SAN FRANCISCO — Something has dawned on Stephen Curry as the Golden State Warriors stage their first legitimate title search in nearly three years: he’s now the old man.
“When I look at some of those guys, you have to think how young they are,” Curry said, pondering the NBA starscape as the Warriors prepared for the Mavericks to arrive in San Francisco. “Jayson Tatum is 24. Luka [Doncic] is 23. Yes [Morant] was 22. That’s the only part where you think, ‘Damn, they really are that young.’ You think about what you were doing at that age, trying to get into this scene and… [play] playoff basketball.”
The NBA has long been a gerontocracy, a league ruled by the revered vets who train — and sometimes torment — the upstart before relinquishing its glory. Few NBA stars in recent decades raise a championship trophy to their early bloom — and certainly not without a lot of help. Doncic has plans to speed up his job at the expense of Curry, America’s old favorite little brother who graduated to elder statesman in a flash at age 34.
The Warriors Game 1’s 112-87 victory against the Dallas Mavericks at Chase Center on Wednesday night was a timely reminder that championships in the NBA are still the best source of inspiration. Though defended by the Mavericks’ strictest defense guard in Reggie Bullock, occasionally shot at by a second defender, the target of Doncic’s pick-and-roll attack and unusually inaccurate from the free-throw line, Curry showed poise and ease of an experienced player completely in his element. He led all players in points (21), rebounds (12) and assists (four, tied with four others) in Game 1 of these Western Conference Finals, the first time in his playoff career to do so in all three. categories, according to ESPN statistics and information data.
“We’re super comfortable on this podium,” Curry said. “There’s more gratitude to be back here and more sense of urgency to not let the opportunity slip away. Who knows how it will turn out, but I’m enjoying every bit of this. I know Klay [Thompson] is that too, and I know Draymond [Green] is because we haven’t played any meaningful games for two years at this time of year. It’s special.”
The win was neither Curry nor the most artful display of their signature Warriors style. They got there early and there were few classic clips of their proprietary split-cut for the vault. Still, there were plenty of instances when the Warriors demonstrated the telepathy that comes with continuity, times when Green’s auxiliary defense wiped out a high percentage of Dallas attempt or Curry escaped trouble thanks to a Kevon Looney pindown. The Warriors spent much of the night in the transition phase against a Mavericks team that would rather let Doncic sort his belongings out on the halfway lane. Thanks to Andrew Wiggins’ tenacious defense, the Warriors gave Doncic a hard time in his first appearance in the conference final.
The series opener was also a statement about how influential Golden State has been on the trends that define NBA basketball around 2022. The Warriors defeated a team from Dallas that attempted 19 more shots than they did from outside the arc and ran a 5-out schedule for much of the night to maximize distance, a practice the Warriors mastered during their dynastic run. All the while, the Warriors relied on a lanky, limited-range center to bolster their internal defense and rebound, making twice as many shots from the long-midrange than from the rim.
For a team that revolutionized the league in the 2010s, Golden State looked positive for Jurassic — and utterly effective.
“Teams are chasing us off the three-point line a little bit,” Thompson said. “This time of year — [coach] Steve [Kerr] always plays on it – that midrange jump will be there. Andreas, Steph and I, [Jordan Poole]it really worked for us tonight.”
It is not uncommon for even the most ardent idealists to embrace pragmatism in middle age. On their rise to greatness, the Warriors broke the rules of conventional NBA basketball, rewrote a few others, and laid down some new ones. Now, after three years in the wilderness, sustaining injuries and losing key employees, the team has adopted a combination of homemade Warriors wisdom and practical magic.
The Warriors are fully aware that while Dallas may not replicate the scorching shooting it unleashed on the Phoenix Suns last week, it’s unlikely the Mavs will miss more than three-quarters of their ranged attempts in this series.
For his part, Curry, who graduated from Davidson College last weekend, seems charmed to be both mentor and rival to a new class of NBA stars. A relatively late bloomer, Curry marveled at Morant’s body of work and leadership during the Warriors’ victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in the conference semifinals. Curry also acknowledged that in the future it won’t be easy to fend off the young virtuoso of the Grizzlies.
But age also confirms self-confidence. It tells a man who has won three rings, two MVP awards and changed the way the NBA plays basketball that he can trust his instincts without fail. Age is also a reminder for Curry that the clock is ticking.
“I’m not trying to claim the ‘old guy’ tag,” Curry said ahead of Game 1. “But we’re just as hungry as they are to make it happen.”
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