The spectacle started at 5:58 p.m., the two-ball speed dribbling, the lefty flips from 15 feet — and finally, the finishing flourish, the backpedal from the right wing to the right corner, to pop the ball high above the shot clock, turning his back to hop to the tunnel as it dropped through the twine, all in time for him sign autographs for the fans who had fought the traffic to arrive early.
To watch him.
This is what Stephen Curry and the Warriors are now. They’re no mere team. They’ve morphed into a monster attraction, a cultural phenomenon. They’re the show you can’t stop watching, even when competing on the court against them.
So credit the Heat players for this:
They weren’t caught watching Wednesday in a 118-112 loss.
They didn’t play soft against a squad that’s now 51-5 during this regular season and 133-20 — including the 2015 postseason — dating to the start of the 2015-16 regular season.
They didn’t play scared — none of them, naturally not Dwyane Wade (32 points, seven assists), encouragingly not Hassan Whiteside (21 points, 13 rebounds), and surprisingly not Josh Richardson, the second-round pick pressed into duty because he’s the last reserve guard left, and who turned in a first-rate performance, with 13 points in 19 minutes, all nearly pressing his nose to the NBA MVP’s on possession after possession.
They never looked wowed, and they worked the game enough to force the NBA’s deadliest backcourt duo — Curry and Klay Thompson — to be at their burying best, combining for 27 of the Warriors’ 29 points in the fourth quarter.
That might not sound like much, just hanging around, not for an organization that has a history of hanging banners. But, for now, it will have to serve as consolation, in light of the Heat’s current situation, down to 10 healthy bodies, playing two rookies extensively, and sticking with others (such as Gerald Green) basically because there’s no other choice.
The real conundrum, of course, is when, or whether, the Heat will get back on a course to realistically challenge for championships during Pat Riley’s tenure, a question clouded not only by health questions (Chris Bosh), age questions (Wade) and salary-cap questions (Whiteside), but also by the question hanging over every NBA executive’s head:
When will the Warriors’ reign end?
Is there anything we can actually do to expedite that?
After all, it’s almost unfair what the Warriors are experiencing, even if — because of smart planning and a constructive culture — it’s hardly undeserved. They’re young, with four top players under 30. They’re closely connected, and comically loose, even while facing increasing pressures, being chased by every other current team while chasing history, the 72-win Bulls of 1995-96. After Wednesday’s shootaround, Warriors took turns dropping ice on each other’s heads during interviews, with Draymond Green getting Curry, which is a strategy the Heat should have stolen to cool him later.
They’re also cushioned, with little of the external tension that can tear teams apart.
While other NBA juggernauts have been beloved, that seems almost impossible to accomplish in the insult-ridden social-media age. Think back to the media and public reception for the most recent NBA force of nature, the one that called South Florida home, reaching four NBA Finals in four seasons, winning two championships, winning 27 consecutive games in one stretch, and yet never winning over large swaths of the populace.
If the “Big 3” Heat was polarizing, the modern Warriors are widely viewed as mesmerizing.
“Yeah. It’s definitely more positive,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I was covering that Heat team with TNT, was here all the time. It seemed like the negativity came simply because LeBron left Cleveland, and people didn’t like the idea that it was a superteam. And Bosh left Toronto. Like somehow they were cheating or something. Which was insane to look at it that way. Everybody was free to do what they wanted as free agents. And why wouldn’t they do what they did? It was special.”
So is this. Only now, more people are seeing that way.
“I think with our team, there’s none of that negativity because the team was basically homegrown, with the core of the team mostly drafted or traded for, and it wasn’t like this superteam pulling together,” Kerr said. “And also Steph, you know, he looks like he’s 12 years old. And every kid in America has his jersey. So he’s a likable guy.”
On Wednesday, that likable guy did something that Heat fans didn’t like much, scoring 42 points, including the 26-footer after a Whiteside block that gave Golden State the lead for good. That’s what he does. That’s what the Warriors do. But, at the least, you had to like how hard the Heat made them work.