He may play basketball like he’s supernatural, or E.T. on PEDs, but Stephen Curry really is mortal. His lower left leg does bruise, his right calf does strain, and team doctors can recommend that he sit for two tricky games in Texas, which he did, in a sports jacket and jeans and thankfully not snakeskin cowboy boots. Sometimes, he thinks he can play through injuries as if they don’t exist, such as Monday night at Oracle, when Luke Walton saw him limping.
“I tried to take him out, but he gave the wave-off sign and said that it was fine,” said the interim head coach.
Moving forward, the wave-off sign no longer is acceptable. The leg was not fine, forcing Steve Kerr and Walton to exert tough love and assign Curry the three initials he can’t fathom in his charmed life: DNP. “We’re not going to risk anything,” Walton said. Subsequently, the Warriors were skunked in Dallas, but they found their equilibrium on a fun Thursday evening in Houston, where Klay Thompson answered a bad shooting performance by outdueling a boastful but erratic James Harden with 38 points in a 114-110 victory. As Draymond Green blew everyone away with a blissful triple-double — 16 assists, 11 rebounds, 10 points, and a block of a late Harden three-point attempt — the Dubs proved they could win on the road without Curry.
Still, their bumps and struggles were a departure from the typical joyride. All of which only should remind us — more profoundly than ever — of what Curry is, what the Warriors are not without him and how the title of Most Valuable Player doesn’t do him justice. You may have chuckled the other day when Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle compared Curry to Silicon Valley Jesus. “You’re talking about a guy that’s a little bit like what Steve Jobs has done to our everyday life. He’s changed the way we live,” Carlisle said. “Steph Curry is changing the way the game will be played in the future.”
The Jobs parallel applies as the Warriors return home at 30-2, a number that “doesn’t seem real,” as Curry says. The record is more remarkable knowing they have health issues beyond his — Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, all the way to Kerr himself, who has given thought to returning to his sideline duties Saturday night against Denver but has yet to confirm it. The Warriors must go 43-7 to win 73 games and break the single-season-victories record of the 1995-96 Michael Jordan Bulls. Is that realistic? Won’t there be more bruises and strains, if not worse? At this point, they’ve quieted every offseason critic and established intentions of rumbling again through the league.
So it’s rather obvious now that the main objective should be rest in the season’s dog days while emphasizing the playoffs, not a number. “Winning 72 doesn’t mean anything if we don’t win a championship,” Curry has said often. The NFL playoffs start next week. The Super Bowl 50 circus arrives in a few weeks. The Warriors have their litmus tests in January and early February — in Cleveland, at home against San Antonio and Oklahoma City — but the idea now is to chill and achieve optimum health for the arrival of the postseason.
The reacclimation of Kerr is the immediate mission.
Preserving Curry and the inner core is the biggest objective.
And if it doesn’t jibe with 73 or even 70, so be it.
“If they’re healthy, they’re a heavy, heavy favorite to win it again,” Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki said. “They’ve got athletes, they’ve got shooting, they’ve got defense, they’ve got rim protection. I think it’s as complete of a team as we’ve ever seen in this league.”
You can focus on his final proclamation. Or you can focus on his initial words: If they’re healthy …
Without Curry, the Warriors are another good Western Conference team. The abysmal 114-91 defeat in Dallas was a bullhorn call to Curry’s transcendent impact on the Warriors’ historic run and how they’ve stampeded the competition to a 113-22 tune since Kerr showed up and turned him loose. A basketball ballet looked like another game again. Suddenly, the Warriors were not the Greatest Show on Earth. They were trying to survive against teams normally far beneath them.
Thursday, all eyes turned to Thompson. How would he fare without his Splash Brother? He was brutal in Dallas — everyone saw the ESPN stat afterward, that Thompson shoots 27 percent without Curry on the court and 49 percent with him. “We didn’t play with the same flow we usually do, and a lot of that is on me,” he said. And who was waiting for him in Houston but Harden, who hasn’t stopped yapping even after foolishly saying he should have been MVP. Upon hearing Thompson’s boasts last week that he is the league’s top shooting guard, Harden told reporters, “Just let them talk and do what they’re going to do. Whatever gets them excited, whatever gives them that confidence to want to talk, go ahead and do it. But we really know what’s going on.”
Thompson responded with a 17-point first quarter. Harden, after flagrantly fouling Andrew Bogut, fired back with his own threes — and one of his finger-twirling gestures at Thompson. They battled all night, with Klay winning the scrap and, better, not having to go home to a Kardashian on New Year’s Eve like Harden. But the Rockets, who’ve already fired coach Kevin McHale and still don’t play defense, wouldn’t have been in this game had Curry played. It was important for the collective psyche to win this one. The Warriors now are 2-6 without him the last 2 1/3 seasons, and before the win, they’d been outscored by 101 points in 460 minutes when he has been off the floor.
“He’s one of the rare players who affects the entire game just by being on the court,” Walton said. “Pretty much everything we do gets affected.”
“That’s 30 points out of the lineup, and it’s really more when you consider the assists and attention [Curry gets],” Green said. “We’ve just got to find a way. We can’t just lose games because he’s out. We’ve got to make it work.”
If Kerr’s headaches are completely gone, then, sure, Saturday at home against a bad Nuggets team would be a timely return. Walton said Kerr handled the Texas two-step well. “My understanding of why he wanted to come on the trip was, No. 1, to see how his body would react and how his mind would react and, No. 2, he’s just sick and tired of sitting around the house while we’re traveling,” the interim said. “It’s probably a good test, a back-to-back.”
As for Curry …
“Knowing Steph, he’ll want to get back on the court as soon as possible,” Walton said. “Having the record that we do is definitely a luxury, as far as it not being necessary for him to come back too soon. But he wants to be with his team, and he wants to be competing.”
He has the back-to-back MVP locked up. His team has lost twice since June. The playoffs are 3 1/2 months away.
Let him rest.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.