ATLANTA -- Stephen Curry is the friendly nightmare, a man whose appearance and demeanor belie the despair he's inspiring. After a February practice, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr put the dynamic succinctly: "He looks like he's 13 years old. But he's a killer. Trust me."
Monday night's 102-92 victory over the Atlanta Hawks was a reminder of that polarity. Curry unleashed a torrent of highlights (36 points, eight assists), ruthlessly dispatching Hawks defenders. Though Atlanta mounted an incredible 23-point comeback during a seven-minute span, they were ultimately undone by a combination of Andrew Bogut's second-half defense and Curry's surgical attack. The reigning MVP gleefully celebrated his fourth-quarter exploits with fist pumps and screams. After the final buzzer, the scariest man in basketball suddenly reverted back to something cuddly. During Curry's postgame interview, Draymond Green snuck up and dumped water on his point guard's head. "Mother sucker!" the ever G-rated Curry yelled.
One play in particular encapsulated the Curry contrast. With a four-point lead and less than five minutes remaining, the shot clock was squeezing Golden State. As Jeff Teague tracked him, Curry dipped toward the baseline, then veered left to the corner 3-point area. Shaun Livingston attempted to screen Teague, but there was no time -- he whiffed. Didn't matter. Curry caught the pass and shot it seemingly in a single, unblockable motion. The net was still dancing as Curry shimmied in front of the Hawks' bench.
That's a celebration befitting a crunch-time assassin, someone who wishes to inflict maximum pain on his enemies. It evokes the delightful brutally of prime Kobe Bryant, if not Jordan's competitive viciousness.
Yes and no. The dance wasn't meant for the Hawks' bench. It was intended for Atlanta shooting guard Kent Bazemore. Does Curry despise his former teammate? Not in the slightest, as the two are close friends. This is just part of how Curry competes. In his 53-point game at New Orleans, after draining a 3-pointer, Curry mockingly shouted a defensive coverage back at Darren Erman, the former Warriors' and current Pelicans' assistant coach. Sharing a history with Curry does not spare you his taunts, it only makes you a target. Steph will rip your heart out because he cares.
In the case of Kent Bazemore, that history runs deep. Bazemore was informed he was being traded from the Warriors to the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 19, 2014, right before Golden State was set to play the Sacramento Kings. The news came right after pregame chapel, an hour or so before tip off. And it stung. "You get so attached," Bazemore said. "I'm such a loyal person, I thought I was going to be a Warrior forever. I didn't think I would ever leave."
As Bazemore collected himself and his things in the locker room, as Warriors players headed out to the arena floor, Curry hung back. "Everybody was about to run out and go warm up," Bazemore said. "But Steph stayed back a little bit. He gave me a great pep talk."
Bazemore recalled Curry saying, "Man, you've put in the work, done what you needed to do for this moment. You're ready for it. I believe in you." To this day, Bazemore still thinks about that speech, saying, "It means a lot, because even though Steph's a great guy, to say that to a young player, that means a lot. There's not a lot of guys in this league like that. If they say something to you, it means the world. I will never forget that. If he would've ran out, maybe my confidence would've been shot going down here. Things, like that, I will never take for granted."
Bazemore played well enough in Los Angeles to net himself a contract in Atlanta. He's now a starter. Compared to his DNP-replete Golden State days, Bazemore is thriving. Though Curry may have soothed his friend's wounds in 2014, though he may have saved his friend's career, he was happy to twist the knife on a Monday night in 2016. "The shimmy was for Kent Bazemore," Curry told reporters, a man who, at shootaround, Curry had described as, "a good friend of mine."
Somehow, it all fits the Curry competitive aesthetic. Striving for victory is enjoyable, taunting is meant to be friendly. The cliché of prime Brett Favre, "Just having fun out there," applies to basketball's MVP. It has been a contagious brand of dominance, especially resonant with younger fans.
Monday night was a reminder of the Curry experience. Harmless in manner, but deadly in deed. Rude to opponents, but affable in intent. He'll slay the man he saved, just to see the look on his face. And what's truly scary is, if this is how Steph Curry treats his friends, what does he have in store for enemies this season?