Few could have foreseen the Warriors making it through to the second round of the NBA playoffs leading into this season, and even fewer could have predicted that they would be in position to contend with the San Antonio Spurs.
But here they are. Though Golden State dropped Game 3 to fall behind 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, San Antonio hasn't proved unbeatable. Had the Warriors defense not suffered an epic meltdown in Game 1, they would have headed back to Oakland with a 2-0 series lead to their credit.
Even after the gut-wrenching Game 1 loss and a disappointing showing at home in Game 3, the Warriors remain a legitimate threat to pull off the upset. Their offensive performances in Games 1 and 2 were just too potent for us not to believe they have what it takes...provided Curry has what it takes, that is.
Golden State has leaned heavily upon its 25-year-old shooting savant—more than most realize. Curry is averaging 42.6 minutes per contest, the second-most among players still in the postseason. Only Kevin Durant logs more (43.1).
Curry is not often associated with the Association's most elite of pillars, though. He was snubbed from the All-Star team and, even now, he's looked at as if he has suddenly burst onto the scene as a superstar.
There's been nothing sudden about Curry's ascent in Golden State. He may not have always been considered a superstar outside of Oakland circles, but he's been asked to shoulder the same amount of responsibility as a Durant or Carmelo Anthony.
David Lee is an All-Star, Klay Thompson is an up-and-comer, Jarrett Jack is Jarrett Jack, and Andrew Bogut has emerged as an interior catalyst. Still, the Warriors are all about their young sharp-shooter, whose continued involuntarily evolution holds the key to completing what was (and still is) considered an improbable upset.
There is no playoff run without Curry—none whatsoever. Golden State suffered a monstrous blow when Lee tore his hip flexor in Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets, yet the Warriors went onto advance anyway.
And at the heart of their postseason success is Curry. For the most part, the point man has bordered on sensational. Through his first nine career playoff games, Curry averaged 25.3 points, 8.8 assists, four rebounds and two steals while shooting 44.8 percent from the floor overall and 42 percent from deep.
Should Curry's averages hold, he'll join Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady, Isiah Thomas and Tim Hardaway as the only six players in NBA history to average at least 25 points and eight assists throughout the playoffs before their 26th birthday. He'll also join Hall of Famer John Stockton as the only other player in league history to average at least 25 points, eight assists and two steals while shooting 42 percent or better from behind the arc.
His numbers (and potential to join the historical ranks) are actually more impressive when you consider how much he's struggled recently.
In Games 2 and 3 versus San Antonio, Curry averaged 19 points, six assists and 1.5 steals on 32.4 percent shooting (12-of-37). He's also knocked down just 33.3 percent of his deep balls (5-of-15).
Stephen Curry: 19 PPG (38/2), 32.4 FG pct (12-37) in last 2 games— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 12, 2013
For the Warriors to emerge from their matchup against the Spurs victorious, they're going to need Curry to produce at a more efficient clip. And they're going to need him to do it on a bum ankle. Midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3 against San Antonio, Curry rolled over his left ankle.
Steph Curry rolls his ankle but he is staying in the game for now. twitter.com/BleacherReport…— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 11, 2013
To no one's surprise, he was seen grimacing. He's battled ankle injuries his entire career, and with each tweak or aggravation, the Warriors hearts have skipped a beat (or 10). That's how much Curry means to his team and the Golden State fanbase.
And he knows this.
"I'm pretty optimistic I'll be able to play in whatever the capacity, I'll be on the floor," Curry said (via Sam Amick of USA Today). "If I can give the team anything, I will play."
There's more than a trace of accountability in Curry's assessment of his injury. He won't lament over it or use it as an excuse to distance himself from his responsibilities. He instead describes it as a matter of fact. His ankle isn't 100 percent, but he's still going to try and help his team.
That's the kind of attitude the Warriors have ridden this far and will attempt to ride even further into the postseason. They aren't comprised of an overwhelming number of veterans with an excess of playoff experience—they're quite the opposite.
Mark Jackson hasn't hesitated to rely on rookies Draymond Green, Festus Ezeli and Harrison Barnes, or sophomore sensation Klay Thompson. Though he's barely played, this is Lee's first breath of postseason air in his career and this is just Bogut's second playoff appearance. It's Curry's first postseason excursion as well.
These Warriors aren't the Spurs; they're not some veteran faction that has been around the playoff block a time, two or more. And so, Curry has been forced to mature right before our eyes, on the league's biggest stage.
Jackson has received plenty of flak for overworking Curry (and after watching Game 1, rightfully so), but that he thinks of him as indispensable should be flattering. Jackson is known for speaking in hyperbole (see him calling Curry an elite defender), but there's nothing abstract nor any exaggeration about Curry's value to the Warriors.
Golden State's offense has been better by 26.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor during the playoffs. When you combine the plus/minus offensive differentials of Durant, 'Melo and even LeBron James, they don't even meet Curry's.
This isn't conversational fodder to be used to argue Curry's superiority to any of the aforementioned athletes. It simply attests to just how important he is to the Warriors. Previously, we wouldn't dare put Curry in the same class of athlete as either of those three, or even a Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook. And some still wouldn't. But it's time we should.
At only 25, Curry has approached this postseason campaign like it was his swan song. Meanwhile, Rose continues to sit on the sidelines for fear of aggravating his ACL injury, and Westbrook experienced a season-ending injury of his own.
Curry, though? He's attempting to play through pain and whatever mental barrier that comes with it. Which isn't to say that Westbrook or Rose is weak (a torn meniscus is no joke; I have my doubts about Rose), but at a time when some of his peers are hell-bent on preserving themselves for the future, Curry is playing for the here, for the now.
Can that be construed as reckless? Ignorant? Utterly brainless? Absolutely. You don't want Curry to put himself in a situation where he risks permanent damage. At the same time, you have to admire his resilience (or stupidity, depending on what you want to call it).
Curry doesn't have the luxury of leaning on a Durant. Hell, he doesn't have the gratification that comes with playing alongside a Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer or even Nate Robinson.
Golden State has an array of complementary pieces and future stars (seriously, Thompson is amazing), but none of them (not Lee, not Bogut) are players the Warriors can entrust future postseason squads in.
For most of the year, Curry wasn't necessarily considered worthy of such status either. His health bill risked extended absences, and you can't place the fate of a playoff- (championship?) caliber outfit in someone with a fragile set of ankles. You just can't.
But the Warriors have. And for the vast majority of the year, Curry has delivered. His most recent showings weren't necessarily up to snuff, but he's still logging 40-plus minutes a night (50-plus in Game 1).
Curry isn't a budding young point guard to be taken lightly. He's a leader, and one who has been forced to bear a burden that exceeds his experience. Not just because he wanted to, but because he had to. He didn't have a choice. And still doesn't.
It's no secret the Warriors need Curry—that they need him to knock down an abundance of open threes and that they need him to figure out how to outdo Danny Green. His value to the organization has been shrouded in a bit of misperception, though.
Stephen Curry is now 2-for-19 when guarded by Danny Green in this series.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 11, 2013
Does Curry have the ability to lead the Warriors past the Spurs?
The Warriors may not get past the Spurs even with Curry, but they definitely won't advance beyond the second round without him. They need him on the floor to have a chance in all postseason matchups, hence the obscene (irresponsible?) amount of minutes he's played.
They just need him. Statistically and emotionally, they just need him. No matter how physically impaired he is, he's still their leader, their best chance at success.
He's still their postseason lifeline.
*All stats from this article were gathered from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.