Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pokes fun at questions from reporters all the time and can be easily irritated and annoyed, especially after losses, which is what made his reaction to Stephen Curry sinking seven 3-pointers in Golden State’s 116-106 win over San Antonio last month such a rare scene.
“It’s actually fun to watch,” Popovich said following the game in Oakland on April 15, when he rested most of his starters. “Everybody hates losing, but I enjoyed watching a talented kid perform the way he did, and he does it with class.”
Curry can captivate almost any audience in a way almost nobody else can, and he’s led the Warriors to the second round against the Spurs starting Monday night in San Antonio, where Golden State has lost an astonishing 29 straight visits.
What makes Curry so compelling might be the simplest of basketball skills: shooting.
All of 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Curry controls games without ever overpowering defenders. His shooting stroke might be the best on the planet right now, and when he gets going, nobody has found a way to slow him down.
“He has a gift that you can count on your hand how many people have,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. “Everyone wants to be a shooter. And then you look at him, he looks like a baby. And he’s smiling and he never gets out of character and he’s a class act. I just think at the end of the day people see him and say, `Man, that’s how I want my son to be.'”
The diminutive guard who dazzled during Davidson’s run to the regional finals of the 2008 NCAA tournament has stolen the NBA spotlight this season – especially in the playoffs – the way he did in college.
Curry scored a career-high 54 points against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 27, and he also had 47 points at the Los Angeles Lakers on April 12. In the Game 4 win over Denver in the first round, Curry had perhaps his finest moment: he scored 22 of his 31 points in a 6-minute, 22-second span of basketball bliss.
On the ball or off the dribble, the quick-shooting guard showed the kind of range that helped him make 272 3-pointers in the regular season – three more than Ray Allen’s record set in 2005-06 with Seattle.
“You just have confidence and try to make an imprint because the opportunity is huge right now,” Curry said. “It’s a big stage. I have to live up to it.”
Injuries remain a concern for Curry even now. He sprained his left ankle in Game 2 against Denver and has been somewhat hobbled ever since.
Curry said he took an injection that has “just a heavy dose of an anti-inflammatory” in his ankle after Game 3 and before Game 4 against the Nuggets for the first time in his career. He said the shot lasts for about six hours and helps ease the pain – but doesn’t completely numb it.
Curry isn’t counting on taking another shot before Game 1 on Monday night in San Antonio. If anything, his teammates believe the Spurs might need a remedy to quiet Curry.
“Any time he’s in the half court he’s in range. You scratch your head and the shot is going in,” said center Andrew Bogut, who had 14 points and 21 rebounds in the decisive Game 6 versus Denver. “So as long as he keeps shooting the ball the way he is, the sky is the limit for us.”
While the spotlight is clearly fixed on Curry entering this series, Kawhi Leonard’s emergence has given the Spurs their own rising star.
“He’s tremendous,” Warriors point guard Jarrett Jack said. “I think in a year or two he’s definitely going to be one of the top small forwards in this league, somebody who is going to be a potential All-Star candidate.”
Not that Leonard is at all interested in extra attention.
“Right now I’m just here to win games,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the nation thinks about my game. I have goals set for myself. I want to reach my own goals; I’m not trying to reach anyone’s expectations for myself.”
Leonard’s development in his second season was critical to San Antonio finishing second in the West and capturing the franchise’s 19th division title.
With injuries limiting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and, especially, Manu Ginobili this season, Leonard has arguably become 3A among the Spurs’ Big 3.
“He’s a heck of a basketball player,” Jackson said. “They got a steal in the draft – a guy that knows how to play, that was ready to play and does everything the right way on the floor. His ability to defend, compete, understands his role, has the ability to be a guy that can wait for those guys to make plays but he also has the ability to be facilitate and be a playmaker. The future is extremely bright for him. You can see, at some point, the passing of the torch.”
Leonard averaged 11.9 points during the regular season while shooting 49 percent from the field, and upped those marks to 12.3 and 55.3 percent in a first-round sweep of the Lakers.
The 6-foot-7 forward was third on the team in scoring this season, the first time anyone other than the Big 3 has cracked the top three since Ginobili’s rookie season in 2003.
Leonard has also become one of the Spurs’ top defenders, regularly guarding opponents’ primary scorers such as the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant.
“He’s a big key in what we do,” said Parker, who averaged 22.3 points in the first round. “He’s improving and we need him to have a good series against (Golden State).”
The Spurs will need huge contributions from Leonard and all their perimeter players to offset the Warriors.
The Warriors are averaging 107.2 points per game in the playoffs, including a league high in points this postseason with a 131-117 win over Denver in Game 2.
San Antonio held Los Angeles to 85.3 points in sweeping that series, but the Lakers were without Bryant. The Spurs don’t have that luxury against the Warriors.
Curry is averaging 24.5 points in the postseason and a league high 9.3 assists.
“He’s like a (Kevin) Durant, a very good shooter,” Parker said. “He’s a great scorer. Right now he’s on a roll. He’s playing great basketball so it’s going to be a good challenge.”
While much attention will be paid defensively to Curry, the Spurs know they cannot focus exclusively on him.
Jack and Klay Thompson each shot 40 percent from 3-point range this season, with Thompson going 211 for 526.
“All three are the same,” Ginobili said. “Even Jarrett Jack that is not supposed to be one of the better shooters in the league, he shot 40 for the season. All three are very skilled shooting well and that’s why they are in the second round.”
Golden State has not won in San Antonio since Feb. 14, 1997 – when Duncan was a senior in college.
“I said it before, it’s not our history,” Jackson said. “We haven’t gotten it done for two years, but we are a team that’s more than capable of going into somebody else’s building and beating them. We feel confident and comfortable about that. That’s not an easy task; but we’re excited about going to San Antonio and facing them. We don’t pay any attention to what history says. Because that body of work is not our body of work.”