SAN FRANCISCO -- People often compare back-and-forth sporting events to heavyweight boxing matches, with each behemoth taking their turn knocking the other into oblivion, only to see the opponent counter by delivering their own batch of 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 was a fan, shoot, what a game to watch."
The closest approximation is probably that pirate ship ride at every amusement park or local fair. After you strap in, the ship starts rocking slowly in each direction, building momentum -- akin to the 14 lead changes and six ties in the first half of Game 4. Then things eventually pick up, with the wooden maritime vessel swinging so high on one side that the terror of falling out of your seat forces your white-knuckled, sweaty hands to desperately cling to the crossbar. Like when the Warriors opened up a 10-point lead with a devastating third quarter, capped by a picturesque Klay Thompson corner 3-pointer.
When you reach the apex on one side, however, you know that things must eventually succumb to gravity and swing the other way. To start the fourth quarter, the Kings went on an expeditious, surgical 15-4 run in less than three minutes to retake the lead. What transpired from there can only be compared to the pirate ship completely falling off of its track, careening through the thoroughfare with its passengers and bystanders shrieking with equal parts terror and delight.
Perhaps the worst coach's challenge in NBA history from Steve Kerr left the Warriors with no timeouts in the final two minutes of the game. These things often come back to bite you, and with 42 seconds left Steph Curry, owner of a genius-level basketball IQ, had a momentary lapse in judgment, giving Chris Webber company and earning a technical foul by .
The tech not only gave Sacramento a free throw, but also a possession in which De'Aaron Fox knocked down a pull-up 3-pointer to cut the lead to a single point. Curry's missed shot on the other end gave the Kings the ball back with 10 seconds left, but Harrison Barnes' final 3-point attempt caromed off the rim, allowing the trembling Chase Center crowd to momentarily exhale, with Golden State escaping with an ugly, yet ecstatic win.
They got off the pirate ship alive, and that's all that matters.
"If this was a regular season game, you probably walk off and you're a little upset and you're like, man, should have never been this hard," Warriors forward Draymond Green said after the win. "But it's not. It's the playoffs, and every game counts. Whether we win it going away and controlling the end or we have to fight to win it like we did today, you take the win and you move on."
The instant classic featured tremendous and timely performances up and down each roster, but the main characters -- the stars that took the game, and the series, from great to epic -- were Curry and Fox, demonstrating their myriad ethereal talents in a fourth-quarter tête-à-tête.
After the Kings swiftly erased a 10-point deficit to give themselves a one-point lead with nine minutes left in the game, Curry went to work, scoring seven of the Warriors' next eight points to give them some breathing room. His first basket was pure determination -- a straight line drive layup that oozed alpha energy and gave the Warriors a lead that they would never relinquish.
After that, a devastating off-rhythm, head-fake jumper with his toe on the 3-point line, seizing back momentum and forcing Sacramento to call timeout in a futile attempt to subdue the Chase Center madhouse.
Next, with 7:25 left, he collected a low pass from Green off of his ankles, and in one motion knocked down a 29-foot 3-pointer to extend the lead.
"He has ultimate command of our team and of the floor," Warriors center Kevon Looney said of Curry, his longtime teammate. "So he knows when we were struggling and they was getting the momentum, and he decided to get some buckets and get us back to where we needed to be at. That's why he is who he is."
Against many teams, that would be the end of the story. But Sacramento has a slight-framed hero of its own who just so happens to be the NBA's first-ever Clutch Player of the Year. Starting at the six-minute mark, Fox scored seven straight points through an assortment of free throws, pull-up jumpers and floaters. He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter alone, capped by the late 3-pointer that tested the structural integrity of Warriors fans' cardiovascular system.
"I think he just kind of turned up a notch from the regular season to now," Kings rookie Keegan Murray said of Fox after Game 4. "Just shows that he can be a superstar in this league. He made tough baskets and kept us in it."
It was only fitting that the final play of the game came down to the two stars -- one on one. Fox caught the ball in the backcourt and purposely hunted Curry by getting a screen from Barnes. Fox attempted a crossover, but Curry cut him off, forcing him to change direction, where he had help from Green. Having no choice but to make the right play out of the double-team, Fox dished it to Barnes, whose miss spoiled what would have been an incredible game-winner and story against his former team.
"We know Fox can make a shot," Green said after the game. "He. What I'm not doing is giving him an iso with anyone and just watching him work and living with that. We are not going to live with that. We know that. Got to make somebody else beat you."
It's the ultimate sign of respect that the Warriors would rather risk an open shot from an 11-year veteran and 37 percent career 3-point shooter than see Fox take a contested jumper to win the game. Whether it was any question after his brilliant, likely All-NBA regular season, Fox has proven in his first playoff appearance that he is worthy of placement in the pantheon of today's top stars.
Game 4 was about much more than the two superstar guards, but Curry ended with 32 points on 5-for-11 3-point shooting, while Fox put up 38 points and nine rebounds. With each figuring out what the defense is giving them over the course of the series, it's tantalizing to envision what they'll have in store for us in Game 5 of what has become one of the more entertaining NBA playoff series in recent memory.
The best part is, both Curry and Fox are such dynamic scorers that each can strike at any time without advanced warning.
"I'm always looking for my shot, just because there's always going to be a double-team or a trap or a lot of attention. So me not shooting doesn't mean I'm being passive," Curry said after the Game 4 win. "Just means you're reading the defense to make the right plays and get the ball moving, welcome the attention or the double teams and finding open shots for other guys.
"But the more you do that over the course of 48, the harder it is to defend and the more likely I'll find some openings. And then you've always got to be ready and confident that you can knock those shots down."