Golden State Warriors Are Getting the Real Stephen Curry Just in Time

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2021

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry dribbles against the Sacramento Kings during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

When the NBA scheduled Stephen Curry vs. Kevin Durant for 2020-21 opening night, it surely hoped for a more competitive outcome than the Brooklyn Nets' 125-99 dismantling of the Golden State Warriors.

The blowout is what it got, though, and that led to plenty of hot (or at least lukewarm) takes.

"It was reminiscent of the start of last season," Dieter Kurtenbach wrote for the Mercury News. "And if it's a sign of what's to come this season, the Warriors' campaign could well be as miserable as the last."

On an episode of ESPN's Hoop Collective podcast, Tim Bontemps definitely declared the Warriors "atrocious."

The Nets, meanwhile, were understandably praised after opening night and largely throughout their 3-2 start. Durant's shot at a second MVP award quickly became a story.

Fast-forward to Monday, and the script has flipped (at least a bit).

Ask most observers to pick between the two, and you'll likely get more votes for the Nets than the Warriors, but the former is now under .500. The Warriors, following a second straight prime Splash Brother performance by Curry, have more wins than losses.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

The return of Curry's dominance came just in time.

After a slow start, there was what sounded like a chorus waiting to rewrite Curry's legacy. He couldn't do it without Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. He doesn't have any Finals MVPs. He's a "collaborative talent."

It may not be fair to single out just one voice from this crowd, but The Ringer's Ben Detrick summed up the theory about as well as anyone.

"Steph Curry is the greatest shooter of all time and someone who benefit[s] more from changes in the game than anyone in history (except Steve Nash)," Detrick wrote. "Can't compare him to real GOATs like LeBron and Iverson."

The next day, Curry dropped a career-high 62 points in a win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

The return of Draymond Green and a closer-to-career-norms Kelly Oubre Jr. helped, but that win was all about Curry. The distinctively Steph pull-ups and off-ball movement were there. More determination to get inside and draw some fouls helped too.

As important as that performance was to simply notch a win against a likely playoff team in the Western Conference, the long-lasting effects may mean more.

Curry's new teammates now know from on-court experience just how dominant he can be.

"It reminds me of 2K because I used to play with Steph and drop 60," rookie James Wiseman said after the game. "... He's a legend."

Added Oubre: "I was just happy to be on the same side as him tonight. Because I know it stunk for the other team."

Curry is the kind of player who can dominate his way to a playoff berth. His recent stretch didn't suddenly morph Oubre into Thompson or Wiseman into prime Andrew Bogut, but the Warriors looked inspired against the Sacramento Kings. (It's the Kings, sure, but still.)

Curry, seemingly on cruise control, went for 30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in 31 minutes. Oubre broke out of a brutal shooting slump with 18 points and four threes. Wiseman and Andrew Wiggins hit double figures.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

The stagnation of the first couple of games is gone. Players are moving without the ball. They're figuring out how to react to Curry's gravity. At the end of the third quarter against Sacramento, one possession after Curry crossed up Cory Joseph and hit a contested three, the Kings double-teamed him at half court. He quickly threw a pass to the paint that became a secondary assist on Kevon Looney's dunk.

This isn't new, of course. It's just new for a lot of this year's Warriors. The attention Curry commands, especially when he's on a hot streak, changes the game for his teammates.

It did when he played with the All-Star core that won three titles.

During their three seasons together, Golden State was plus-15.7 points per 100 possessions when Curry and Durant shared the floor. It was plus-3.1 when KD played without Steph (and plus-10.9 when Steph played without KD).

This notion that Curry is a system player, or that he was somehow carried to the mountaintop, is absurd. He was the driving force behind the Warriors' half-decade dynasty. And while it's tough to imagine this roster finishing anywhere near that level, especially without Thompson, it's becoming easier to imagine the path to a playoff spot.

The West is loaded, as always, but we're starting to see glimpses of this group's potential.

Wiggins and Oubre won't be mistaken for prime Thompson as on-ball defenders, but they're a long and athletic wing combo who can switch all over the floor and cause problems when engaged. If Oubre gets back to his 2019-20 efficiency, he'll help on offense too. Beyond just spacing the floor, he can use his cutting and slashing when defenses are scrambling to find Curry.

Damion Lee looks like a bona fide reserve threat from three. He's up to 50.0 percent after hitting his 12th triple of the season Monday. Wiseman moves exceptionally well for a 7'1" teenager, and he already appears ahead of schedule as a shooter. Eric Paschall can be a bulldozing scorer off the bench.

Then, of course, there's Green. Since the start of the 2014-15 season, he and Curry are second and first, respectively, in total plus-minus. In the same stretch, when both are on the floor, the Warriors are plus-15.3 points per 100 possessions.

Green's passing (especially out of pick-and-rolls with Curry), defense and leadership make him one of the best gap-fillers in NBA history. If he's anywhere near his peak and playing alongside a motivated Curry, just a few more average players should be enough for Golden State to push for a spot in the postseason.

On Sunday and Monday, the Warriors looked even better than that. Eight straight quarters with at least 30 points and a performance so dominant Monday that Curry could sit all 12 minutes of the fourth frame almost gave off light-years-era vibes.

Of course, two straight games against Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers could level off expectations, but the Warriors and Curry, their all-time great leader, have shown enough to move the season obituaries to the drafts folder.