OAKLAND—In a Western Conference evaporating of superstars, the Golden State Warriors’ slim chances of an NBA Finals appearance went from improbable to eerily believable on Friday.
And it all happened long before they took a 2-1 series advantage in a 110-108 Game 3 home victory against the Denver Nuggets.
The Friday morning news of Russell Westbrook’s impending knee surgery flattened the talent and created a wide-open landscape in the West.
And with it, all other challengers out West, including the Warriors, were gifted heightened hopes.
While the weakening of the Thunder doesn’t by any means, suddenly ordain the Warriors as favorites out West, it does provide an increased smidgen of hope.
And the way Stephen Curry is shooting, why can’t it be the Warriors?
Curry was at it again in Game 3, scoring 29 points—including four three-pointers—and tallying 11 assists and six rebounds.
There was a “chance” he might not even play, though it seemed an impossibility that he'd miss his first home playoff game with the team that drafted him four years ago.
The vulnerable ankles of Curry are often under investigation, though, and Curry was questionable entering Friday night’s game. He spent most of his pregame warmups grimacing and missing shots he generally makes look easy.
But when he started the first quarter with 11 points, it was evident that Curry felt plenty fine, enough to lead the Warriors to their second postseason win.
In the postgame news conference, when asked if he embraces the grand stage, the 25-year-old played it humble.
Curry was snubbed as an All-Star selection, a point that his coach, Mark Jackson, brought up again for the 500th time in his Game 3 postgame news conference. But none of that matters now, and Curry has fully shot his way into the conversation as a superstar.
He is averaging 26 points and 11 assists through his first three postseason games, continuing a trend that emerged to a greater degree after the All-Star break when he averaged 26 points and 7.4 assists.
One thing is certain: If Westbrook wasn’t around then, Curry would have been an All-Star.
And without Kevin Durant’s superstar sidekick, none of the West’s remaining threats appear unconquerable.
Sure, there’s still plenty left to overcome for the sixth-seeded Warriors, including two more wins against Denver, an obvious point that Nuggets coach George Karl addressed after his team’s Game 3 loss:
But there’s no longer an insurmountable beast to overtake—no stacked rosters of talent that would send the Warriors flying off a teeter-totter of postseason mismatches.
Injuries have leveled the field. The Warriors understand that; they were victims in Game 1 of the postseason when All-Star David Lee suffered a season-ending torn right hip flexor.
So why don't the Warriors have a shot just as much as any other injury-riddled team?
The obvious answer may be the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs outmatch the Warriors, and they are led by been-there-done-that star veterans Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
But Golden State, especially after the Lee injury, wasn’t supposed to challenge the Nuggets, a team that won 46 of its last 59 regular-season games.
Yet here they are, roaring along with the Oracle Arena crowd that bellowed in the Warriors’ first-round upset against the Dallas Mavericks years ago in 2006-07.
Who will win the Western Conference?
What Baron Davis was to that “We Believe” Warriors team, Curry is now.
This is a different story, though.
That Don Nelson team was led by veterans, while this Warriors team is lined with young talent looking ahead.
This latest version of a Warriors' playoff team relies on three rookies with heavy roles and a second-year shooter, Klay Thompson, who is emerging as one of the league’s top shooters.
And, of course, they also have their young superstar in Curry.
With him, the Warriors have enough to jump in the West's conversation of "maybe."