SAN FRANCISCO -- In an homage to Baron Davis, the leader of the bygone "We Believe" Warriors, Steph Curry yanked up his home, white jersey to expose his heart -- and his chiseled abdomen -- to the 4,416 fans in attendance at Chase Center on Sunday afternoon. Both aspects of Curry's anatomy symbolize so much about this 2020-21 Golden State Warriors regular season, which officially ended with a 113-101 win over the Memphis Grizzlies to earn the Warriors the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, and two chances to advance to a playoff series.
Now, about those abs. All season long, teammates, coaches and opponents have remarked about Curry's improved strength, which, punctuated by a 46-point outburst in Sunday's finale, allowed the 33-year-old to become the oldest scoring champion since Michael Jordan in 1998. As for Curry's heart, it's been on display for years in the Bay, but was tested in novel ways during a season -- and with a roster -- unlike any he had ever experienced.
He lost his temper at times, boiling over in a rare on-court outburst earlier this year. So Sunday's primal display of dominance, literally baring his chest and letting out unbridled screams following a step-back 3-pointer that buried the Grizzlies in what Steve Kerr called the team's "first playoff game," felt like an instinctual release. Catharsis. Deliverance.
"It was little bleak, you know, in February, March where we didn't know what type of team we were gonna be and we were really struggling to find our identity," Curry said after Sunday's win. "No matter how the season goes, I'm really proud of the way we've given ourselves a chance to make this season matter."
Sunday's game mattered more than any since Chase Center opened before the 2019-20 season. With the win, the Warriors avoid an elimination game against the 10th-seeded San Antonio Spurs. Instead, they get the luxury of being able to absorb a loss in Wednesday's matchup with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the No. 7 seed Los Angeles Lakers. But here's the thing -- they might not need that second chance.
The Warriors entered their regular-season finale with the best net rating and second-best defensive rating in the NBA over their previous 20 games -- remarkable for a team that struggled as mightily as the Warriors at times this season. The schedule has helped, with 11 of those games, including the final six, coming at home, but there's no doubt that Golden State is playing its best basketball of the season, powered by a transcendent Curry, a rejuvenated Draymond Green and a youth movement performing beyond their years.
"We had some really difficult stretches, like everybody does every year, but we just felt like if we could hang in there, that these last 20 games would be a chance for us to make a real push," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. "I'm happy that I was right. We've gotten on a good run, playing at a high level, and the guys are having a lot of fun. So it's good stuff."
Overall, the Warriors roster lacks meaningful playoff experience, but in Curry and Green they have two of the most sage postseason performers in the league, whose supernatural telepathy seems to have reached new levels this season.
On Sunday, Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks was draped over Curry like a wax coating for most of the game, denying him the ball at every opportunity. As they've done so often over the past several years, Curry and Green took advantage of the opponent's aggressiveness. Curry went back-door on Brooks, and other Memphis defenders, multiple times to get into the lane for easy buckets. Once, Curry toyingly dragged Jaren Jackson Jr. all the way to halfcourt, only to lose him with a speed burst on a lightning-quick back-door cut. Knowing exactly what Curry was thinking, Green hit him in stride for a dagger pull-up 3-pointer with just over two minutes remaining.
That's the reason why the Warriors are so dangerous in not only the play-in game, but in a potential first-round series against the Utah Jazz or Phoenix Suns. The depth of talent might not be there, but the Warriors are a scorching hot team with two of the smartest, most talented playoff performers in league history. The Lakers, and any future postseason opponents, would be wise not to take Golden State lightly.
"The cast of characters is different than the last five years, but that experience that we've had, it comes back," Curry said after the game. "There's been a lot of commentary throughout the year about us as a team, [Kerr] as a coach, where we are, what we're trying to do, what we're building towards and all that. It feels like four seasons in one, in terms of all the different narratives and situations that we've found ourselves in. But now we have two games to get into a playoff series, and that experience that we've had should come out."