SAN FRANCISCO — After splitting through a pair of defenders and converting on a layup, Stephen Curry summed up the state of his play with his actions, words and body language.
“I’m back!!” Curry yelled while running back on defense.
It sure looks like it. In only his second game since missing the past month with a left foot injury, Curry led the Warriors to a 126-106 win against the Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of their first-round series on Monday by posting 34 points while shooting 12-for-17 from the field and 5-for-10 from 3-point range along with four assists in only 23 minutes.
As he scanned the box score afterwards, Draymond Green’s eyes lit up before shouting. Green struggled processing that Curry finished with a +32.
“It’s what you expect of Steph Curry, but I thought that was huge,” Green said. “To be plus 32 in 23 minutes, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Another eye-popping note on the box score? Curry fulfilled this job description off the bench. The Warriors have followed this plan for their first two playoff games in hopes of both conserving his workload and spreading out his minutes.
“Make my minutes impactful,” Curry said. “That was the goal.”
1. Why Curry is a super-sub (for now, anyway)
When the Warriors discussed their goal, did they have to construct a sales pitch to Curry? Or did he just accept the decision without trying to convince the Warriors to take a different approach?
“Steph is Steph. You don’t need to sell him on anything,” Kerr said. “He’s very unique. He’s incredibly humble and incredibly arrogant on the floor. Humble off the floor, arrogant on the floor. It’s a great combination. Anything that is going to help the team, he’s all for. We always collaborate. We talk about everything. It’s just very matter of fact with Steph. There’s never any ego that gets in the way.”
Safe to say that plenty of other NBA stars would not react well toward accepting a bench role on limited minutes in a playoff game after sitting for the past month with an injury. Why would Curry accept such an arrangement after winning three NBA titles, collecting two Kia MVPs and shattering numerous shooting records in his career?
“I had to make that decision where like, ‘What’s really important?’ ” Curry said. “’Is it about starting and then just having that moment where you get your name called?’ Is that really that important? Or can you think about the big picture?”
The big picture reveals some practical considerations.
Curry already has experienced accepting a temporary bench role in previous seasons.
Curry first came off the bench in Game 4 of the 2016 Western Conference semifinals against Portland after siting the previous 15 days with a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his right knee. Curry then played as a reserve in Game 2 of 2018 Western Conference semifinals against New Orleans after missing a combined 10 regular-season games and six playoff appearances because of a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee.
While the Warriors won both of those games, Curry could ease his way into the lineup on a minutes restriction. The Warriors experienced the same outcome against Denver partly because Warriors third-year guard Jordan Poole has scored so prolifically in Game 1 (30 points) and Game 2 (29). Meanwhile, Curry conceded he still feels some discomfort in his left foot.
I had to make that decision where like, ‘What’s really important?’ ‘Is it about starting and then just having that moment where you get your name called?’ Is that really that important? Or can you think about the big picture?”
— Warriors guard Stephen Curry
The Warriors and Curry also narrowed in on this strategy after they experienced hiccups with integrating Klay Thompson back in the starting lineup after staying sidelined for the past 2 ½ years amid injuries to the left ACL in his left knee (2019-20) and right Achilles tendon (2020-21). Thompson struggled finding a rhythm after sitting on the bench following his starting stint. Since then, the Warriors opted to bring Green off the bench for two games after staying sidelined for nearly two months with a back injury.
Beyond caring more about the bottom-line results and his rhyhthm, Curry has placed other individual priorities higher than his stature as a starter.
“I want to be out there with a constant kind of flow throughout the game,” Curry said. “Obviously I want to be out there in the closing lineup in big moments of games and maybe change that narrative a little bit in terms of the cards you get dealt with an injury and missing that much time and coming right back.”
Therefore, Curry held firm on his stance on if Poole could ever take a technical free throw instead of him. Even if Poole (92.5%) narrowly eclipsed Curry (92.3%) this season in free-throw percentage.
“Never. Even I miss ten in a row, you see me right there,” Curry said. “I like that healthy competition because obviously I know he edged me out in the season-long race. He set high standards for shooting free throws. Yeah, it’s going to take a lot more than one free throw champ to get me off that line for the techs.”
The only player in the shot clock era to score 30+ points in 23 minutes or less of play during a Playoff game:
Stephen Curry pic.twitter.com/8l1im5K2i1
— Golden State Warriors (@warriors) April 19, 2022
Curry may have expressed relative apathy on whether he plays as a starter or reserve. But it seems implausible this role will last long.
We’re talking about the NBA’s best shooter of all time competing for his fourth NBA championship and his first Finals MVP.
“Ultimately we have to have Steph Curry in the lineup,” Green said. “We’re not trying to keep Steph in the sixth man role. Forget that. Now, in saying that, ultimately, Jordan probably is going to have to start, too. So that’s where, we got to figure a bunch of stuff out. Good problem to have. Great problem to have. But it’s going to have to get figured out at some point.”
“We’ll see,” Kerr said, smiling.
Some NBA stars would not like their coach remaining so vague with their role. Curry sounded like he understood the end game.
“Right now the goal is to make my minutes impactful as much as possible,” Curry said. “So, we will see, and I’m pretty sure we don’t give any of that away before I get back to the starting lineup.”
Until then, the Warriors have expressed admiration that they do not have to worry about managing their star player. Not that they expected they would have to, anyway.
“Gregg Popovich likes to talk about the importance of getting over yourself if you want to be on a great team, if you want to be part of something special,” Kerr said. “Steph, it’s just the way he was raised. He didn’t even have to get over himself. He was already over himself when he arrived in the NBA, and he’s maintained that humility despite this incredible stardom and incredible success he’s had and what makes him such a powerful teammate.”
2. An unstoppable 3-guard lineup?
The Warriors will never have a better lineup than when they employed Curry, Thompson and Green with Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala during two NBA title runs in three Finals appearances. But in only two playoff games, the Warriors already have cemented their second-best unit.
For the second consecutive game, the Warriors featured a three-guard lineup with Curry, Thompson and Poole along with Green and Andrew Wiggins to break the game open. The Warriors cemented a 57-51 halftime lead after closing the final 6:02 with a 22-8 run.
“I never envisioned Jordan playing this well at the beginning of this season, even though he had a great season a year ago,” Kerr said. “I couldn’t envision this, but he’s earned it. This guy puts the work in every single day in the gym and believes in himself, and he’s got a lot of skill.”
So much that the Warriors have even openly compared Curry and Poole.
“Jordan is doing some of the same stuff Steph does, and that’s tough,” Green said. “You’re going to game plan for Steph and you’re going to game plan for Klay. But now you’ve got to game plan for Jordan. That’s a different beast.”
Consider that Curry scored 13 of the Warriors’ 22 points during that stretch with Poole (five points) and Thompson (four) spacing the floor to draw out defenders. Or that Poole and Green both had three assists while sharing ball-handling duties.
“It’s really hard for the defense just because we are both play-makers, and we can both play on the ball and we can also both play off the ball,” Poole said. “Being able to have teammates who are able to screen on the back side and also slip and get their own shots makes it a lot harder for them just to defend because we’ve got the freedom, and for the offense to kind of move around where we see fit.”
3. The Nuggets lost their composure
As the Warriors huddled up in the third quarter, Green stepped toward center court and pleaded for the home fans to cheer louder. He also pointed toward the Nuggets’ huddle, which featured reserve center DeMarcus Cousins and Will Barton jawing at each other.
“Somebody’s down there arguing,” Green said. “The crowd should notice that and they should be very loud for that.”
While the Warriors held a 72-62 lead with 6:07 left in the third quarter, Barton confronted Cousins and talked to him in an abrasive manner. Cousins did not take kindly to Barton’s actions.
“Just some goofy [stuff] that happened on the bench that I shouldn’t entertain,” Barton said. “I can’t let that happen in the series, in the playoffs and in the game. I’ve got to be better than that.”
Barton wasn’t. Both Nuggets guard Monte Morris and injured guard Jamal Murray intervened. Cousins then walked away while verbalizing his frustrations. During that time, Barton kept jawing at Cousins.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone chalked up that incident as “just frustration.”
“We have a close team, so we’ve just got to iron things out,” Malone said. “No matter what’s going on, good or bad, find a way to stay the course, stay together, because that’s the only chance we have to be competitive in this series. If we’re fragmented, if we’re breaking off into groups or individuals, then we have zero chance of winning a game in this series.”
Draymond Green on getting the crowd going and trying to get their attention at DeMarcus Cousins and Will Barton arguing pic.twitter.com/wLOovFW12h
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) April 19, 2022
That explains why the Nuggets aired issues out in the locker room afterwards.
“That wasn’t nothing crazy, it was a player-player conversation,” Morris said. “But I’m just talking about stuff that we go over every day on film, switching and what we’re going to do when Jokic gets in a position on the floor, making people available for him that he can kick it out to because he’s drawing so much attention, things like that.”
If only that was the Nuggets’ main problem. Jokic was ejected with seven minutes left after collecting his second technical amid frustrations with not receiving a foul call.
“I’m not supposed to do that, and I’m not going to do that,” Jokic said. “I think I got fouled in the moment because I heard the slap. That’s why I just reacted.”
Once Jokic received the ejection, Green waved goodbye to him while smiling and laughing. Jokic still finished with a respectable showing (26 points on 9-of-20 shooting, 11 rebounds and four assists). But in Games 1 and 2, Jokic has needed 45 shots to get his 51 points in this series. In Game 2, Jokic became increasingly frustrated with the Warriors playing physical with him.
“You just read body language and frustration,” Green said. “Frustration usually shows up in body language. That’s just kind of what I try to read. You try to read interactions with teammates and how someone is reacting to their teammates. If you feel like you’re getting under their skin, you press a little more. If you don’t feel like you’re getting under their skin, you press up a little more.”
4. Poole not fretting over award exclusion
To the Warriors’ dismay, Poole did not make the finalist list for the Kia Most Improved Player award.
“If Jordan Poole isn’t the Most Improved Player, the NBA really needs to relook at their process,” Green said on Sunday before the league announced the list. “You cannot find a guy on that list who has made a bigger improvement. I don’t care. If he’s not the ‘Most Improved Player,’ then let’s rename the award.”
To Poole’s apathy, he seemed more interested in discussing the Warriors’ Game 2 win than not being rewarded for his stark improvements from his second NBA season (12 ppg, 43.2% FG pct, 1.9 apg in 19.4 mpg) to his third (19.5 ppg, 44.8% FG pct, 4.0 apg in 30 mpg).
“We had a game today, so I really was focusing on the scouting report to be honest,” Poole said. “There wasn’t anything to react to.”
Kerr stressed that he considered finalists Cleveland’s Darius Garland, Memphis’ Ja Morant and San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray as “all deserving.” Nonetheless, Kerr described Poole’s exclusion as “shocking” considering he spent time last season in the NBA G League before adjusting well to varying roles this season amid overlapping injuries to Curry, Thompson and Green.
“Jordan feels pretty valued in our organization,” Kerr said. “I don’t think he has to say anything. I’m sure his teammates are telling him he got the short end of the stick on that one. But there are bigger fish to fry. He’s all in on winning. That’s the main thing. But it would’ve been nice for him to be honored.”
Green was hardly as diplomatic. A day after pledging he would start a petition on Change.org to change the name of the NBA’s “Most Improved Player” award, Green doubled down on his plans.
“It’s coming. It’s definitely coming for sure,” Green said. “I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t shocked at all.”
Green sounded more gracious about Celtics guard Marcus Smart winning the Kia Defensive Player of the Year award. The Warriors hardly expected Green to spark serious consideration since he had missed 36 games because of a lower back injury. Nonetheless, Green often has used such developments as motivation after winning the award twice already.
“I’m extremely happy for Marcus Smart,” Green said. “That’s a guy who I respect as a defender. I’m extremely happy for him. Well-deserved. Where that team’s defense went, it changed their season, and he’s right in the middle of all of that. I’ve got no complaints.”
5. Warriors dealing with injury to Iguodala
This usually marks the time that the Warriors lean on veteran Andre Iguodala and his playoff expertise. Instead, Iguodala missed Game 2 because of neck spasms.
“Bummer,” Kerr said.
Kerr remained optimistic that Iguodala would have enough time to heal to play in Game 3 in Denver on Friday. But in the meantime, Kerr shrank his rotation from 10 in Game 1 to nine in Game 2.
“Most teams don’t play 10 guys in the playoffs,” Kerr said. “We very easily could divvy up the minutes between nine.”
Kerr actually played his entire team in Game 1, but that only happened because he felt comfortable enough with emptying his bench while the Warriors nursed a double-digit lead in the final three minutes. In Game 2, Kerr emptied his bench for the final 4:46. As far his actual rotation, goes, Kerr went with nine players with increased playing time for Porter Jr. (22 minutes), Nemanja Bjelica (16) and Payton II (18).
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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism