OAKLAND, Calif. -- At shootaround Sunday before Game 4 of their playoff series with Denver, most of the Warriors noticed a huge bruise on Stephen Curry's left thigh. "We were like: 'Where did that come from?'" said Jarrett Jack, Curry's backup/flak jacket on the court and his eager promoter off it.
The inventory of Curry's pains would grow by game's end to include a bloodshot right eye and a small bruise underneath, courtesy of a poke from the Nuggets' Corey Brewer. He'd walk away from the arena wearing an eye patch. That was garnish atop the thigh bruise and the twisted left ankle that had somehow borne him through a magnificent Game 3 on Friday.
"He's a lot tougher than people give him credit for," Jack said, after Sunday's Game 4 yielded 31 points and 7 assists in just 33 minutes for Curry. In the final four and a half minutes of the third quarter, he scored 19 points, turning a 71-65 lead into a 91-72 margin that took the breath and spirit out of the Nuggets. They turned out to be far more fragile than the waifish-by-NBA-standards Curry.
These last two playoff games have pulled threads from any argument that Curry is a lightweight in the most unforgivable way. Professional sports are devastatingly cruel to the injury-prone, implicitly blaming them for their body's betrayals. The culture, while openly expressing supportive optimism, always whispers: "It's not about your cartilage; it's about your character."
So when his right ankle required two surgeries and constant vigilance in 2011-12, there were bound to be doubts about him that strayed beyond the physical. This playoff series, which the sixth-seeded Warriors now lead three games to one, has unraveled any concerns that the wispy Curry is mostly finesse, minimal fight.
His transcendent performances at Davidson proved him able to bear-hug big moments. But now he is in his first professional postseason, staging "Reggie Miller Redux with Faint Shades of Willis Reed." The Bay Area has begun calling Curry "the Human Torch," and the Nuggets, skins scorched and necks sore from following the arc of his shots, would have to agree. But the coda from this series will almost certainly be the less-inspired but more pointed "tougher than people give him credit for."
"If I call home to talk about this, I don't know what I can say," Jack said of Curry's third-quarter binge. And this, by the way, is a man who always has something to say.
"Only person who comes to mind is Reggie Miller," he said when asked if he could place Curry's playoff performances in NBA history, "and Reggie didn't do it off the dribble."
That's basketball blasphemy, and absolute truth.
Now, Curry is in Denver, presumably after being bubble-wrapped and ice-bathed throughout the entire two-hour flight. He took a painkilling injection before Game 4, apparently a first in his NBA career. The shot had been under consideration before Game 3, but the left ankle held up well enough to forgo the needle. Curry said he would consider an injection only for a playoff game, when urgency outweighed the prudence of not playing on a numbed limb.
The painkiller didn't do its job for most of the first half, and coach Mark Jackson pulled Curry out for a while. "(I) was considering, you know, shutting him down," Jackson said. "I told him that, and it was almost like a boxer that knew he was on the ropes."
Curry didn't fight to go in, Jackson said. He made the case the way he shoots three-pointers, with his own elliptical style. "He's going to swing his hand down and say 'Man,' in that Steph Curry tone," the coach said.
Curry worked to keep his legs warm, riding a stationary bike at halftime so, as he put it, "I could have my agility and," he paused, "whatever speed I have." Because he moves spritely rather than explosively, he thinks he lacks speed. He will also tell you he is not very athletic, because apparently shooting 30-foot jumpers off the dribble is an academic exercise.
Curry has averaged 27.3 points and 10 assists per playoff game, so Jackson's commitment was bound to waver as the Nuggets closed in and Curry lobbied to return.
"I'm not going to compromise Steph Curry's health," Jackson said, building toward a grin, "until it got close and I had to."
For now, we can take that as an homage to Curry, rather than disrespect for his future. Ever since he turned the left ankle in Game 2, the Warriors have proceeded largely as if only now existed, not next season and certainly not the memories of losing 2011-12 to the wobbly other ankle. They've gotten away with it, spectacularly.
Can he keep it up in Tuesday night's Game 5, and will the inventory of pain grow again? The eye poke, as he came down from a rebound, put him on the bench for several minutes in the fourth quarter, when he couldn't part the lids. When he could finally see again, he returned for two minutes, more to make a point than to score any. The game had devolved into a slog to the final buzzer, and Curry's third quarter had made him irrelevant in the fourth.
Most of his teammates, even though they'd seen the thigh bruise, had no idea how badly he felt in the first half or how close Jackson had come to sitting him the rest of the night.
"Are you talking about the eye?" asked Jack, who would have played the point in Curry's absence.
No, he was told, the leg in the second quarter.
"I wasn't aware of him having any other injuries that were that pertinent," Jack said, starting to shake his head and smile. He had already said he refused to high-five Curry after the third quarter, because it seemed farcical to honor a masterpiece with a hackneyed gesture. "That makes it even worse. It makes the performance even worse knowing he was hurt when he did it. … Sheesh."