There were a few scattered signs that Stephen Curry hadn’t taken in the court in more than a month, if one was willing to break out the microscope for a careful examination.
Late in the first quarter, he lost control of his dribble and nearly committed a back-court violation… before recovering to drain a 30-footer that brought Oracle Arena to its feet. Midway through the fourth quarter, he darted into a passing lane for a steal, and immediately looked to turn defense into offense. Kevin Durant reflexively motioned for him to hold the ball, and Curry responded by giving him a look that said, “Hey Kev, it’s me, I got this.” The two superstars then slapped hands during live action, with full wind-ups, before proceeding to finish off their Game 2 win.
The Warriors are whole again, finally, and they looked as giddy and as terrifying as ever while beating the Pelicans 121–116 on Tuesday to claim a 2–0 series lead.
The last time Curry was reinserted into a playoff run after an extended injury absence, he quieted the Moda Center crowd in Portland with a one-man takeover in overtime. “I’m here, I’m back,” he famously told the road crowd two years ago, while setting an NBA record by scoring 17 points in the extra period.
Tuesday night was different, insofar as Curry now forms the league’s preeminent duo with Durant, a pairing that has been unstoppable when healthy. While Curry changed the course of Game 2 within seconds of stepping on the court, he didn’t have to do it alone. In fact, Warriors coach Steve Kerr took the unexpected, and somewhat humorous, step of bringing Curry off the bench, so as to limit the guard’s minutes given his conditioning.
“It was an eternity it felt like, for sure,” Curry said of his rare non-start. “I had to pace myself and be patient with it. Seemed like it took forever, but it was a good feeling to get back out on the court and let loose.”
Durant, meanwhile, scored 15 of his game-high 29 points in the fourth quarter, helping build up a double-digit lead that enabled the Warriors to survive a sloppy late-game stretch. With Durant and Curry on the court together in the fourth, Golden State ripped off a game-deciding 9–0 run over 2+ minutes. The Warriors blew open the game so quickly and with such ease that they jogged complacently through the final two minutes, much to Kerr’s chagrin.
In between his slow rollout and Golden State’s careless close, Curry was masterful. The two-time MVP checked in with 4:20 remaining in the first quarter to a loud ovation, and then immediately raced through off-ball screens to generate a clean catch-and-shoot look. Curry swished the shot: 11 seconds, one possession, zero dribbles, three points.
“He was Steph,” Kerr said with a smile. “He doesn’t take long to warm up. That’s for sure.”
From there, Curry displayed everything armchair doctors and overprotective Warriors fans hoped to see. He cut sharply with and without the ball. He played in traffic comfortably. He finished contested shots. He absorbed contact. He accelerated and decelerated without any trouble. He created space off the dribble. He drove hard when opportunities arose. He ran the pick-and-roll. He moved well laterally while defending. He opened up the paint with his unmatched gravity.
Afterwards, Curry described being “real eager” to return from a knee sprain that had sidelined him since March 23, causing him to miss Golden State’s final 10 games of the regular season and the first six of the playoffs. The Warriors were able to slow-play his return to the court, cruising through a first-round series win over the Spurs, who were without Kawhi Leonard. Durant said he began sensing Curry’s urgency at practice this week.
“[Curry] couldn’t stop running and jumping and making weird noises,” Durant said. “I was a little bit worried about him for a second.”
Tuesday strongly suggested that there’s no need to worry, unless it’s on behalf of Golden State’s opponents. Curry’s impact was immediate and eye-popping: He scored 28 points on 15 shots, hit five of his 10 threes, tallied a +26 in 27 minutes, and posted an off-the-charts 130 offensive rating.
New Orleans, true to a promise from coach Alvin Gentry after Game 1, stuck to its plan of pushing the pace and trying to keep up in a shootout. Curry and Durant made that idea look foolish, even though the Pelicans received quality contributions from all five starters, including 25 points and 15 rebounds from Anthony Davis. There’s just no out-shooting these guys.
Even four years in, Curry casually tossing long-range missiles still delivers the pure joy that drives Kerr and the unavoidable dread that engulfs Golden State’s opposition. The frightening truth is, Curry enjoyed a sensational debut and he can definitely play better. He can clean up his turnovers, he can shoot more often, and he can slam the door more emphatically late in games. He will soon be allotted more minutes and his customary starting role too.
That was Curry’s real magic act on Tuesday: He answered every lingering question about his health and his ability to play at an MVP level in the short-term, and yet he still managed to leave the impression that he’s just getting started.