OAKLAND, Calif. -- Though the Golden State Warriors ran away from the Portland Trail Blazers, 136-111, the blowout did not detract from what has become a reliably thrilling matchup rivalry. Stephen Curry vs. Damian Lillard is more show than game, a fireworks display disguised as point guard duties as the two launch pull-up jumper after pull-up jumper. These aren't your classic "pass first," floor generals, and the game looks no worse for where they're taking it.
Sunday wasn't the night that birthed this rivalry, but it certainly aided its gestation. Much like their respective careers, Curry vs. Lillard is a rivalry on the rise. And much like their respective careers, it's as compelling as it was unexpected. This isn't LeBron vs. Carmelo, a juxtaposition that predates the 2003 NBA draft. It's a welcome surprise, especially given the widespread preseason expectation that Portland would struggle through a lengthy rebuild.
It also makes so much sense. Both are point guards, on the West Coast, who specialize in launching 3-pointers off the dribble. Curry plays in Oakland. Lillard's proudly from Oakland. On being booed Sunday night, Lillard said, "When they boo me, I figured that's people not from Oakland." Currently the comparison favors Curry, which might have something to do with Lillard's dislike of the perceived likeness.
After the Blazers crushed the Warriors in Portland on Feb. 20, Warriors coach Steve Kerr remarked of Lillard's 51-point performance, "He looked like Steph Curry out there." Lillard has been asked about the comparison multiple times and does not appear to enjoy it. After all, for as great as Curry is, who'd want to be labeled as the knockoff version?
Curry understands where Lillard is coming from and said as much after Sunday's game. "I know us players don't like being compared to anybody really," he started. Later, Curry added, "He's trying to make a name for himself and create his own kind of path. That's what we go out and do every night so I don't see anything wrong with how he views himself and the confidence he has in himself. I like that."
Observers could be forgiven if, while watching Curry and Lillard duel Sunday night, they saw resemblances between the two. Both seized moments of the game, both rendered sequences of spirited defense futile, and both were smooth from dribble to release. The back-and-forth culminated in a brilliant third-quarter stretch, and lost steam as the Warriors collectively gained it. In the end, Curry finished with 39 points on 21 attempts (including 9-of-13 on 3-pointers) and Lillard with 38 points on 27 attempts.
For as much as they resembled each other, a few differences were salient. First, while Lillard is a great 3-point shooter, Curry is sui generis among deep-shooting artists. In Lillard's favor, he's more of an athletic, driving guard than Curry is, as he displayed Sunday (nine free throw attempts).
Finally, the teams themselves provide a distinction. Even if the Warriors are struggling when new addition Anderson Varejao is on the floor (mercifully replaced by James Michael McAdoo in the second half), Curry at least has Klay Thompson, who spaced the floor while pushing the lead, and Draymond Green, who was brilliant again en route to another triple-double (22 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 steals). Green is now plus-1,007 on the season, the first player to reach the 1,000 mark since plus-minus was tracked. Much of that is because Green plays the vast majority of his minutes with Curry (plus-969 on the season), but much of it is due to Green's uniquely versatile, vicious, impact on the game. Though Portland is young and promising, Lillard lacks a running mate that is comparable to Green or Thompson.
In the aggregate, Curry is currently, certainly better, but he's also doing it alongside a superior supporting cast. So as much as this point guard rivalry is thrilling, it's not yet a fair fight. In the meantime, fans will sate themselves with these occasional, glorious Curry vs. Lillard duels that resemble NBA Jam. And if the matchup happens in the playoffs, fairness will be an ancillary concern. Fun will take precedent.