STEPHEN CURRY ACTUALLY surprised himself.
With the clock winding down in the first half of an Oct. 28 game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Curry took a pass from longtime teammate Andre Iguodala and tried to pull off the same two-for-one possession swing that he has accomplished hundreds of times in his illustrious career.
With just over 30 seconds left in the half, Curry ducked under Grizzlies guard De'Anthony Melton and threw up the type of running, one-footed, floating 3-pointer that would make most coaches pull their hair out. But Curry put the shot up, drained it and then ran back down the floor in wonderment.
A big smile enveloped Curry's face, and he put his hands over his head in near disbelief over what he had just done, while Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr shook his head and smiled along with an electrified Chase Center crowd.
"He's the most joyful basketball player I've ever been around," Kerr told ESPN. "Steph makes all of us feel good about ourselves, about life, about the team, and I hope that doesn't sound corny, it's just true."
It's still early, but after two lost seasons that followed their loss in the 2019 Finals -- seasons derailed by Curry's broken hand and Thompson's torn ACL and Achilles -- it's starting to look like the 6-1 Warriors are back, and ready to ride a roster that has been reshaped around Curry and Draymond Green back to championship contention.
"I just think that they have an identity," Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups said. "They're one of the teams in the league that have an actual identity. And they got so much championship pedigree on their team and obviously on their bench, and so I just think they're a formidable opponent for anybody."
THE WARRIORS FOLLOWED a similar pattern most of last season. If Curry shot well, there was a chance they could win. If he didn't, those chances usually disappeared.
And while much of the Warriors' success this season can be traced back to Curry, who almost earned his third MVP award last season while leading the league in scoring, the Warriors have given their star point guard some much-needed help.
Curry's 45-point scoring performances have been punctuated by effective outings from Green, a former Defensive Player of the Year who helped Golden State bounce back from its first loss of the season with 14 points on 75% shooting against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"Draymond has been tremendous," Kerr said. "Right from opening night, he's been ready. It's so exciting to see him engaged and leading the team the way he has. ... It was a much better summer for him from a preparation standpoint, mentally and physically."
After meandering through the 2019-20 season without Curry and Thompson, Green registered an up-and-down 2020-21 campaign. But as the pair begins its 10th season together, Green has been motivated to play around Curry and a revitalized group.
Green's playmaking ability, specifically, benefits from having Curry on the floor. Green has assisted Curry on 452 3s, the second most by any pairing since play-by-play tracking data began in 1996-97, behind only the Curry to Thompson connection, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
"They're a really good team, and it starts with the head of the snake with Curry," Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said. "He's just such a threat -- him and Green together is pretty impressive. Those guys are kind of like jazz musicians out there. They just kind of play off each other in a pretty synergistic way. And that's where the threat starts with them."
Kerr said the pair have their "own language that they speak together" and acknowledged that learning to play with Green and Curry is a big part of adjusting to the system.
To help with that adjustment, the Warriors targeted veteran players in the offseason -- bringing back 2015 Finals MVP Iguodala to anchor a bench that also added Nemanja Bjelica and Otto Porter Jr. -- to complement Curry and Green, one of the biggest improvements from last season.
"They've made some really, really good moves, intentional moves in the offseason," Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins said. "Brought in some vets ... guys that just continue to fit their mold with IQ. Guys that have a plethora of experience on both ends of the floor."
On top of the reliable play from the three veterans, reserves Damion Lee and Juan Toscano-Anderson have learned how to fit in and contribute on a team that appears far deeper than it was a year ago.
The Warriors' bench is averaging 37.3 points per game this season, good for fifth in the league. The bench's points-per-game differential is most notable at +4.4, good for second in the NBA, up from +0.5 last season that ranked 12th. And Lee leads the bench with 14.3 points per game, tied for sixth-most in the league.
An Eastern Conference executive praised the bench for the team's improvement, saying the added depth takes the pressure off of Curry. That has been on display since opening night, when Curry was held to 21 points on 5-for-21 shooting and the Warriors' bench outscored the Los Angeles Lakers' bench 55-29, paced by 15 points each from Bjelica and Lee.
The Warriors have also benefited from the internal growth of two post-championship additions who have grown within their system: Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole.
After struggling to find his rhythm at times at the beginning of last season in the Curry-centric structure, Wiggins has responded nicely inside the Warriors' culture by becoming the type of consistent two-way player the Minnesota Timberwolves were always hoping he could be. Poole, who spent a part of last season in the G League bubble after a rough rookie season, has shown flashes of promise as he holds down Thompson's place in the starting lineup, averaging 14 points per game.
"You look at what Jordan Poole is doing and how he's looking and how he's playing now, the confidence that he's playing with," Billups said. "They're a really, really good basketball team. They really are."
In Wednesday's 114-92 win over the Charlotte Hornets, Poole combined with Gary Payton II for 45 points on a night Curry was held to 6-of-15 from the field for 15 points. Kerr said after the game that Payton, who was waived at the end of the preseason and then re-signed just before the first regular season game as the 15th man on the roster, had forced his way into the team's deep rotation with strong play.
And as Kerr and the Warriors have experimented with several different lineups this season, Jenkins credits them for bringing in players who were able to fit into the team right away, developing chemistry from the beginning.
"It starts with Steph," Porter said. "Being around our leader, it just allows for you to be comfortable, it allows you to be who you are, and play to the best of your abilities, putting you in the right position."
IGUODALA HAS DONE more for the Warriors than just revitalizing the bench. A hallmark of the Warriors' championship runs was their defense, and Iguodala's return has helped Golden State reestablish the defensive identity that led to five consecutive Finals appearances.
The Warriors are holding opponents to 101.4 points per game, the fewest since the 2014-15 season. And the Warriors rank first in defensive rating right now, their best since the 2014-15 season when they finished first in that category.
Even without 2020 No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman, who is still weeks away from returning from a meniscus injury, the Warriors remain a surprising second in defensive rebounding percentage at 78.6.
"To me, their hot start, though, starts on the defensive end," Hornets head coach James Borrego said. "They're fully committed there, guys flying around, making plays for one another, covering for one another. They understand that to win in this league and win a championship in this league you got to be a top-10 defense. They look fully committed to that."
Still, the journey back to the NBA's mountaintop will not be an easy one. The Warriors are tied with the Utah Jazz for the sixth-easiest schedule played in the league so far, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, but their upcoming schedule features more formidable opponents in the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets. Of their 15 games in November, only six will be against teams who are currently under .500 (New Orleans Pelicans, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons, LA Clippers, Timberwolves and Trail Blazers), by which point the NBA will have a better sense of this year's Warriors team.
"I've always thought the Warriors were good for the league overall," a Western conference executive said. "They play a fun style, they push boundaries and raise the competitive level for everyone, especially with them being more their 2016 version."
The good news for the Warriors is that Thompson's looming return -- he worked out in full uniform before Wednesday's win over the Hornets -- will have them even closer to that 2016 team. While there's still no official date set for Thompson's return, somewhere in late December or early January seems most likely. Kerr said recently that Thompson's progress is still incremental, and that he is week-to-week, but that he is "getting stronger and getting more comfortable and getting quicker with his cutting and with his movement laterally."
"I think Klay's imminent return is a huge factor for our team," Kerr said. "There's a sense of anticipation and energy that is directly linked to Klay's return. Andre coming back to the team adds to that -- there's just a really good sense of who we are and what's ahead, and I think everybody's very excited."
As they await Thompson's return and enter a difficult stretch of play, the Warriors are on top of the Western Conference with the 6-1 Utah Jazz.
"I think we're a pretty good basketball team right now with a lot of room to grow," Green said. " Without Klay we can still be a pretty good team, but with Klay -- you're talking a whole different ball game ..."