By ANTONIO GONZALEZ
AP Sports Writer
OAKLAND, Calif. — Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pokes fun at questions from reporters all the time and can be easily irritated and annoyed, especially after losses, which is what made his reaction to Stephen Curry sinking seven 3-pointers in Golden State’s 116-106 win over San Antonio last month such a rare scene.
“It’s actually fun to watch,” Popovich said following the game in Oakland on April 15, when he rested most of his starters. “Everybody hates losing, but I enjoyed watching a talented kid perform the way he did, and he does it with class.”
Curry can captivate almost any audience in a way almost nobody else can.
Curry’s connection to the crowd at ear-splitting Oracle Arena has been must-see TV in the NBA playoffs, leading the Warriors to the second round against the Spurs starting Monday night in San Antonio. Hall of Famers and celebrities tweet about his games. Even opponents marvel at his record-breaking shooting stroke.
If his stardom continues to rise, the Warriors hope Curry can also make a franchise that has remained remarkably popular in the Bay Area an appealing place for marquee free agents around the country.
What makes Curry so compelling might be the simplest of basketball skills: shooting.
Most people can’t dunk like Miami’s LeBron James, run as fast as Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook or elevate the way Clippers forward Blake Griffin does. But anybody can shoot — or at least attempt to shoot — in a game long dominated by big men and played by some of the world’s greatest athletes.
All of 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Curry controls games without ever overpowering defenders. His shooting stoke might be the best on the planet right now, and when he gets going, nobody has found a way to slow him down.
“He has a gift that you can count on your hand how many people have,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. “Everyone wants to be a shooter. And then you look at him, he looks like a baby. And he’s smiling and he never gets out of character and he’s a class act. I just think at the end of the day people see him and say, ‘Man, that’s how I want my son to be.’”
The diminutive guard who dazzled during Davidson’s run to the regional finals of the 2008 NCAA tournament has stolen the NBA spotlight this season — especially in the playoffs — the way he did in college.
Curry scored a career-high 54 points against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 27, and he also had 47 points at the Los Angeles Lakers on April 12. In the Game 4 win over Denver in the first round, Curry had perhaps his finest moment: he scored 22 of his 31 points in a 6-minute, 22-second span of basketball bliss.
On the ball or off the dribble, the quick-shooting guard showed the kind of range that helped him make 272 3-pointers in the regular season — three more than Ray Allen’s record set in 2005-06 with Seattle — and, at times, seemingly controlled every gold-shirt wearing fan in the announced sellout crowd of 19,596 on his fingertips.
“You start to feel the energy of the crowd. With every move you make, every time you lift up for a shot, they’re holding their breath, excited to see that shot go in,” Curry said. “You just have confidence and try to make an imprint because the opportunity is huge right now. It’s a big stage. I have to live up to it.”
Curry, still only 25 years old, also has begun to quiet those who wondered whether he could evolve into an elite player after two surgeries on his right ankle sidelined him for most of the last two years. Even those who questioned whether his style would work in the pros have taken notice.
Jackson remembers broadcasting Davidson’s 79-67 loss at Duke on Jan. 7, 2009 — Curry’s final collegiate season. ESPN broadcast partner Jeff Van Gundy kept disagreeing with Jackson’s opinion that Curry would have “tremendous success” at the next level.
Jackson, in his second year as an NBA coach, said he reminds Van Gundy about that conversation “quite often.” The two even spoke about it after Golden State finished off its first-round upset of Denver in Game 6 on Thursday night.
It’s no longer uncommon for Curry to become a worldwide trend on Twitter during games, either. Asked whether a new NBA star has been born during the playoffs in Curry, Jackson just laughed.
“Those guys are just coming to the hospital,” he said. “The baby has been born already.”
Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber have talked about raising Golden State’s profile with big moves since they bought the franchise for an NBA-record $450 million in 2010. They have plans in the works for a new arena across the bay in scenic San Francisco and, although the Warriors have one of the most fervent and faithful followings in the sports saturated Bay Area market, they want the team to become more of a national name.
Curry certainly fits into that narrative.
Injuries remain a concern for Curry even now. He sprained his left ankle in Game 2 against Denver and has been somewhat hobbled ever since.
Curry said he took an injection that has “just a heavy dose of an anti-inflammatory” in his ankle after Game 3 and before Game 4 against the Nuggets for the first time in his career. He said the shot lasts for about six hours and helps ease the pain — but doesn’t completely numb it.
Curry isn’t counting on taking another shot before Game 1 on Monday night in San Antonio. If anything, his teammates believe the Spurs might need a remedy to quiet Curry.
“Any time he’s in the half court he’s in range. You scratch your head and the shot is going in,” Warriors center Andrew Bogut said. “So as long as he keeps shooting the ball the way he is, the sky is the limit for us.”