In his first possession since March, Steph Curry darted from the right wing behind the arc and drew a parabola through the half court, hooking the curve with the precision of a speed skater. His arms flayed wide as he dashed up to and around Pelicans forward Solomon Hill, as though he were Gene Kelly hanging from a rain-soaked street pole. By slingshotting his way over to the left wing, Curry created a mirror image of where he had been just three seconds earlier. Waiting for him was the narrow opening he was searching for. A familiar splash of the net, a familiar roar from the crowd. It was the closest the Bay Area will get to a Hyperloop in years.
Curry is the team’s point guard, but the Warriors are autonomous in ways that don’t necessitate placing the burden of creation on any one player. Their pick-and-rolls are subterranean, initiated before either of the two players in the two-man game have the ball—and even then, the two-man game quickly expands back out to three, or four, or five. A Kevin Durant post-up leads to a pick-and-roll play between Klay Thompson and Draymond Green that ends with an Andre Iguodala alley-oop slam on a short-roll lob. There is a framework that allows the team to survive without Curry. Survival isn’t exactly the Warriors’ modus operandi, though. They came to shred. Game 1 against New Orleans was a reminder; Game 2 will be archived as a close win, but beyond the box score, the creeping sense of inevitability that has come to define the team’s present reign was settling back in.
For five weeks, the Warriors harbored a phantom limb, tracing the outline of Curry’s impact on their on-court dynamics. But some things can’t be simulated. Golden State was operational over the final stretch of the season, but operational is not the same as the most frightening prospect in all of basketball. After Tuesday’s performance off the bench, in which Curry was a staggering plus-26 in a five-point win, order has been restored. Curry is returning to the starting lineup in Game 3 on Friday. The most disrespectful team in the NBA is back.
The disrespect comes in gradations, in tiers. Tier 5 is Durant’s demoralizing ability to rise over the top of any player to get his shot off. Tier 4 is Thompson’s footwork, which is so advanced off the ball that he can spin his defender in circles just by turning around and running in the opposite direction. Tier 3 is Steve Kerr’s throw-shit-against-the-wall-and-hope-it-sticks long view: Even in a tightly contested game against a frenetic Pelicans team, the Warriors head coach was still experimenting with lineups he’d never played before in the regular season, simply because he could. Tier 2 is when Green’s competitiveness flies past the edges of legality and he executes a no-look, single-leg takedown on Anthony Davis as he stumbles into the supine position while a ref is staring right at them but walks away with just a double-foul call after he throws his hands up in the air, pleading his innocence like Ric Flair would after an eye gouge. It was a master class in both fundamental grappling technique and heel work:
Tier 1 is, somehow, not that. Tier 1 is Curry and Durant, taking a moment to savor each other’s presence and acknowledge just how easy this silly game is for Golden State during a live possession:
More than anything else, a healthy Curry brings levity to the team’s world-destroying ways. It’s not always a joyless, incomprehensible exercise! He brings new possibilities amid an ever-changing NBA landscape. The rest of the league understands how the Warriors have been so successful over the past four seasons. Most teams have adapted to the patterns Golden State has brought to the forefront. Many teams can play situational small ball, and they can switch screens and throw in a bunch of perimeter players at the same time and figure out how to offset a size differential. But there is no way of replicating the greatest shooter of all time. No one disorients a defense by simply being on the floor quite like he does; no one subverts expectations by shooting from impractical angles and absurd distances like he does; and no one with even a rough sketch of his skill set is comfortable enough off the ball to routinely serve as decoy for his teammates.
The ceiling the Warriors approach with Curry in the fold is what affords them the luxury of Kerr’s endless data mining instead of just playing the hits, and the ability to zig on their own zags from previous seasons. Golden State taking an absurd amount of midrange jumpers instead of breaking the 3-point sound barrier like Houston is doing isn’t some sort of post-wave abandonment issue—they’re just so good at shooting that the numbers favor the strategy. The Warriors have even crumpled the notion of optimal spacing that the league has largely adopted per Golden State’s influence. Six of the nine five-man lineups that involved Curry in Game 2 had three ineffective shooters on the floor.
By capitalizing on Curry’s otherworldly gravitational pull, the Warriors have been able to trot out lineups that wouldn’t make sense on any other team while giving them as much defensive flexibility as possible. Kevon Looney, in particular, has been a revelation in the playoffs, spending much of his time in the game single-handedly guarding the opposing interior star. He was impressive against LaMarcus Aldridge in the first round, but has really shined against Anthony Davis in the first two games of the conference semifinal. At 6-foot-9, Looney gives up about an inch of height to the superstar, but everything else about his physique appears to mirror Davis’s completely. He has long arms, quick feet, and broad shoulders that look like they were meant for someone of Yao Ming’s size. Looney at least holding his own against Davis has been a boon for the Warriors defense in spurts, allowing Green to freelance off his assignment of Rajon Rondo. Golden State’s most effective lineup in Game 2 was flanking Curry with long, multipositional defenders in Durant, Iguodala, Green, and Looney. In five minutes (most coming in a stifling third quarter), that five-man unit had a net rating of 100.4, an exquisite bit of small-sample-size theater. Kerr hadn’t used the lineup at any point this season, according to the possession numbers from nbawowy.com.
The Green-Rondo cross-match is fitting—a battle of two supercomputer minds who serve as quarterbacks and coordinators for their respective defenses, but with two drastically different temperaments. The Rondo zealots have come out in full force this postseason in praise of their idol, lauding the ways in which he can coolly dismantle an offense and play mind games without so much as furrowing his brow. Green is almost powered by the heat of the moment; shenanigans find him as much as vice versa. Draymond relishes in playoff moments as much as anyone in the league, but there is no “Playoff” prefix attached to his name to signify a shift in latitude. We see it all year, in the improbability of every single one of his actions. Someone his size shouldn’t be able to regularly challenge much bigger, more athletic big men down low. He shouldn’t be able to corral point guards on a switch as well as he does. With his average measurable athleticism, how does he knife his way through an entire defense on a fast break? The inexplicable nature of his game is exactly what makes it both beautiful and heinous. He is a 6-foot-7 middle finger. The Warriors have no choice but to deploy him as such.
It’s fascinating that the Warriors, the team with the highest ceiling and floor, the team with a seemingly lab-grown player in Durant, remain defined by two stars who have such narrow margins for error. Green’s instincts and processing ability may only refine further and further as his career advances, but they’re bound to a body with a limited window of peak athletic performance—any drop-off from where he is today could be the difference between another Defensive Player of the Year award and a situational role in the mold of P.J. Tucker. Curry’s magic can be broken down into a network of granular physical competencies that alone don’t amount to much, but together form the biomechanical wonder that he is—one that any slight kink could derail, as detailed in a story by Bleacher Report’s Tom Haberstroh.
Game 2 on Tuesday wasn’t the first time Curry had a statement game in his return from an MCL injury—he dropped 40 points (17 in overtime) on the Blazers almost exactly two years ago, but by Game 7 of the NBA Finals that year, the cumulative damage of playing on a knee that wasn’t precisely 100 percent was enough to change Golden State’s storybook season. And that’s the biggest insult the Warriors have given to the NBA: Arguably the greatest team ever is now a fortified house of cards, and its most threatening opponent isn’t anyone in the league, but the cruel passage of time.