Thursday night Steph Curry and the Warriors played their second road game in two nights at the beginning of a season they hope will stretch into June, against a team that won 16 games last season.
In a league where resting starters has become commonplace, Curry and the Warriors have chosen to relentlessly pursue excellence.
In the first quarter of what would become a 129-116 victory over the Timberwolves, the Warriors scored 40 points. In the first four minutes, Curry produced two assists, two steals and 11 points.
He scored 21 points in the first, his fourth 20-point quarter of the season. The rest of the NBA has produced two.
The defending champs are 10-0, the best opening stretch in franchise history. They look even more formidable this year, and Curry looks like he has imbued the game that won him the MVP trophy last year with even more deftness and creativity.
Thursday, he finished with 46 points by making 15 of his 25 shots overall, and eight of his 13 three-pointers. He hit all eight of his free throws and added five rebounds, four assists and two steals. He leads the NBA in scoring and improbability.
“I worked hard over the summer to get better and try to be more consistent, and to do the things I did last year even better,’’ he said. “That’s starting to show. That’s my only motivation. That’s all I need.’’
There is something unique about watching a great NBA player up close. Anyone with a television can see Tom Brady as well as fans in the prime seats at an NFL game. In the NBA, the stars are right there, close enough to trip, and those sitting in the front row at Target Center on Thursday night may have had as much chance of stopping Curry as those wearing Timberwolves jerseys.
Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio missed the game with hamstring soreness. Curry may have scored as easily over him, but Rubio would have at least presented a traditional challenge. Curry feasted on the inexperienced Zach LaVine. Andre Miller fought Curry gamely, but on a play when he slapped the ball nearly out of Curry’s hands, Curry regathered the ball and made a three-pointer anyway.
“I was still in rhythm,’’ Curry said. “It was just a lower release.’’
Watching Curry up close is different from watching other greats.
Magic Johnson was the emcee at a house party, talking to everyone on the court, organizing, ordering, orchestrating. He seemed bigger than life because he was the biggest great point guard ever.
Larry Bird’s only obvious physical attribute was his height. He was a basketball hustler, the hoops version of the seedy guy who breaks out his own pool cue when the big money appears.
Michael Jordan carried himself like a king and demanded that opponents treat him as such.
LeBron James combines the perfect basketball body with a keen basketball IQ.
Curry does not compare with any of them in terms of presence. He’s relatively short, relatively skinny, and plays with a casual grace that belies the competitive intentions of every move. It is tempting to say he is more artist than athlete, but his greatness is rooted in his exponential growth as an athlete.
He has developed a shot that he can release with the quickness of a slingshot and the accuracy of a laser that arcs. He has overcome early-career ankle problems. He has developed a handle that allows him to dribble the ball in any direction with either hand at any time. He has developed touch that allows him to do what he did at the end of the first half.
He dribbled out of a double-team, flashed to the rim, and scooped a shot high through a picket fence of arms and against the backboard. It swished.
Curry is in a two-man race for best player in today’s NBA with James, and this does not feel like the right time to try to build an argument against him.