The Warriors clearly did not have to be the Warriors to earn a 2-seed in the West, win 58 games, and drop a gentleman’s sweep on the Spurs in Round 1. They could afford to look lackadaisical and even indifferent to the level of their success all year long. They didn’t even have to be the Warriors to handily beat the Pelicans in Game 1 of their second-round series.
All it took for them to be their old selves anew was the return of their star player. Once Steph Curry stepped onto the Oracle Arena court Tuesday night after missing 22 of the team’s past 23 games, it unlocked every aspect of the Warriors we’ve come to both love and hate. Golden State took care of New Orleans in Game 2, 121-116. The Pelicans hung around, fought, scratched, and clawed to stay level, but were never able to get over the hump. The Warriors’ avalanche came a little later than usual, this time in the latter part of the fourth quarter. It put a seal on a game stamped with the supercilious ink Golden State loves to flaunt when the stakes are high.
It also helps when your star player is the best bench player in the league.
Spare me this technicality. Curry returned by coming off the bench like a rookie who had to earn his spot back. He did it swiftly and with a loud opening note, hitting his first shot attempt—a 3—and scoring 28 points in 27 minutes on 15 shots, finishing a ridiculous plus-26 in a five-point game. From the pregame tunnel shot to the pull-ups from 30 feet, he was draining 3s like he had never left.
Curry acted as a luxury addition in this game, but as he is wont to do, he ended up being essential to the Warriors’ win. The Warriors shot a mediocre 32.5 percent from 3, after spending most of the first three quarters below 30 percent. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson combined for only three 3s through three quarters. (Thompson finished 2-for-11 from 3, and 4-for-20 overall.) It was far from the ideal game for the rest of the group until the fourth quarter arrived and the switch flipped inside Durant’s head, and he realized no one on the Pels could guard him. Shots started to come like replies on a ratio tweet. He finished by making five of his six shots in the quarter and scoring 15 of his 29 total points in the final frame.
In many ways, when the Warriors are ignited, Durant is the one whose presence almost feels extravagant in a way that’s unnecessary and unfair. Curry makes it so that Durant can have an off night only to catch a bit of a blaze late when it matters most. It’s the safest bet on earth that one of the best scorers of all time will have a streaky stretch like that nearly every game. Tuesday, it just happened to occur in the fourth quarter of a close contest.
This is why Curry is still Golden State’s most important player and can change the shape of a game merely by entering it. In that moment, the geometry of the court flips as drastically as the calculus of talent between the Warriors and their opponents. Golden State without Steph is a high-powered offensive team with the ability to beat every team. With Steph, the Warriors are the most talented team of all time, capable of blowing out any other team at will and, as they did in Game 2, totaling 36 assists on 43 made shots—the Warriors’ best ratio of assists to field goals since 1952. The machine isn’t stopping, it’s only growing stronger. And it’s growing more emboldened too. That’s where Draymond Green comes in, as the missing piece of the trinity that adds a little dark to the magic.
Draymond didn’t have his best regular season this year, struggling to shoot as consistently as he has in the past, and like the Warriors as a whole, looked flat at times. But in the playoffs, he’s tapped into old Draymond, the one from 2016 whose game and mouth are both unstoppable. “I live for playoff basketball. It’s a fun time of the year for me,” he said postgame. We can tell!
On Tuesday, Draymond ran the gamut of players he could involve in a contentious moment. He got into it with Nikola Mirotic:
He got into it with Rajon Rondo, who Draymond alleged came up to him:
He even got into it with Anthony Davis, the two of them twisting awkwardly on the floor like a botched Wetzel’s Pretzel:
Draymond Green and Anthony Davis get tangled up pic.twitter.com/trs4awdrdQ— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) May 2, 2018
Green probably deserved one, two, or maybe three technicals for going at either refs or players—but he didn’t get them. Instead, he had an even better game than he did in Game 1, putting up 20 points, 12 assists, and nine rebounds, finishing the night off by responding audaciously to Charles Barkley, who on the TNT broadcast had said he wanted someone to “punch Green in the face”:
Draymond Green with a strong response to Charles Barkley saying he would punch him in the face pic.twitter.com/tBLRAei3zW— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 2, 2018
It was the Draymond experience in full, fraught with earned arrogance at every make, whistle, or quote. He’s a pain for both his opponents and his team, I’m sure, but he is also essential, the glue that makes the Warriors stick, and the player who has the ultimate X factor potential in any series they play and likely all the ones they’re going to win (read: all of them). If Steph is the ultimate on-the-court sign that the Warriors are fully engaged, Draymond is the one who can bring enough energy to keep the fire burning all the way to, and through, the Finals.