SAN FRANCISCO — For this year’s Golden State Warriors, most wins haven’t come in the traditional form — you know, the way that they’ve come for the previous four seasons since Steve Kerr took over as coach. This year, the franchise has measured success in the form of player development, incremental improvement and team chemistry. Kerr will be the first to tell you his team still needs real, actual wins sometimes to keep everyone motivated, but it’s hard to imagine that any victory this season was as impactful as the symbolic win of Stephen Curry returning to the court on Thursday against the Toronto Raptors.
“Everybody is excited. It just feels like, in a lot of ways, and not just Steph’s return. It just feels like we have emerged from the woods a little bit,” Kerr said before the game. “The last week or two, knowing Steph will return, but winning a couple of games this week, getting some clarity on the roster with the trade with Andrew (Wiggins), signing a couple of 10-days who have really helped us and now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s been a nice little stretch here. I think Steph has a lot to do with that.”
Chase Center’s inaugural season has been, in a word, underwhelming. You can’t blame the state-of-the-art facility or the Warriors fan base, which has been loud and energetic the few times it’s been unleashed. There just hasn’t been much to be excited about.
That all changed when the Warriors announced Curry’s return following a four-month absence due to a broken left hand. Kerr joked about how many media members suddenly appeared for his pregame press conference. Fans, who for most of the season had been noticeably absent prior to tipoff, showed up in droves to watch Curry’s legendary pregame warm-up routine, during which he splashed five straight jumpers from the center-court logo. The crowd erupted in the middle of the national anthem when Curry’s familiar face momentarily flashed on the Jumbotron. Once the game started, Curry drew massive cheers every time he touched the ball. On top of all the hoopla, the game was also close, as the Warriors battled until the end of a 121-113 loss to the defending champs, owners of the third-best record in the NBA.
If it wasn’t obvious before, it certainly was on this night: The Warriors aren’t the Warriors if Stephen Curry isn’t on the floor.
In reality, the Warriors haven’t been the Warriors all season — at least not the ones Curry has grown with over the past few years. During layup lines it dawned on him that he couldn’t complete a lot of his pregame rituals because none of his longtime comrades were warming up next to him.
“I’ve never been out this long while the season’s going on, so with the new building and being on the sidelines cheering for so long and just trying to get back out there, it was definitely fun,” Curry said after the game. “A lot of energy in the building — I appreciate that so much, in terms of getting to play in front of the best fans in the league. Regardless of how this season’s going, you wouldn’t have known walking into this building tonight. So that was fun.”
He was terrific in his first game since Halloween despite the rust, patiently setting up teammates while picking and choosing when to attack a Raptors defense accustomed to targeting Curry from last year’s NBA Finals. His trademark panache permeated the arena as he dished out a beautiful behind-the-back assist (with his previously injured left hand, no less) in the first quarter that Andrew Wiggins said he didn’t even see coming, and later he hit a deep, off-balance 3-pointer. And of course there was his much-discussed “gravity,” on display in the clip below. Curry sprints to the 3-point line, drawing two defenders, which left Dragan Bender alone for the uncontested dunk.
“He’s the most unselfish superstar — that’s a good way to put it,” said Wiggins, who put up 21 points and 10 rebounds in his first game alongside Curry. “He attracts so much attention that he’s gonna find the open man, and he makes the right plays. It was fun.”
Curry finished with 23 points, seven assists, six rebounds and just one turnover in 27 minutes, but the psychological and emotional effect of Curry’s return outweighs any of his on-court production. This was a step toward the future, not the present.
“I think there will be a sense of energy and enthusiasm the rest of the season, because to me, this is sort of the beginning of next season in a lot of ways,” Kerr said. “I think we are starting to get some clarity as to what our team is going to look like and having Steph back is a huge, huge part of that. The next step will be getting Klay (Thompson) back and that won’t be until next season, but I think the last 20 games are really going to be a springboard into next year. I think the energy will be high and remain high.”
Part of the reason it was important for Curry wanted to rejoin a team headed toward the top of the lottery was to familiarize himself with his new teammates, particularly Wiggins. Curry changes everything the Warriors do offensively, and a 20-game stretch will help create a runway for next season’s version of the Warriors to potentially take off. With Curry, Thompson, Wiggins and Draymond Green, Golden State will at least be in the conversation to get back to the Finals in 2021.
“I think we’re very motivated in terms of looking at the big picture … I’m pretty optimistic about what that means going forward,” Curry said. “It’s a big-picture mentality of what we’re trying to do for these next 14-15 months.”
In the meantime, the Warriors will do their best to win some games. Given the NBA’s recent changes that gives the bottom three teams the same chance of getting the No. 1 pick, Curry’s presence likely won’t hurt the team’s lottery standing. Raptors coach Nick Nurse said that he believes a strong finish to the season can carry over to the following October, and that’s exactly what the Warriors are hoping by re-energizing the team with Curry’s enthusiasm and excellence.
“This is the beginning of something, not the end of something. That’s a palpable feeling in our locker room,” Kerr said before the game. “Everybody is excited. More excited than we should be for a team that’s 14-48.”