OAKLAND – Stephen Curry has rescued the Warriors on many occasions, in many ways, but the team's centerpiece and leader has never faced a challenge quite like the one before him now.
Curry's immediate task is to coax the best out of Kevin Durant. It's a big job, and Curry is the only member of the team equipped for it.
When discussing Curry's leadership role on the Warriors, coach Steve Kerr often compares him to former Spurs teammate Tim Duncan. Usually, this is apt. Neither Curry nor Duncan rely on emotions and neither use his ego to bludgeon teammates. Both qualify as superstars possessing special skills packaged within an equanimity that commands respect.
But once Duncan evolved into a leader, he never had a teammate on his level. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are bound for the Hall of Fame, but neither is a top-five NBA player. Duncan's influence in San Antonio was so significant and pervasive largely because he had no peer in the locker room.
The Curry-Durant dynamic is complicated, though, because each has alpha talent. Though they approach their work differently, both are highly proficient. They live in the same rarified air and by most basketball measures, are no less than hoop equals.
Only Curry has the gravitas to reach KD, whose engagement has been much less consistent than in his first two seasons as a Warrior. It's visible, even as Durant downplays it.
Through the first two games of these playoffs against the Clippers, Durant has been far short of his best self. He was solid in Game 1 but lost enough composure to get ejected. He apologized for it Monday morning before Game 2.
Nine hours later, KD went out played one of his least effective games since becoming a Warrior, taking eight shots and committing nine turnovers before fouling out. Durant played in spurts, full effort during some moments and casual indifference during others.
Moreover, there were testy moments with teammates, opponents – LA guard Patrick Beverley in particular – coaches and officials.
That the Warriors lost, and in the most calamitous way, blowing a 31-point third-quarter lead, is not entirely on KD. Curry committed four turnovers in 16 second-half minutes, greatly aiding the Clippers' historic comeback. The defense, reasonably tight in the first half and early in the third quarter, turned disastrously loose and languid over the final 16.5 minutes.
There is no question an awful lot went wrong in a lot of places, including the bench, for a collapse unlike any ever seen in a playoff game.
But Durant has to bear a considerable portion of the blame, largely because he is too smart and brilliant to get played as he did. Between being oddly passive at times and falling for Beverley's act and at times, KD minimized his impact. He fell off his game and was not the real KD.
This used to be where Draymond Green would step in and light a fire under Durant. That no longer is a credible option and hasn't been since Draymond went full flamethrower on KD back in November. They've become teammates, period.
The coaches don't have a chance because coaches rarely do and certainly don't now.
Thus, it falls on Curry to try and resuscitate the Durant we saw so frequently over the previous two seasons and but only occasionally this season. The Warriors are unbeatable when Curry and Durant are on their games, with everyone else revolving around them.
"We've got to put together 48 minutes of it, just collective energy, positivity around everything we do," Curry said late Monday night.
Even without DeMarcus Cousins, the Warriors don't need peak Durant to win this series. In their current vulnerable state, they're too much for the Clippers. If KD is himself, the Warriors win in a sweep. He's not himself and the Warriors are paying a price.
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They're telling themselves they'll get it fixed by Game 3 on Thursday. They're also wondering about the duration of this postseason, when there will be times the Warriors will need KD.
If Durant gets to his usual place, the Warriors win it all. It's apparent he cannot always do it alone, which is why Curry and his powers of diplomacy and persuasion feel so essential.