OAKLAND, Calif. (AP)
The moment Mark Jackson saw Stephen Curry return to the court in September for the first time since the point guard's most recent right ankle surgery, he had an epiphany.
Not the kind that comes to Jackson when he preaches from the pulpit for his ministry. Nor the sort he shouts from the sideline as the Golden State Warriors' coach. Instead, he just kept quiet and smiled about the possibilities.
"You just saw like, 'Man, that's what I'm talking about. I can really be a better coach this year,'" Jackson said, chuckling.
The truth in Jackson's joke, as even he admits, is that nobody is questioning his coaching abilities now in large part because nobody is questioning Curry's health.
The Warriors (17-9) are off to their best start since the 1991-92 season, when the team began 21-8 behind Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin. Golden State enters Friday night's game against Curry's hometown Charlotte Bobcats playing like a playoff-bound team in the Western Conference.
That's no small feat for a franchise that has missed the postseason 17 of the last 18 years. Neither is it a mild milestone in Curry's comeback, not after his troubled right ankle sidelined him for most of the last year and had some wondering whether he could ever be the point guard who looked so promising in his first two seasons.
"Missing games and not having complete confidence that my ankle would hold up was tough," Curry said. "To be at this point right now playing and helping the team win, it definitely feels great to just be able to focus on games."
Warriors general manager Bob Myers believes Curry's breakthrough this season came at Dallas on Nov. 19.
Curry made only four of 12 shots through three quarters and rolled his right ankle early in the fourth before he picked it up offensively, scoring 14 of Golden State's last 17 points in regulation. Curry added six points in overtime to lift the Warriors to a 105-101 win.
"Everybody kind of was thinking, 'Here we go again,'" Myers said. "He kind of had this look, it was like a boxer who takes a punch and starts laughing. He went the other with it and came out guns blazing and performed exceptionally well and won us the game, really. He took over the game. That, to me, was a pivotal point in our season. Not only for his leadership ability but for the rest of the players on the team to see how talented he was, when needed to be the man, he could do it."
Myers took the risk of signing Curry to a $44 million, four-year contract extension through the 2016-17 season hours before the season opener at Phoenix. Curry had even sat out the final two exhibitions as a precaution because of ankle issues.
It was the final day Golden State could sign Curry to an extension or he would become a restricted free agent next summer. While the risk of injury is no different now than it was then, Curry's confidence has helped put everybody around him at ease.
"Every day that goes by and nothing transpires, I feel better," Myers said.
Curry is averaging career-highs of 19.9 points and 6.3 assists per game. He has started all 26 contests and is making a strong case, along with co-captain David Lee, to be Golden State's first All-Star since Latrell Sprewell in 1997.
All this after Curry averaged career lows of 14.7 points, 5.3 assists and 3.4 rebounds while missing 40 games during last season's lockout-shortened 66-game schedule, repeatedly spraining, tweaking or rolling his right ankle.
Curry rehabbed in Charlotte for weeks. Finally, in April, he had what the team called an "exploratory procedure" that "revealed a stable ankle with no structural damage and consisted of cleaning out loose debris and scar tissue." The former Davidson star also had surgery to repair a tendon in his ankle in the summer of 2011 and often had problems even while playing that next season.
"Everybody keeps saying, 'Why? How is he different?' It's just that he's healthy," Lee said. "He's finally capable of playing the way that he's able to play. He's got a great calming effect on us out there offensively and defensively. He's a great leader on the floor and a great teammate off the court. He provides a lot more than just hitting a jump shot.
"This year I can honestly say I feel like it's behind him."
The Bobcats (7-18) hoped last season's struggles were behind them when they opened 7-5, matching their win total from all of 2011-12. But they're still stuck on seven wins, having now lost 13 straight.
After nearly beating the Lakers on Tuesday, Charlotte lost 121-104 at Phoenix the following night.
"We're fine. We're a young team," guard Kemba Walker said after scoring 27 points Wednesday, his third straight game with at least that many. "We still feel pretty confident in ourselves. As long as we're getting better, we definitely will all just come together. Good things are going to happen for us."
Curry had 27 points in the Warriors' 104-96 win at Charlotte on Dec. 10, although the Bobcats have won their last three trips to Oakland.