Before Golden State’s season-opening matchup with Oklahoma City, the champions were presented with their rings. Steph Curry, the face of the franchise, got his jewelry, addressed the crowd, and honored the team’s longtime equipment manager, Eric Housen. Kevin Durant, then, was announced last.
This offseason, Durant has been in the news, not because of an intense new training regimen or off-the-court endeavors, but rather because of rumors about his future. After signing another short-term contract (two years, with the second a player option) on July 7, the talk that Durant could leave Golden State after this season (maybe for the Knicks) is not quieting down. When given the chance to commit to the Warriors long-term, Durant has balked, leaving the door open for his departure.
But as the attention turned to basketball Tuesday night, it also quickly shifted away from Durant and back to Curry, who proved in a dashing performance (32 points, nine assists, eight rebounds) that he is still the engine that fuels this Warriors team, which outlasted the Thunder 108-100. The matchup was supposed to be more or less the after-party to the Warriors ring ceremony, given that OKC was missing both Russell Westbrook and Andre Roberson, who are both still recovering from surgery. Instead, the Thunder battled, thwarted classic Warriors runs, and even outscored Golden State in the third quarter, a period that the Warriors usually dominate.
Durant did score an easy-looking 27 points, but Curry was the glue that held everything together. He drew attention as he sauntered around the court, he grabbed defensive rebounds (eight of them), and he pushed the pace in order to get himself and the rest of the team easy shots. He also did the Steph stuff that we all love:
The 2018 Finals were supposed to be Curry’s moment. For all the accolades and attention the guard has received over the past four seasons, including back-to-back regular-season MVPs, he has yet to be named Finals MVP. Andre Iguodala reaped that honor in 2015, and Durant took the past two. With a 33-point performance in Game 2 of Cavs-Warriors IV, it looked like Curry might finally break through. But a 3-for-16 night in Game 3 erased that, and KD, the superstar who put the Warriors over the top, once again took center stage over Curry, the superstar who laid the foundation.
Who gets top billing in a title series may seem like a frivolous concern, yet it’s one of the only interesting questions left on a team that figures to cruise to another title this season; Durant’s flirtation with leaving has certainly added more weight to the conversation as well. But as the world wrings its hands over what KD will do next—including, it seems, the Warriors; there seemed to be a purpose for announcing him last—Curry took the spotlight to open their title defense. It felt like the story of the team the past three years condensed into one “scenes from last week” summary: Durant may be the second-best player in the world, but Curry may be the Warriors’ most important player. If he keeps playing like this, and remains healthy, another regular-season MVP isn’t out the question.
The Thunder, on the other hand, clearly need their own electrifying point guard to come back as soon as possible. Westbrook, who is still recovering from arthroscopic surgery that he had in early September, sat on the bench Tuesday in street clothes. He snuck in bites of an unknown snack, unable to do anything but watch as Dennis Schröder and Ray Felton tried to guide the Thunder to victory. Schröder showed up in Thunder blue for the first time and had a productive game, pouring in 21 points, nine rebounds, six assists, and two steals. But then, when he had a wide-open shot to cut Golden State’s lead to two with less than a minute left, he shot an air ball. Regardless, the Thunder will need him this season; they already do need him. Schröder will have to take some of the burden off of Paul George for however long Russ is out; and when Russ returns, they are counting on Schröder to help them past the first-round playoff out they’ve been the past two years. OKC is simply a better team with Schöder, whether he’s playing alongside its All-Star point guard or attacking solo against weaker second-unit guards. The Carmelo Anthony experiment didn’t work, but the player they traded him for just might.
In Westbrook’s absence the burden also inevitably shifts to George, whose place on a Russ-less team is fascinating. George is probably at his best as a second option on a title contender, but the Thunder need George to be more than that right now.
It’s unclear how long the Thunder will be George’s team, as Westbrook seems to be nearing a return. Whatever the case, if George can’t come through and carry OKC to an extent now, the Thunder will not only miss their enigmatic point guard, but they could fall into a hole that will already put them behind the curve in the competitive West.
As Curry showed Tuesday night, if he stays healthy, he could put together a potent season in the wake of his pressure-free situation. He has three rings, two MVPs, and not a whole lot else to play for other than … more of both. Tuesday’s game was a fitting microcosm of what the rest of the year will likely look like in the NBA. There may be teams that get close to beating the Warriors, but at the end of the day, their talent overwhelms everybody.