OAKLAND, Calif. – When Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors, he made an already dominant team seemingly invincible. But it’s easy to forget, thanks to the seismic impact Durant’s move to Oakland had on the NBA, just how dominant the Warriors were before he arrived.
The main reason was Stephen Curry’s ascendance from NBA star to human supernova, a transformation that brought with it a pair of MVP awards, two championships and a record-setting 73 regular season wins in the 2015-16 season. It also turned Golden State into a must-see attraction from coast-to-coast.
Curry’s recent absence because of an ankle injury has served as a reminder. Sure, the Warriors have kept right on winning without him – they entered Saturday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies having won nine of the 11 games Curry spent in street clothes. But they did so without as much of their usual flair and excitement, resorting instead to slowing the game down and grinding out victories.
“They just did it a different way,” Curry said. “It was fun to watch.”
But not as fun as Saturday night, when Curry finally returned to the court. And, just like that, the Warriors were back. The final score showed a comfortable 141-128 Golden State victory, but the truly astonishing numbers came from Curry’s line: 38 points on 13-for-17 shooting from the field, including 10-for-13 from three-point range, in just 26 minutes.
The human supernova is back. And so is the greatest show in sports.
“I was just happy to be back out there with my guys,” Curry said. “When you sit and watch for 11 games, you wonder what it’ll be like to be back out there.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted to get some good reps, and see how my body felt.”
It felt good enough to allow him to become the first player in the NBA this season to make 10 threes in a game, and to make it seem to everyone watching like Curry hadn’t missed 11 minutes – let alone 11 games.
Durant’s arrival perhaps gave Golden State the highest ceiling of any team in NBA history. The ability to roll out four all-star players in their prime who blend seamlessly on the court is a luxury most teams in NBA history could only have dreamed of. But it is Curry’s transcendent ability to take a game over that gives Golden State a potential no other team can match.
That ability was fully on display against the Grizzlies, as Curry toyed with Memphis in a remarkable display for someone who sat out the prior 25 days. All of the verve that Golden State lacked in his absence was back: the shimmies after baskets, the “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd, the trademark flair with which the Warriors have dominated over the past few seasons.
“He brings something different than anybody ever has, to be honest with you,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said. “There are plenty of guys who dominate the game in different ways. You think of Shaq overpowering people, or Michael Jordan’s combination of power and skill and tenacity. But nobody has ever tilted the floor the way Steph does at such a deep range and with such incredible ballhandling skills.
“It’s crazy what he does to the defense … schemes go awry when Steph is on the floor.”
It was clear Curry was itching to get back on the court, and he played like it throughout. He implored Kerr to allow him to play longer in the third quarter, and again in the fourth despite the game being out of hand. Then, in Curry’s final moment on the court, he crossed up Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies’ star center, and buried a three-pointer that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
“It’s just plays that you make,” Curry said. “There’s no thought in my head.
“You just try to be aggressive and creative.”
The Warriors lacked both of those traits while Curry was out – just two of the issues that were highlighted by his absence, which showed that even this seemingly indomitable team has some flaws.
While the combination of Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson can provide enough shooting and offensive firepower to match up with any team, the Warriors have struggled to get production from their supporting cast. Andre Iguodala has been a shell of his former self, while second year forward Patrick McCaw has often been hesitant to take open looks on the perimeter.
The one player who has hit some perimeter shots, Nick Young, has not brought the same defensive effort this season that he had last year with the Los Angeles Lakers. Even Draymond Green, while remaining a terrific all-around player, has struggled with his shot, shooting 32 percent from three-point range and looking uncomfortable at times.
Those are all issues to monitor moving forward for a Warriors team that – just maybe – is slightly more vulnerable than expected coming into this season. But Saturday night was a reminder that when the Warriors are operating at full strength – and, more importantly, when Stephen Curry is – Golden State can do things no other team can do.
It’s all because the Warriors have a player that does things no one else has ever done.
“It’s just his impact on the game,” Kerr said. “Not just the point total. It’s the joy and fun he brings, the excitement. You can feel it in the building … everything is different.
“Steph is special.”
And, because he is, so are the Warriors.