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Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Warriors more dangerous than ever

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

DENVER -- You knew it was coming. Stephen Curry was coming.

That game, the one where he catches fire and knocks down shot after shot after shot. The one where the other team tries six different defenders on him -- some small, some long, some big, some quick -- and no one can stop him. That game was coming.

Tuesday night, with his team still reeling from losing All-Star forward David Lee to a torn right hip flexor Saturday afternoon, Curry arrived just in time to wreak some havoc on this first-round Western Conference playoff series.

His jumper in the Warriors' sizzling 131-117 upset of the third-seeded Denver Nuggets in Game 2 was so true it could pass a lie detector test.

After missing four of his first five shots, Curry hit 12 of his next 18 to finish with a game-high 30 points, along with 13 assists, five rebounds and three steals. In the second quarter alone, he made seven of 10 shots to break open what had the makings of another taut, back-and-forth game.

The Warriors took an eight-point lead into halftime, extended it to 17 in the third quarter and never really had much to sweat down the stretch as they snapped Denver's 24-game home winning streak.

The only lowlight for the Warriors came late in the third quarter when Curry rolled his left ankle and had to come out of the game for a few minutes.

Barnes
Harrison Barnes, playing at power forward, poured in 24 points in the Warriors' series-tying win.

Whenever Curry leaves with an ankle injury, your mind starts racing to worst-case scenarios. That is the danger of falling too deeply in love with his game. All that brilliance and sizzle is held together by the fragile ligaments and tendons in his ankles.

Fortunately this wasn't the chronically injured right ankle that has cost him so many games. Just the left one catching up. And Curry came back in to play 10 minutes in the fourth quarter.

"It's sore," Curry said afterwards. "Just a normal ankle sprain that I've dealt with plenty of times, just the other foot. I don't think there's any concern going forward to [Game 3] on Friday night."

If Curry sounds a little blasé about the situation, you can't really blame him. He's got calluses from all the adversity he's already dealt with in his young career.

He's had to learn to play through pain, with fear, shaking his head at misfortune. If it was going to break him, or this Warriors team, it probably would have already.

Instead, this young Warriors team that most wrote off after Lee's injury seems to have turned into the most dangerous kind of team in the playoffs.

The one playing with house money.

"It's just the cards you've been dealt," said veteran guard Jarrett Jack, who scored 26 points in a rare start as the Warriors elected to go with a small three-guard lineup without Lee. "It's up to you and how you play them. You can just say, 'We put up a good fight, but we didn't have all our guys.'

"But I think all of us have worked hard enough to write a different type of story. And we're going to just play it, whatever's left."

Jack's insertion into the starting lineup is a perfect example of the loose, aggressive style Warriors coach Mark Jackson has got his team playing.

In a fun bit of gamesmanship, forward Carl Landry was announced as the starter. But when the house lights turned back on and the players went to midcourt for the tipoff, Jack was on the floor.

Asked afterwards when he knew he was starting, Jack smiled and chose his words carefully. Veteran Richard Jefferson yelled out from across the locker room, ''Be honest, don't lie ... Oh, you're sweating now."

Jack smiled and said, "I knew right before the starting lineup. Coach told me right before the starting lineup he was going with me."

Jackson's version is a little different, and funnier.

Asked what happened to Landry after he was announced, Jackson said coolly, "I don't know. Maybe he had to go to the bathroom."

In the scheme of things, it really didn't matter much who started the game. What actually mattered is that Jackson and his staff chose to go small against the Nuggets by playing rookie forward Harrison Barnes at power forward, and Barnes responded with 24 points and six rebounds in 34 minutes.

"You know, the initial reaction to [Lee's injury] was to put Landry in," Jackson said. "But I was all by myself yesterday thinking about matchups, and it hit me when you guys started asking about who I was starting and I teased, saying 'Jarrett Jack at the power forward.'

"All of a sudden, my mind started wandering and I came to my coaches and said, 'Am I crazy to start Harrison Barnes at the four? Somebody talk me out of it.' And they all smiled and co-signed."

It wasn't a crazy idea, after all. Especially not against the Nuggets, whose DNA is to play small, too.

But it was the kind of thing a coach only feels comfortable trying when Plans A, B and C have gone awry. When there are no expectations. When experimentation and catching an opponent off guard is the best strategy left.

And right now, Jackson and the Warriors are in that spot.

"This might sound a little cheesy, but I'm super honest," Jack said. "David has put us on his back all season long. Steph has put us on his back all season long, but the person that's put us on his back the most on this team is Coach Jackson.

"As long as we got him, I'm confident as ever. I'm confident in everything he says. … As long as we got our coach driving this ship, I'm confident that we can go out against anybody and be successful."

Normally when you ask a team in this spot about playing without expectations or pressure, they'll fight you on it a little. Protest that people should believe in them and their chances.

These Warriors go the opposite way. They embrace it. It's why they're so loose. And now, why they're so dangerous.

"We've had no expectations on us from the start," Curry said. "Nobody picked us to make the playoffs, nobody picked us in this series, and I'm sure it was even a more serious pick in this series once D-Lee went down.

"But we're a confident group, a resilient team that's bounced back from tough games before. We know we can do it again."

Denver has just 48 hours to pick up the pieces before Game 3 at Oracle Arena. They won't get back to Denver, where they hadn't lost since Jan. 18, until next week.

And when they get back, the air of invincibility they've built up at the Pepsi Center is now a thing of the past. The swagger it gave them, the confidence it lent them, that's been pierced a bit.

So guess what, we have a series.

"The process has just begun," Denver coach George Karl said. "It's an interesting and difficult time to figure out what went wrong, but I'm sure the video will teach us some stuff."

Yeah, like how important it is to knock a team playing with house money out early. You know, before they really start believing.