OAKLAND, Calif. — The play that officially marked the return of Superhuman Stephen Curry began in a most mundane way: grabbing a defensive rebound.
Then, after slipping past Crawford with a nifty behind-the-back move, Curry dribbled once, gathered the ball, took two steps and, just as he was arriving at half court, let fly with a shot that looked like it was going in from the moment it left his hands.
And it did, slicing perfectly through the net as the buzzer sounded, launching Curry, his teammates and the partisan fans here inside Oracle Arena into the kind of unbridled celebrations that this team was doing on a regular basis a year ago as it steamrolled through the NBA to a record 73 regular season wins and to within one win of a second straight championship.
“People write this, but Steph’s gonna Steph,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said. “What does that mean? I don’t know.
“I’ve read that. Whatever that means, I think that’s what happened.”
Kerr was referring to what came later — Curry’s 25-point third quarter, pushing him to 43 points in 29 minutes and sending him to the bench for the final 12 minutes with the Warriors winning by 43 points, on their way to a comprehensive 144-98 victory over their Southern California rivals.
But it could just as easily have referred to Curry’s shot at the end of the first half, the kind of moment that he produced on a regular basis over the past two years while winning a pair of MVP awards — and wasn’t creating over the first several weeks of this regular season.
Those days are a distant memory now. Over the past few weeks — since Curry was effectively taken out of the Christmas showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers, scoring 15 points on just 11 shots and, in a rare public showing of frustration, calling for more attempts — Curry has gotten back to being the center of Golden State’s universe. That was something Curry seemed hesitant to do in the opening weeks of the season, as he instead seemed focused on trying to ensure Kevin Durant was comfortable in his new surroundings, and that Draymond Green and Klay Thompson remained in roughly the same roles they were in before.
The loss on Christmas, though, has proven to be something that didn’t seem likely in the moment, when the Warriors blew a 14-point fourth quarter lead and lost for a fourth straight time to the team that had dashed their hopes of laying claim to the title of greatest team in NBA history. It unleashed the best version of these Warriors for the world to see.
Yes, Golden State stumbled earlier this week against the Miami Heat, and they blew another double-digit fourth quarter lead earlier this month at home against the Memphis Grizzlies. But since Christmas, Curry has led the NBA at a plus-240 through 15 games, a stretch in which the Warriors have a record of 13-2. The next three players on that list? Durant (plus-223), Green (plus-214) and Thompson (plus-177).
And, during that stretch, the Warriors have produced the league’s best offense, best defense while outscoring their opponents by a ludicrous 14.1 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com’s stats page.
The formula is clear: The Warriors are at their best when this Curry — the brash, confident, celebrating version — is leading the way.
“I have to be aggressive,” Curry said. “That’s the thing about us. We do have a lot of talent. There’s a balancing act to it.
“For me, to initiate our offense with pick-and-rolls, whatever set, I have to be aggressive to look to score, to look to draw attention and good things will happen out of that knowing that we have so many other playmakers on the floor.”
That’s the X-factor for this Warriors team, the thing people will admit privately all around the league: when Golden State is firing on all cylinders, playing anywhere near their potential, they can reach a level no one else in the sport can. This is why LeBron James is desperate for the Cavaliers to add more playmaking talent, even if their defense against Golden State may prove to be their biggest weakness. This is why the Clippers, one of the most talented teams in the league, have become their little brothers, now losing eight times in a row (not counting the 50-point demolition the Warriors hung on them in the preseason).
This version of Golden State is what the league envisioned when Durant signed with the Warriors this summer. It’s the version that never quite arrived through the opening weeks, even as Golden State has hovered around a 70-win pace.
It’s here now, though, and it’s here because Curry has reasserted himself as the center of the Warriors’ universe.
And, with a rebound, a behind-the-back dribble and a heave from half court, Curry announced to the world Saturday night that the superhuman version of himself has officially returned to the NBA.
Good luck stopping him — and, by extension, the Warriors.
“You know at any moment it’s going in,” Green said. “After you see something so many times, it’s like, ‘All right, I guess there’s a great chance it’s going to go [in].’
“Once he let the ball go, I knew it was going in. It’s pretty spectacular.”
Pretty spectacular, indeed.