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Why Stephen Curry’s struggles tell us so much about the Warriors’ success

HOUSTON — The spectacular isn’t coming so easily for Stephen Curry right now, so he’s seeking out the difficult.

That’s not really a new thing — Curry has always been a willing participant in loose-ball scrums, side actions, and under-the-basket battles — but as the two-time league MVP tries to re-acclimate himself to the game following what was effectively an 11-week period where he didn’t play, and amid a second-straight series where the Warriors have leaned on the unguardable Kevin Durant to be the fulcrum of the team’s offense, those small things that Curry so willingly does — setting screens off the ball, taking on larger defensive responsibilities, fighting for rebounds, and actively creating space in the offense by consistently moving, even when he knows the ball is unlikely to come his way — loom large.

Those are winning plays, and not every superstar does them.

And superstars who are struggling — at least by their lofty standards? Yeah, they’re even more unlikely to do those little things.

It’s a testament to Curry that he’s taken on such an ancillary role since he’s returned from his left MCL injury for Game 2 of the Warriors’ second-round series against the Pelicans. But what’s even more impressive is that no one with the Warriors is in any way shocked or surprised.

“You’re talking about Stephen Curry,” Kevin Durant told me, adding a bit of side eye, just to accentuate the point: Of course he’s doing the little things, you know better than to even insinuate that he’s above that.

Durant is right — I do know better.

Anyone who has watched Curry play during the Warriors’ dynastic run knows that his game is far more than just 30-foot 3-pointers and incredible acrobatics around the rim. But just because it’s a bit redundant — just because it’s not breaking news — doesn’t mean that it doesn’t deserve to be highlighted.

Because Curry’s willingness to do the little things when the big things aren’t going his way — or the Warriors don’t need him to do those big things — says so much about why this Golden State team looks on track to win back-to-back titles and a third championship in four seasons.

“I’ve said it many times, but he’s the short Tim Duncan,” Steve Kerr told me Tuesday.

That’s obviously high praise, but it’s particularly so coming from Kerr, who played with Duncan in San Antonio and has always been keen to put the former Spurs’ big man in the same class of team leader as another former teammate, Michael Jordan.

Pair that personality (much less the talent) with the firebrand of Draymond Green, the tranquility of Klay Thompson, the unflappability of Andre Iguodala, and the downright impossibility of Durant and you have a team that is, frankly, unfair.

Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry (30) drinks water during a practice session before Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference finals at Toyota Center in Houston, Texas, on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry (30) drinks water during a practice session before Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference finals at Toyota Center in Houston, Texas, on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

“He’s so similar to Tim in his stoic demeanor, his ability to always do whatever’s best for the team, accept anything that comes his way media wise — nothing seems to phase him and that’s why our team has the foundation that it does,” Kerr continued. “We’ve got a lot of really good guys and guys who get it, but Steph sets the tone for the whole organization.”

In Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, that leadership was evident. Curry didn’t hunt shots or become overaggressive with the ball in his hand to get himself back into an offensive rhythm — he played a calm, calculated, controlled game.

“He’s so willing to take a backseat when he’s not quite ready to explode.” Kerr said. (And make no mistake, it was a compliment.) “The human part of him is just as impressive as the athlete. The ability to put his ego aside and understand what’s best for the team. Doesn’t happen very often with guys that talented. He gets it. He just gets it.”

The Warriors know Curry is poised for a breakout in this series. Curry knows he’s on the cusp of one, too. And when it comes, all of the little things that he’s done since his return — he had a screen assist, six deflections, three recovered loose balls, and a huge offensive rebound in Game 1 Monday — will be washed away by a torrent of 3-pointers and highlight-worthy plays.

But take a step back and think about what it says about Curry that he’s doing — that he’s always been willing to do — those things.

It’s a big reason why Durant is on the Warriors today.

 

“Kevin wanted to play with Steph. There’s a mutual respect. There’s a mutual talent level,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said Tuesday. “Those guys wanting to play together was a statement. They knew what they were getting into. Not only did they make that decision intentionally, they’re [now] enjoying the results of it.”

Remember the speculation that the Warriors — despite adding one of the best players to ever live — wouldn’t be any better because “there was only one ball” or because Curry and Durant’s egos would clash?

I don’t know if those criticisms were fair then, but they seem awfully ridiculous now, and that, when you take a moment to think about it, is incredible.

Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) hugs Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry (30) following the Warriors 121-116 win over the New Orleans Pelicans for Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant (35) hugs Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry (30) following the Warriors 121-116 win over the New Orleans Pelicans for Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

The fact of the matter (and I think most basketball fans outside of the Bay Area will agree with me on this) is that these Warriors have no right to be this talented or this functional.

And if all of this success emanates from Curry, then there simply aren’t enough accolades for him.

“I was talking to Kevin and I said ‘if I could pick a guy to go through with an NBA career with it might be a Steph Curry’, Myers said. “People say a lot of things about sacrifice and team, but what we should always look at are their actions… To see him coming back from the injury and finding his rhythm — it doesn’t surprise me not demanding anything more than he gets.”

“The notion of self before team — it’s never been him, It’s never been who [Curry] is.”

Myers summed it up perfectly. Yes, the only thing that matters is winning, but:

“There’s a lot of people who want to make a lot of things matter more. Maybe, to other people, there are things that matter more,” Myers said. “There are no terms of winning.”

The Warriors are lucky that they can win without Curry going off for 40 points every night — there’s no doubting that — but don’t confuse that for thinking they can win a title without Curry.

He might not be playing like Wardell the Wizard right now, but he’s still doing things — little, small, it doesn’t matter what size — to help the Warriors win.

And when the breakout comes — and it will — it’ll be something special, too.

 


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