Maybe he was exaggeratedly cooling off his hands. Maybe he was signaling fans for more noise. Both explanations worked for Stephen Curry as he stood along a baseline whipping his arms in circles, as even a crowd conditioned to years of his astonishing shooting displays slowly rose from the front row to the upper deck.
It was true that there was something that Curry did not do right in Thursday’s first quarter against the Clippers. He had one turnover. But by every other basketball standard, he was perfection in blue Under Armours for 12 minutes. He drew a foul within the game’s first 10 seconds. He created open space with pump-fakes, then finished with a swish. He drilled three-pointers off the dribble, from the corner and rolled in a fast-break layup — after first stripping Clippers star Paul George as he jumped for a three-point attempt on the other end.
Nine shots, nine makes and 25 points later, while his teammates bounced toward their sideline huddle with a 17-point lead after one quarter, Curry paused in front of the courtside seats to yell and wave his arms. In all, he would make his first 10 shots and the Clippers, facing a daunting deficit, found themselves starting a new season right where they finished their last one.
Taking a cue from last summer’s resilience, the Clippers did not wave a white flag. Leading at halftime, and by three points after three quarters, they rode the shot-making of George, who finished with 29 points, and the defensive pressure that turned Curry temporarily human in the second and third quarters.
But Curry could not be overcome, scoring seven points in the final 56 seconds of the fourth quarter to the chants of “M-V-P!” to seal a 115-113 Clippers loss in their season’s opener. Trailing by two with three seconds to play, center Ivica Zubac intentionally missed his second free throw. The Clippers grabbed the offensive rebound but didn’t get a shot off before the buzzer, with George gaining control too deep in the corner, with time ticking off.
Curry finished with 45 points, making 16 of his 25 shots, including eight three-pointers. George had 29 points but did not shoot a free throw and looked frustrated much of the night when his drives yielded only blank responses from officials.
In Kawhi Leonard, their all-world defensive stopper, the Clippers once held a trump card for just such situations as an on-fire opponent, a solution when every other matchup had been fully cooked.
But Leonard, who like Curry was named to the NBA’s 75th-anniversary team hours earlier Thursday, sat on the bench in a black sweatshirt.
Even Nicolas Batum, the reserve forward who is another defensive comfort blanket for coach Tyronn Lue, was not on the trip, having stayed in Los Angeles for personal reasons. He is expected to be available to play Saturday, Lue said.
And just as the Clippers had found confidence in overcoming long odds and injuries to end last season, they began another uphill climb.
George scored 16 of his 22 first-half points in the second quarter to author a stunning comeback that saw the Clippers lead 67-66 at halftime. Their small lineups — backup center Isaiah Hartenstein did not play — energized the rally. Lue clapped his hands walking off the court into the tunnel. His team had trailed by 19 with 5:33 to play, when nothing had appeared to work.
The switch to a zone defense had led to a Golden State three-pointer. Even when Warriors rookie Moses Moody nearly lost control of the ball dribbling into the key on two second-quarter possessions, he’d found a teammate for an assist at the last second.
But the Clippers finished the half on a 25-5 run, and if George’s offense was expected, the most promising development of the young season was new guard Eric Bledsoe, whose downhill attacks and veteran’s poise kept the Clippers afloat as his partner in the backcourt, Reggie Jackson, missed his first seven shots.
It was Bledsoe, whose layup with 1:44 to play pushed the Clippers ahead 109-108 — temporarily quieting the crowd that had roared after Curry pulled the Warriors ahead on his seventh three-pointer, this one from 31 feet, almost to the diamond-shaped 75-year anniversary logo at midcourt.
Curry had been shackled for much of the second half. Lue had said the Clippers would guard Curry “by committee,” and at one point he missed seven consecutive shots, as reserve wing Terance Mann trailed him like a shadow. Mann finished with 11 points and seven rebounds in 39 invaluable minutes, but it was Curry who had the last answer.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.