- Stephen Curry has taken the high road in his back and forth with Russell Westbrook. But on Monday night he doubled back and set the Thunder on fire.
After Steph Curry predicted James Harden would win MVP, and after Russell Westbrook responded by asking "Who's he?", Curry was asked if he wanted to continue the dialogue. He took the high road. His answer: "I don't have a response to him. But like, if you ask anybody, they'll probably have an opinion on who they think [will win]. Whether you agree with it or not, it's not, obviously, my decision. But I try to stay from those Twitter, social media, interview wars. It doesn't do anything for me."
Then, Monday night, he doubled back and set Russell Westbrook on fire.
Curry had 17 points in the first two quarters against the Thunder. He got to the rim, he was hitting from outside, he started getting chippy, and then he finished the half with what's gotta be the most demoralizing jumper of the year. With Golden State up 20, the game was effectively over at halftime.
Curry finished with 23 points, and spent most of the third quarter throwing alley-oops to JaVale McGee and hitting Klay Thompson (34 points) for open threes. "He" did not have to play the fourth quarter.
Curry needed a game like this. Until the last five or six days, he's spent the whole season searching for a rhythm that he's never quite found. He's shooting below 40% from three for the first time in his career, and he's spent a sizable portion of the past month missing open looks like a golfer who's got the shanks.
In the middle of one of the best MVP races ever, the back-to-back winner is not even in the conversation. He probably won't make All-NBA first team, and there was minor outrage when he was voted as an All-Star starter. This version of Curry is still a star, and he still leads the NBA in plus/minus, but he hasn't been the player who took over the world last year.
On the other hand, it's a long season. Aside from glorious, spectacular revenge—Petty Curry at his finest, as Rohan Nadkarni wrote—Monday was also a reminder that Curry will still determine everything Golden State can be over the next few months.
Here is where I admit that I was bummed when Kevin Durant went to Golden State this summer. Durant going to a team that had just beaten him felt like sports blasphemy, and had he gone somewhere like Boston or stayed in Oklahoma City, it would have added a title contender to the league and made the whole sport more interesting. But all those objections faded, and I got used to KD in the Bay. There's just one thing that still bugged me about the KD decision, and it centered on the MVP who helped recruit him.
What Curry did the past two years was not an aberration. He was better than anyone in basketball, LeBron James included, and he expanded the game in ways that nobody had imagined possible. But through it all, he never quite got the credit he deserved. When the Warriors won their first title, it was explained away as luck. When the Warriors were tearing through the regular season, there was a new retired player popping up every week to say they wouldn't have done this in past eras. And when Curry and the Warriors gave away the Finals, it seemed to confirm all the skepticism. It turned into a nationwide 3–1 lead joke.
All of that's fine. If Curry's graded on a different curve than various peers, the same has been true of plenty of Hall of Famers. Dirk was soft for the first 10 years of his career, and then he wasn't. LeBron wasn't clutch, and then he was. Kobe couldn't win without Shaq, and then he did. They all had the chance to prove the world wrong. When KD went to Golden State, I worried that Curry would never get his.
Now I'm not as worried. The fear was that Durant would upstage Curry, and all their accomplishments would come with an asterisk. But even with KD, anyone who's watched Golden State this year knows that Curry is still the one who can put them in a different category. If the door is open for Warriors challengers, it's Curry who'll have to close it.
Beyond OKC Monday, go back to the Cavs games. The difference between a Christmas Day loss and a 35-point January win was Steph, not Durant. He was 4–11 for 15 points on Christmas, and he was benched at the end of the fourth quarter. Then he came out firing in January and finished with 20 points and 11 assists, and like Monday, the game was over by the second quarter.
As Steve Kerr said afterward in January, "When he's aggressive, we go."
That lesson will be the theme of the second half of the season. In a year that's been dominated by Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James, the story may still come back to Steph.
When he's decent, the Warriors are good. When he's good, they are great. When he plays like he did Monday night, nobody else matters.