Stephen Curry entered April aware that he was on the fringe of the NBA MVP race, close enough to see the leaders but too far away to have a realistic chance of catching them. Maybe next season.
No. This season. Curry is stubborn, not built to surrender. Even if he can’t catch them, he’ll make sure they can hear him.
Three weeks and two days later, the leaders -- Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers -- not only are hearing Curry but also have seen him and been vanquished by him.
Asked if Curry is the MVP, Warriors coach Steve Kerr, normally reticent to comment on individual awards, needed only a millisecond to reply.
“Yes," Kerr said.
This was Friday night, after Curry and Warriors faced Jokic and the Nuggets for the second time in 11 days. Golden State won both times. Curry hung 53 on Denver in a 116-107 win on April 12. And this time, he poured in 32 in a 118-97 victory before the first fans, about 2,000, to enter Chase Center in more than 13 months.
More to the point, Curry’s individual performance was vastly superior to that submitted by Jokic.
Overcoming foot/ankle discomfort that sent him into the locker room in the first quarter, Curry dropped 32 over the final three quarters. Elsewhere on the stat sheet, he had eight rebounds, three assists and finished plus-29 over 34 minutes.
Meanwhile, Jokic played 33 minutes and contributed 19 points, six rebounds and six assists. The leader in the MVP derby finished minus-18, second-worst among the Nuggets.
To recap: Curry on Monday goes into Philadelphia, Embiid’s home, and so dazzles the grouchiest fans in America that many were directing MVP chants to the visitor. Curry earns it, scoring 49 points, including 20 to subdue the Sixers in the fourth quarter. Embiid finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds. Curry then comes home after a nine-day road trip and, in the first game, outplays Jokic, leads his team to victory and hears those same chants.
M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!
“I’m not surprised by that,” Mychal Mulder, who joined Curry in the starting backcourt, said of the chants. “It’s a no-brainer. I’m impressed with other guys around the league -- don’t get me wrong -- but in general, people are so used to seeing Steph be Steph that they almost take it for granted.
“If someone else was doing what he’s doing, there would no question.”
Curry has been the catalyst this month, pushing an injury-plagued squad to its best basketball all season. He’s averaging 38.1 points per game and the Warriors are 7-5 and on pace for their first month at least three games over .500.
This is MVP stuff, regardless of the voting, and Curry accepts that in defining his criteria.
“You kind of have an understanding of who the three, or four, or five guys that are playing the best statistically, consistently ... they’re problems every time they step foot on the floor and they pass the eye test in terms of what it looks like too,” he said.
“Then you filter down, obviously everybody’s for a good reason focused on the winning teams, because that’s you know what basketball’s about,” Curry said.
That’s where Curry trails Jokic and Embiid. The Warriors are 30-30, ninth in West and Denver (38-21) is fourth. Philly (39-20) is second in the East.
“But you know then there’s certain situations and opportunities,” Curry said, “where guys can separate themselves because of circumstances or peaking at the right time, or just putting a full body of work together where they’re setting, or doing things that haven’t been done before, historically too, so there’s like a lot of different ways to look at it.”
That’s Curry, and this month he is unbeaten in head-to-head competition against the leaders. He puts enough stock in that to indicate he has “gotta be” the MVP even while acknowledging he “probably won’t get it.”
Nuggets coach Michael Malone, while giving Curry his props, naturally stands by his man. While others have pointed the MVP spotlight toward themselves, Jokic shies away from it.
“He’s not going to go out there and pound his chest,” Malone said. “He’s not going to go out there and tweet and Instagram and Snapchat all of his stats. It’s not in his nature. Obviously, Steph, he had a historical run. Great player. There’s a lot of guys that, understandably so, think that they’re MVP this season.
“It’s going to be a hell of a race these last couple weeks to see who winds up winning it. I speak for everybody in Nuggets Nation. We have a very high opinion of Nikola Jokic. And he doesn’t want to pound his chest, we’re all going to do it for him.”
It’s on, chest-pounding or not. Curry has taken what was a two-man race and expanded. He’s right there with two others, Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks and Chris Paul of the Phoenix Suns, with an excellent chance to pass both in the coming weeks.
Curry is, in short, much too close to the leaders be counted out.