randolph? A small ball sort of defense?

It worked, with the defensive correction leading to a return of offensive cohesion, rhythm, poise and fun. The Grizzlies were hounded in the paint, shooting 37.5 percent collectively and getting little from Randolph (12 points), Mike Conley (4 of 15) and Allen, who isn't going to be “first-team NBA offense” when he shoots 2 of 9. “We had to get more creative defensively,” said Kerr, who hatched the plan with assistant Ron Adams. “We just felt like we needed to make a change, so we put Bogs on Tony Allen and just tried to get as much help in the paint as we could. … The idea behind the defensive change, more than anything, was attitude. When down 2-1, there's a sense of urgency and we knew we had to compete on every possession. The defense had been decent, but not on a championship level.”

“We knew we had to set the tone defensively,” said Draymond Green, who woke up from his recent slumber with 11 first-quarter points as his college coach, Tom Izzo, watched in the building. “The last couple of games, they were getting everything they wanted. To get our offense going, we had to get our defense going. Our defense had been killing our offense. You can't get in transition and get your rhythm and flow if you don't get stops.”

Allen wasn't so impressed with Kerr's strategy on him. “It didn't affect nothing,” he said. “It's just that I wasn't able to give my team the energy. I like that matchup, so hopefully, they'll do it again and I'll advantage. It's nothing we haven't seen. People stick us like that all the time. It's the defense. We gave up 61 points in the first half.”

Randolph was impressed. “All night, Bogut was playing behind me and someone was playing in front of me,” he said. “We have to make some adjustments.”

As the series returns to Oracle Arena, the Warriors reminded Charles Barkley, Phil Jackson and other prominent critics that they need not live and die from the three-point line. They hit 14 of 33 — Curry was 4 of 9 after missing 17 of his previous 21 attempts — but they also proved adept in the paint in taking a big first-half lead. All of which broke down the grit and grind of the Grizzlies, who aren't going to win playoff games with inefficiency inside when they shoot fewer treys than any team left in May. “We were chasing our tail a little bit,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. “Their ball movement, their ability to shoot threes — it's a tremendous luxury to have. They made us look really small. They were very physical with us. They got all the loose balls. We're gonna have to score 100 points at some point.

“We got away from who we are and what our identity is.”

Which is a credit to Kerr, who did look like a $25 million coach on this night. He challenged his team to be better, much better, as they teetered on possible infamy. If the Warriors lose this series, they'd become only the second NBA team with a regular-season winning percentage as high as their .817 to lose before the conference finals. The lone stragglers: Those Dallas Mavericks who were toppled eight years ago by the “We Believe” Warriors in the first round. Seven of the other eight teams to win at that rate went on to win championships.

Not that Kerr is satisfied. “I thought we took a step toward understanding that sense of urgency, competitiveness and physicality. I still don't think we're there,” he said, mentioning 21 more turnovers — seven by Green. “It has to translate with the awareness of what we're trying to do. I took a timeout early in the third quarter when we took five contested shots and had one wide-open 3 when we did move the ball. I said, 'Guys, move the ball.' We're still trying to pound that home.

“I want them to be satisfied with the effort. I want them to be hungry to improve. I want them to understand nothing's happened yet, that it's 2-2.”

Yet something did happen in this sweaty, mid-Southern town somewhere near Arkansas and Mississippi. Faced with potential disaster, the Warriors rose above it and found their footing again. Did it start when Green invited Curry out for barbecue after the Game 3 embarrassment?

“Catfish,” Curry corrected. “I ate catfish. Yes, it did help.”

If he ate a little more, he might be able to dunk.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at Read his website at

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