Stephen Curry is single-handedly making it difficult for his Western Conference rivals to make the playoffs.
Just days after posting 33 points and eights assists in a victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, Curry sent the Dallas Mavericks back to the ninth seed in the West with 23 points and 10 assists on Tuesday night, besting the Mavs, 122-120, in an overtime instant classic.
He added one heck of a game-winner to do the trick.
Heroics are nothing new for the Golden State Warriors' fifth-year point guard, but the timeliness of those efforts is helping secure a sixth seed in the West—delaying a rendezvous with the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder until some point beyond the first round.
That, of course, makes a first-round success story all the more probable.
Though it shouldn't diminish his leadership and clutch shot-making ability, Curry certainly had some help in Tuesday night's win. That bodes well for the Warriors' playoff hopes, too.
Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson each hit key fourth-quarter threes to keep the game close, and Jordan Crawford nailed five threes of his own en route to a 19-point effort off the bench.
And don't forget the contributions made by Jermaine O'Neal, who started in place of the injured Andrew Bogut. The 35-year-old center scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds, looking every bit his younger self. Perhaps most importantly, he blocked Monta Ellis' would-be go-ahead layup with 13 seconds left in the game, setting up Curry's dagger.
And that dagger was the real story, an authoritative reminder of why Golden State has a legitimate shot against anyone come playoff time.
Other teams can boast comparable or superior talent. Some of those teams can certainly rely on comparatively greater postseason experience. But few can rely on a cold-blooded shooter so capable of winning huge games when they're on the line.
Curry has established himself as one of the league's purest shooters, especially when it counts. Some may deride his style as "hero ball," but that's a tough sell given his willingness to distribute throughout the game. The elder Splash Brother is nothing if not balanced.
More importantly, sometimes teams need a hero. Curry's impressive handle and unique ability to create space for himself puts him in great position to find the open shot, even—if not especially—when no open shot looks to be had. You'd be hard-pressed to find a player more adept at taking step-back jumpers around the perimeter.
The Warriors will need that kind of success in isolation as games slow down in the playoffs. Defenses will stiffen up and much of that defensive attention will be directed at Curry. His penchant for crossing over, stepping back and hitting shots off the dribble will be indispensable.
So, too, will Golden State's continued success on the road.
No matter how well the Warriors play in these waning moments of the regular season, they'll begin the postseason on the road. But that might not be such a bad thing. Golden State is 22-15 on the road this season. It's one of the factors that's given co-owner Joe Lacob confidence in the job head coach Mark Jackson is doing.
As much as Curry's fortitude has helped in those road victories, Jackson's leadership deserves some credit as well. The coach has been under fire of late, according to a report from Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski indicating that Jackson "has come under increased scrutiny within the organization for how he has run the team and worked on the job."
The recent wins against the Grizzlies and Mavericks should help assuage those concerns. So should support from the players themselves, including Curry, who said he loves Jackson "and everything he's about," according to the San Jose Mercury News' Marcus Thompson.
O'Neal echoed that sentiment more recently, with the Mercury News' Diamond Leung reporting that he "called any talk of firing coach Mark Jackson 'ridiculous' and 'unfair.'"
It's looking more and more like the Warriors are putting their games where their mouths are, pulling out big wins with sheer determination and grit.
Besides a forgettable loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday, Golden State has impressed in recent weeks. They finished March with a 9-5 record and have certainly gotten April off to a promising start.
Jackson and Co. will have every opportunity to prove themselves with their remaining schedule as well. They play the San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and twice face the always-frisky Denver Nuggets. Otherwise, it's not a terribly hard schedule and could afford the Warriors an opportunity to build some momentum entering the playoffs.
Thanks to Curry, that momentum already has its first spark. Should it continue, Golden State's playoff foes will officially be on notice. These Warriors came to fight.