Luka wants what Steph has in epic battle of generational greats


SAN FRANCISCO – For two NBA seasons, there were no playoffs for Stephen Curry. For two seasons and much of a third, there was no Klay Thompson riding alongside. And now that Klay is back, Curry feels whole, and the Warriors are bound for the Western Conference finals.

It’s familiar ground but with a parade of unfamiliar faces.

The highest level of the NBA as Steph last experienced it no longer exists in 2022. He is entering uncharted wilderness, a foggy landscape that his most recognizable contemporaries and rivals – LeBron James, Chris Paul, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, etc. – were not, for a variety of reasons, able to navigate.

Does the lack of familiar foes in any way feel weird?

“A little bit,” Curry said Monday. “But you’re so locked into what’s in front you that you don’t really think about that too much. Especially when you’re in a series. You’re just worried about the 14 guys on the other side. That requires all of your attention and emotional energy.”

Curry is the last of the MVPs still active in the postseason. He’s the last of the NBA’s Top 75 still practicing for significant games. He’s the last superstar certified by earning championship jewelry. The last of the players who were the faces of the NBA.

Whether they are still the faces of the NBA is largely up to Curry.

To reach the conference finals against Dallas, the Warriors had to beat a Denver Nuggets team led by 27-year-old reigning back-to-back NBA MVP Nikola Jokic and a Memphis Grizzlies squad led by 22-year-old leaders Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.

It’s now Steph and the Warriors, and three teams led by stars who have never known the heights he has and are anxious to get there.

“We don’t have anything right now,” Curry said, expressing a mentality forged by a two-year absence from the postseason. “That’s the mindset of us being greedy.”

Standing before the Warriors is Luka Doncic, who at age 23 is the undisputed leader of the Mavericks.

“There’s the acknowledgement of how funny it is when I look at some of those guys and am reminded of how young they are,” Curry said. “(Boston’s) Jayson Tatum is 24. Luka is 23. Ja is 22. That’s the only part where you realize they’re really that young. You look at what you were doing at that age, trying to come into this scene of playoff basketball.”

Steph was 25 when he reached the postseason for the first time, with the Warriors reaching the conference semifinals in 2013. He was 27 when he won the first of his back-to-back MVP trophies – and his first championship.

He’s now 34. He was 30 when the Warriors last won the NBA Finals. It has been four years. This postseason may or may not be Steph’s last stand, but he has never been so close to the precipice.

The Warriors are 8-3 this postseason, winning at a rate considerably higher than that which they did in the regular season. Maybe they’re peaking when it matters most. Maybe big-game experience of their core players has gotten them this far. Or maybe this time, for Steph, Klay and Draymond Green, all in their 30s, the urgency is more extreme.

Curry is representing the NBA 2010s, and that new frontier ahead is populated by those representing the NBA of the 2020s.

“We’re hungry enough knowing we haven’t been on the radar for the last two years in terms of being realistic championship contenders,” he said. “And now we’re knocking on the door, trying to get back to The Finals.

“Maybe that’s just me. I’m not trying to claim the ‘old guy’ tag, but we’re as hungry as they are to get it done.”

No one represents the new age of the NBA more than Luka, who is 11 years younger than Curry but already marvelous enough to drag his team past the top-seeded Phoenix Suns and into the conference finals. Luka wants to be the Steph of this generation. Wants the rings. Wants multiple MVP awards. Wants to enter every arena in the league knowing dozens, if not hundreds, of fans will be wearing his jersey.

Luka’s goal these next two weeks is to do to Steph what Steph did to The Beard and then LeBron seven years ago. Defeat him when it matters most. Meet him on the mountain and be the one who claims the throne.

Curry is the last to represent his era. LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t reach the playoffs. Damian Lillard missed most of what turned into a lost season for the Portland Trail Blazers. Kawhi Leonard missed the entire season, and the LA Clippers missed the postseason. James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers were ousted in the second round.

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The last to be vanquished was longtime Curry nemesis Chris Paul, who surely longed for another chance to challenge Steph on the big stage. Paul faded badly from the moment he turned 37, and the Suns were bounced by ... Luka.

And now he's coming for Steph, who is left to carry the flag for the NBA establishment, those already holding tickets to the Hall of Fame but unable to rise in 2022.

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