This is exactly how it should be. Down the stretch, in every game where defeat is an option, the ball should be in the hands of Stephen Curry. The fifth-year point guard showed exactly why in the Warriors’ 115-113 win over the NorCal rival Kings.
Curry was dominant down the stretch. The ball was in his hands and he refused to let the Warriors lose.
No. he wasn’t off the ball zipping around screens, fighting off hands-on defenders and relying on the pass to be delivered properly. He wasn’t a decoy, pulling the defense away to create space for someone else to post-up.
This night, Curry was in control, calming the nerves of his team and its fan base though the Warriors were a blink from a second straight gut punch of a loss.
“I mean, he is our best player,” forward Harrison Barnes put it frankly. “When he has the ball in his hands, we’re not worried.”
He scored eight of the Warriors’ last 10 points. All of them were either to tie the game or give the Warriors the lead.
Sure, it was the Kings, one of the worst defenses in the NBA. The better teams in the league put up much more resistance. But Curry needs all the practice he can being that guy for this team. He’s the only player capable of carrying this team.
And with the Warriors struggling through injuries and sporadic effort, they need to be carried.
“It’s what the great players do,” Curry said while unstrapping the brace on his left ankle. “That’s what separates the great ones, I think. … It’s fun. I love that responsibility. Obviously, I might fail sometimes. As long as I am aggressive and trying to make the right play.”
The Warriors’ best chance at living up to expectations is by letting their star shine. He is the Golden State weapon that makes defenses quiver. He is the frontman off which the rest of the band experiences the good life.
Yes, he has his flaws. He turns it over too much (he had seven against the Kings). He doesn’t get to the free throw line enough. You can go at him on defense and have success. All true. But stars aren’t judged by what they can’t do, instead milked for their greatness. No one’s taking the mic from Adam Levine because he can’t sing bass.
The Warriors will only be as good as Curry plays, only go as far as he takes them. That is especially true in close games. So the onus is on Mark Jackson and his staff to maximize his strengths not just hide his weaknesses.
And if Curry can’t carry this team, then its time to blow the roster up anyway. So, at worst, you find out early if he’s the top 10 player many experts peg him to be.
“I hope I can,” Curry said with a smile.
Curry finished with 36 points and 10 assists. It was his first game with 30 and 10 since Don Nelson put the ball in the hands of his baby-faced rookie in the 2009-10 season.
Back then, you could see Curry developing into a nightmare for defenses.
Armed with what will go down as one of the NBA’s best strokes, Curry also had the ball-handling, basketball IQ, court vision and a love of the big stage to make him special. Nellie was so sure, he openly deemed the Warriors were Curry’s team despite veterans like Monta Ellis and Corey Maggette making about $20 million combined.
But for most of the ensuing three seasons, that role was taken from Curry. Partly by the overbearing presence of Ellis. Partly because of his coaches’ inability to stomach his rash of turnovers. Partly because of his ankle issues.
Even last season, Jarrett Jack’s presence neutered the Warriors’ offense. Curry was relegated to off-guard duties late in games. Coach Mark Jackson said it was because having Curry and Klay Thompson coming off screens forced the defense into a toughs pot. But the fact that Jack was a more secure ball-handler, often strong enough or quick enough to fend off pressure defenses, played a role.
Curry was no doubt prone to the ill-timed turnover, which are especially difficult to swallow for a team with little room for error. However, part of the reason Curry has had his struggles controlling games late is his lack of opportunities. No question, that was one of the reasons Jack was not re-signed, forcing Curry into his long-overdue role.
“You can’t focus on looking back,” Curry said. “What it does is make me appreciate it more now that its finally here. Knowing the responsibility wasn’t just given to me. I haven’t done anything yet, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself. But I appreciate coach having the belief in me and giving me the opportunity. I want to make him look good.”
Curry has the skill, and he certainly wants the job. But go-to guys are trained assassins. You’ve got to learn how to take apart defenses, how to manipulate your own offense, how to become at peace in the intense, unpredictable, pressure-packed environment of NBA crunch time.
Golden State has its eye on another playoff run. As it experienced in the spring, postseason games often come down to the final minutes. Now is the time to groom Curry for those moments.
It’s clear he’s the one for them.
Sunday, the Warriors trailed by two inside of three minutes left. Curry set up a Thompson’s career-best eighth 3-pointer of the game to give the Warriors the lead.
The Kings answered with a bucket. But Curry came right back down and banked in a runner after getting past Kings forward John Salmons.
A Patrick Patterson 3 put Sacrament ahead by a basket. Curry answered again. He used a screen to get into the lane and dropped in a finger roll to tie the game at 109 with 1:39 left.
Golden State got a stop and this time Klay Thompson brought the ball up. The play was to get Curry the ball at his sweet spot, the elbow of the free throw line. He put the Warriors up two with a jumper over guard Isaiah Thomas.
Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins tied the game again. Curry, going one-on-one with Salmons, got in the lane again. His runner missed but Draymond Green was there for the tip-in.
Cousins re-tied the game with a jump hook with 12.6 seconds left. It set up a tense situation for Golden State, needing a basket, one mistake from going home a .500 team.
But the ball was in Curry’s hands, where it belonged. Anticipating an intentional foul from Sacramento, he shucked the play when he saw an opening. His heady play produced two free throws, which he nailed with 8.6 seconds left.
That’s five straight possessions the Warriors’ scored down the stretch, all of them produced in different fashion. That’s what happens when you milk your star.