Say this for the Golden State Warriors: They don't quit. It was a defining franchise characteristic over the course of five straight Finals berths and three championships, and now, even as the Warriors are performing tiny miracles to merely tread water in the Western Conference, the fabric of resilience remains.
On Friday, the Warriors overcame a 22-point second-half deficit to somewhat stun the Clippers, 115-105. Don't look now, but Golden State is 5-4, good enough for fifth in the tightly packed West, after having endured a pretty brutal schedule to start the 2020-21 season, including six games against the full-strength Nets, Bucks, Clippers and Blazers.
As early season MVP candidates go, Stephen Curry is at, or near, the top of the list. Curry went for 38 points on Friday, lifting his season average to 30.5, the second-best mark in the league. He hit 9 of 14 threes. He was the old Curry in closing time, pulling multiple magic-act triples out of his bag to seal the victory.
Curry added 11 assists to his ledger, none more impressive than this:
"Dope pass," Damion Lee, the recipient and finisher of this dime, said. "That highlight's probably pretty sick."
Indeed, Curry's whole night was pretty sick, but before we go any further, a toast to the Golden State bench, which cut into the Clippers' lead and even gave the Warriors a small-but-meaningful fourth-quarter cushion just in time for Curry to re-enter and close things out.
When Curry exited the game early in the fourth quarter (Kerr extended his usual stretch of minutes to ride the momentum he'd created), the Warriors were down one. When Curry re-entered with just over five minutes to play, they were up three. If the Warriors can, over the course of the season, simply tread water when Curry is on the bench, they will be tough. If the bench can actually be a boost, they could be a problem.
Aside from the bench, Andrew Wiggins was once again a plus factor, putting up 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting, including 2 of 5 from three. Wiggins is shooting just under 41 percent from three so far, and his ability to create one-on-one offense -- albeit mostly of the hold-your-breath-midrange-jumper variety -- has been a buoy as Curry gets relentlessly tracked off ball. If Kelly Oubre ever finds his game, which looks positively bound-for-Europe at this point, the Warriors could really have something brewing. Draymond Green has been a godsend.
Still, in the end, this all comes down to Curry, who has to walk a fine line of hunting his own shot and trusting his inferior teammates. It's not easy to do the latter. I don't think there's a single superstar in the league who could be as patient as Curry has been with the shortcomings of his supporting cast and continue to involve them, but Curry is playing the long game in the knowledge that even he can't do it all himself.
But again, it's a fine line. Curry had it going early and didn't double down on his rhythm, and the next thing you knew the Clippers were up 20. Yes, the Warriors climbed out of the hole this time, but that's not a sustainable recipe. Anyone who's watching Golden State even halfway closely knows the difference between Curry playing as just another cog in the system and with the urgency of a guy who knows he's his team's only chance. The following quotes tell you Curry is fully aware of his need to namage this delicate dynamic:
"They were sending bodies at me everywhere, and you have to find that balance -- I've been talking about it all year -- of taking what the defense gives you, making the right basketball play and trying to get everybody involved, but still being aggressive to score," Curry said. "It took a minute for it to click. If I can create shots and create momentum scoring the basketball, there's probably gonna be some more attention my way, and they know I'm gonna try to make the right play at all times and get guys going, get guys opportunities."
"It's that fine balance of being reckless and over-aggressive, where you get yourself in trouble -- I think I got a charge trying to take on all five guys in the early third quarter -- versus being smart with the ball, hunting for my shot but also kind of reading the situation and being a little bit more thoughtful around it," Curry said in a separate response. "Obviously that falls on my responsibility to figure that out."
Indeed, it's a lot to ask for Curry to play in shot-hunting, borderline desperate mode for the entirely of a game, let alone night after night, and ultimately that's probably unsustainable. But he can't be too far off that kind of approach. When he does it, the Warriors are a dangerous team, 5-0 so far this season when Curry scores at least 30 points.
They're 0-4 when he doesn't.
We tend to make basketball difficult in our micro analysis of stats half the world doesn't even understand, the simple numbers above tell the Warriors' tale. When Curry is the best player on the floor, they're good. Or at least competitive. When he isn't, they can look like a lottery team.
If advanced stats are more your tea, Curry has a usage rate of 35 in the Warriors' five wins, and under 28 in their four losses. Translation: Give him the ball as often as humanly possible. Once he has it, it's up to him to press the issue. On Friday, Curry flirted with waiting too long to establish his dominance, but he, and the Warriors' bench, came through in the end. Quietly, Golden State might be building something.