SAN FRANCISCO — If the Celtics had any expectations that Stephen Curry had lost a step or wasn’t as crafty circling around screens or perhaps had lost the rhythm or distance on his jumper, those ideas were officially eliminated after about five minutes, when one of the greatest shooters of all-time had already swished three 3-pointers.
The Celtics seemed headed to be the latest victims of Curry’s brilliance after he tallied 17 points in the opening quarter and the Warriors raced to an 11-point lead Tuesday at Chase Center.
Two things then happened. Golden State coach Steve Kerr sat Curry for the first 6:05 of the second period, allowing the Celtics to make a run. And Boston made critical defensive adjustments when he did return to the game.
On a night when the Celtics were erratic, choppy offensively, and made several errors that prevented them from pulling away, they were able to defend Curry with resistance and precision, and that was the key to their important 111-107 victory.
The Celtics have been improving defensively over the past week. They allowed just 96 points Saturday to the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers but lost because their offense sputtered. On Tuesday, in their first game minus defensive ace Marcus Smart, the Celtics met the defensive challenge of containing Curry.
Curry still finished with 38 points, but it came four weeks after he dropped a career-high 62 on the Portland Trail Blazers with an array of long-distance threes only a few players in NBA history would even attempt with ease and grace.
The Celtics had to ask themselves: Were they going to be Curry’s latest victims, predictably succumbing to his brilliance on national television in the first game of a critical road trip? Or were they going to at least make it challenging for him?
The Celtics decided to ease into the game, which was a major mistake because that allowed Curry to shoot with comfort, dash around screens, and find his perfect spots for the long ball. He hit four in the first quarter but just three in the final three periods.
The Celtics rallied and forced other Warriors to provide offense, but Curry doesn’t have the championship-caliber teammates and reliable veterans he once did.
“Well, we didn’t do what we had set out to do at the start of game,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We weren’t up, we weren’t there on the catch, we weren’t making it hard. So after [Curry] came back for his second stint in the first half, we were much better.
“Obviously mixed in a lot more zone, which is kind of counterintuitive with a guy like that but it allows you to stay on top of those screens and just keep guards out and guard the 3-point line. We did a better job when we were in man of just having a little bit more urgency than we had at the start of the game on him.”
The Celtics responded the way a team is supposed to respond when a star opponent dazzles in the early going. They made adjustments. They covered Curry with two players. In several sequences, a Celtic stuck with Curry even though the ball was 40 feet away in the other corner.
The philosophy: Don’t help off him for anybody, not even if it means giving up a 2-point basket, because 2 is less than 3.
“I just tried to face-guard him as much as I can,” Celtics point guard Kemba Walker said. “Trying to not let him touch the ball as much as I can.
“He still had a great game. Steph is one of the best players in the world. He is an incredible player, with an incredible shot and an incredible overall game. He just knows how to play the game. He plays the right way. I just try my best to deny him the ball and rely on my teammates for the most part.”
And still, it almost wasn’t enough. Curry completed a conventional 3-point play and added three free throws — thanks to a pump-fake and lean into a jumping Grant Williams — to bring the Warriors to within 106-102 with two minutes left.
Then, Curry sprang open for another three attempt that would have brought the Warriors within 2. But even he misses open shots.
The Celtics staved off the rally and held on, giving them a critical win to begin their five-game Western road trip and offering an encouraging sign that they can contain an elite player and stick to a defensive game plan, one that resulted in victory.
The Celtics didn’t win this game with offense. They won because they managed to get enough defensive stops and force empty possessions. And that’s how games have to be won sometimes.
”He had a hell of a game,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said of Curry. “I think at first we just gave him too many open looks and he got to feeling really good.
“Obviously he’s going to hit some tough ones, make some plays. But you just can’t give him any easy ones, any open ones. You’ve got to see bodies, you’ve got to contest.
“We just have to play more physical and just try to make it tougher. I think that’s what we tried to do, just slow him down a little bit.”