Finally, on the first day of the seventh week of the NBA season, we come to the second “Game of the Year,” though it is the first worthy of that designation.
It’s the 18-2 Warriors vs. the 17-3 Phoenix Suns, the league’s hottest teams, one-two in the Western Conference, Tuesday night in Phoenix. Never have two NBA teams in the same Division (Pacific) with winning percentages of .850 or better faced off so deep into a season. Put it atop the marquee. It belongs.
But no matter how many ways the matchup is analyzed and debated and hyped, there is no question its most riveting component is the game within the game.
Stephen Curry vs. Chris Paul.
The 33-year-old point guard who revolutionized basketball at every level vs. the 36-year-old point guard some refer to as the game’s “point gawd” or even “point God.”
The five-time NBA Finalist, three-time NBA champ and two-time MVP epitomizes the Warriors, while the dude, only five months removed from his first trip to The Finals, is the leader the Suns have not had since the prime playing days of Steve Nash.
Though there are other stars and abundant talent on each team – players crucial to Phoenix winning 16 in a row and the Warriors winning 14 of 15 – the likeliest probability is that the production of Curry and Paul will decide Tuesday's outcome.
“It’ll be a very tough game,” Draymond Green said Sunday, after a 105-90 win over the Clippers in Los Angeles. “Nobody’s going to just walk in there and walk out with a win. You’ve got to go in there and earn a win, take the win. And just do all you can to try to take them away from the things they like to do.”
Nearly everything the Suns like to do revolves around CP3. Whether he’s playing pick-and-roll with one of their wings, or looking for an advantageous iso matchup for Devin Booker, or tossing lobs to one of their 7-foot centers, Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee, Paul is at the heart of the Phoenix offense and always at the point of its defense.
“You know what they’re going to do pattern-wise,” coach Steve Kerr said. “They’re going to get into ball screens and spread the floor with 3-point shooters. They’ve got two great finishers with Ayton and JaVale.”
Perhaps Paul’s greatest importance to the Suns is his effectiveness as a leader. They had missed the playoffs 10 consecutive seasons before acquiring him a year ago in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He’s the oldest of their three players over age 28. CP3’s presence in helping the Suns go from zero-to-The-Finals in a flash is why he has the attention of everyone in the locker room and on the floor.
Booker is 25, as are small forward Mikal Bridges and combo forward Cameron Johnson. Shooting guard Landry Shamet is 24. Ayton is 23. They listen to Paul. They watch him. They follow him.
The surest way to throw the Suns off their game is to take CP3 out of his.
“No. 1 is that it’s going to be a very physical matchup,” Green said. “Phoenix is a physical team. They’re going to run their sets. They’re following D-Book and CP, so you have to try to cut the head of the snake off whenever you’re trying to stop anyone’s attack.”
"Head of the snake" is, in this instance, a long-winded way of saying Paul.
Nobody has done that better than Curry, whose virtual ownership of CP3 was at the base of the Warriors’ practical ownership of the Lob City Clippers of yore. Going back to those days, Curry is 17-10 vs. Paul in head-to-head competition, per stathead.com, with a much better 3-point shooting percentage but a slightly lower overall field-goal percentage.
The vanity of both men always is at stake, and will be Tuesday.
“They have confidence in who they are,” Curry said of the Suns. “They have an identity in how to win games. It’s going to be a good test for us. Hopefully, we’re ready for it.”
The Warriors lost two of three to the Suns last season, with both losses in Phoenix, the first by 21 points and the second by 22. When Suns came to Chase Center in May, by which time the Warriors had reached their peak, Phoenix took a six-point loss.
Though experience has made the Suns better than they were last season, roster revisions have made the Warriors appreciably better.
So, let the debate commence. Let it rage on before and after the game Tuesday, even after the rematch Friday in San Francisco and all the way until the postseason.
When it really matters.