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NBA playoffs: Stephen Curry's historic 50-piece silences doubters with Warriors-Lakers nostalgic matchup looming

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Amid the pyrotechnics and flames shooting into the air of Golden 1 Center, there was a still on the sidelines — one that could’ve suggested after so many years of going through the playoff gauntlet the Golden State Warriors didn’t recognize the severity of a Game 7.

Already with his warmups off before the Sacramento Kings were announced, Stephen Curry looked steely and perhaps amused.

“Not as long as I’m still breathing,” Curry said to Yahoo Sports, upon the notion that he could be written off, that his team could be “too old” as Malik Monk candidly stated recently.

The Game 7 was old hat, but Curry still has more mountains to climb, more orneriness to shoot off from those fingertips.

Doubt him to your own peril, be it in the hallowed and historic TD Garden of Boston or the newness and novelty of Sacramento’s building.

Curry was determined to send the Warriors to a date with destiny, another dance with LeBron James. A record 50 points later, the date is set following a 120-100 series-clinching win over the Kings on Sunday afternoon.

The scoring was the highest-ever mark in a Game 7, besting former teammate Kevin Durant’s 48-point performance two years ago, in a Brooklyn Nets loss to Milwaukee.

Oh, how special it would be if Curry and Durant could tangle for one last dance in the conference finals, but both have monumental tasks in front of them before either can begin to fantasize.

“It’s amazing, you’re still in the fight. It’s better than the alternative,” said Curry of one more series against James. “Having been down 0-2 in this series, nothing’s guaranteed. It is special to know, from the first series we’ve played to now, we’re still playing at this level. A new chapter.”

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry reacts on the bench during the fourth quarter of Game 7 in an NBA playoffs first-round series against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California, on April 30, 2023. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry reacts on the bench during the fourth quarter of Game 7 in an NBA playoffs first-round series against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California, on April 30, 2023. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) (Ezra Shaw via Getty Images)

All those Finals series, even the recent play-in tournament in 2021 where the Lakers bested the Warriors, will be back in the forefront of the basketball world, but the Warriors had to get there first.

Kings fans were in a mood of delirium a half-hour before tipoff, high off the dominant Game 6 win in San Francisco. They could sense the retro theme of these NBA playoffs, as the New York Knicks and Miami Heat again engage in a matchup that’s brought out all the ’90s nostalgia — it would be fitting, some would say, for them to face the big brothers in Los Angeles to stoke classic memories of their own.

It felt like there was an opportunity for them to exorcise decades-long demons, while it would be understandable if the Warriors felt a sense of dread in having to come back for a Game 7.

But they couldn’t sense what Curry had in store for them, for their building and the moment. Perhaps if they noticed Curry’s smiling after missing two straight free throws early, it would’ve been the giveaway.

The stakes of the game bring about all types of anomalies, and Sunday was no different, even for Curry. This was no 3-point extravaganza, although he had his share — Curry’s standards are so high that seven 3s doesn’t feel like a barrage.

But that’s the standard he’s set and maintained even around a league that’s changing every day — because he’s seemingly mastered the game as opposed to breaking it and now he manages to maneuver around it and through it as everyone tries to catch up.

Curry made his living all over the floor, darting inside for shape-shifting layups and then, easy floaters that brought the same reaction Boston natives felt last June, that air-sucking, life-draining feeling of inevitability.

And when Curry and his teammates couldn’t shoot straight — best believe, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole missed more than their share of open shots, not taking advantage of the gravity Curry created — there was Kevon Looney.

During the decisive third quarter, Looney gobbled up every possible rebound, taking the will from the Kings and dominating Domantas Sabonis. Looney grabbed 10 offensive rebounds — 7 in the third that seemed to frustrate the Kings and quiet the crowd.

It was then where it felt like Game 7 was no longer an opportunity for the Kings, and the Warriors began to use it to notch one more improbable win on their decade-long resume. Like Bane told Batman in “The Dark Knight Rises”: “You merely adopted the dark; I was born in it, molded by it.”

The Warriors live in this exhausting fishbowl of pressure, expectations and champagne, yet somehow managed to show more energy than the youthful bunch. The thought of this being the end never reached the point of desperation, but determination and focus, highlighted by Looney.

“We enjoy that pressure. We enjoy those lights. You appreciate it,” Draymond Green said. “I told you guys before the game and we put ourselves in a position to play and one of the highest-pressure situations that you can be in. Embrace it.”

Looney did more than embrace the ball; he engulfed it. His 21 rebounds represented the third time he’s reached that mark in the first round and also showed how different this Warriors team is from all the other vintage.

Before, their singular excellence could overwhelm opponents. They shot more, shot better and figured out how to make the game work for them.

This was no such performance, with Curry shooting 38% from 3, Thompson missing 8 of his 10 and Poole going 2 for 6. As a whole, the Warriors shot 43% and just 33% from 3.

But what Looney and the rest of the worker bees represent, is what Steve Kerr called “the best game plan discipline we’ve had all year.”

“Focus on the next possession and don’t worry about results,” Kerr said he told his players. “Do all the things we talked about all series long. And [it] was one of the great games I can remember since I’ve been here in terms of being that locked in for 48 minutes. And that’s what it took.”

They knew they couldn’t beat the Kings in a track meet, not with the Kings’ youth, energy and lack of pressure. So they merely did the things to prevent the Kings from getting out and running.

“The offense is flashy and especially the way that we play, but for us, our calling card has usually been our defense,” Curry said. “You can start to feel the momentum stay on your side, even if shots aren’t falling because you can put two or three stops together in a row and kind of take the momentum away from the team that kind of thrives [on running].”

The Warriors had just seven turnovers, with Curry having just one after a couple games where he lacked a bit of concentration when it came to ball security. Then there was the offensive rebounding, which allowed them to set their hellacious defense in the halfcourt.

De’Aaron Fox couldn’t keep up his magic, and after strong starts from rookie Keegan Murray and Terence Davis, the Kings couldn’t sustain it. Sabonis was thwarted by Green and Looney, and they unraveled in the second half after taking a two-point lead into the half they felt fortunate to have.

Curry scored 30 of his 50 in the second half, as the Warriors pulled away and he seemed determined to shut off the lights in Golden 1 Center. He didn’t do it by himself, but it felt like it sometimes — a scary sight if anyone else’s lights come on next round.

“He doesn’t surprise me. We all take him for granted because he’s brilliant night after night,” Kerr said. “This is one of the great players in the history of the game. But that’s how I felt back when I [was] in my playing days, you know with Michael Jordan, you just see it night after night. So you just took it for granted.”

Luckily for Curry, he doesn’t take this for granted, vanquishing one valiant opponent and marching toward another.

One more time.