OAKLAND — 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 4 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.
Former Warriors head coach and longtime assistant Keith Smart, in his second season at the helm in Sacramento, shakes his head when he recalls Curry’s ankle issues.
“It was frustrating for him. It was frustrating for us, because he wanted to try every single time. I mean, the guy would walk across the floor and roll his ankle,” Smart said. “That’s how loose that thing was. And he would try to still practice through it. You would tell him, ‘Don’t do it.’ You would do all the things you could to keep him off the floor, but he wanted to do it. He wanted to play. He’s not one of those guys who have earned his position in the NBA — earned the great salary now — and feels that, ‘Hey, I can just wait and heal up and let this thing do its own thing.’ That guy wanted to play. He loves basketball.”
The spark Curry has given Golden State comes even while new center Andrew Bogut remains out indefinitely while recovering from microfracture surgery on his left ankle. Bogut came over in a trade-deadline deal last season that sent fan favorite and combo guard Monta Ellis to Milwaukee, paving the way for Curry to take the Warriors’ reins.
With Bogut out, Ellis’ departure at least appears to have been addition by subtraction.
Curry had four straight games of at least 20 points and 10 assists, the longest streak by a Warriors player since Hardaway in that 1992 season. The team’s 6-1 road trip, which included a win at defending champion Miami, also was the most wins on any trip in franchise history.
“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.”
Now 24 years old, the son of former NBA player Dell Curry has more support than the elaborate brace that covers both sides of his right ankle. Curry has the security of a long-term contract to take care of his wife, Ayesha, and the couple’s 5-month-old daughter, Riley.
Curry is no longer “the dynasty baby from college,” as Smart playfully referred to him. He has built muscle from extended upper-body training and learned more about the game from all the video he watched while he couldn’t play.
Jackson calls him an “elite defender,” crediting Curry for Golden State’s sudden and surprising defensive turnaround. The Warriors are sixth in opponents’ field-goal percentage (43.6 percent) and fourth in the league in rebounding (45.5) per game.
Curry also has Golden State eighth in the league in field-goal percentage (45.4) and ninth in points (100.7) per game. While the additions of Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack have helped complement Curry, Lee and shooting guard Klay Thompson, a healthy Curry has molded all the parts together.
“The point guard is the engine of a team,” Myers said. “To have one that’s running smooth, it makes a big difference.”