Facing his locker stall, a white towel draped atop his head, Steph Curry muttered "Bad, bad, bad" to no one in particular Saturday night, the NBA's biggest star betraying his displeasure over a game that could have gotten away from the NBA's best team.
The 76ers had shocked Curry and the Golden State Warriors with a stirring comeback from a 24-point deficit, tying the score with 22.3 seconds left only to have the Warriors use 22.1 seconds to run a perfect halfcourt sequence: Curry penetrating and passing to Draymond Green at the foul line, Green kicking the ball to Harrison Barnes in the corner for an open three-pointer, Barnes swishing it for a 108-105 Warriors victory. The Wells Fargo Center had been sold out for Curry's only game there this season, for a chance to see a player who has penetrated the broader culture in a way few, if any, have since Michael Jordan retired. Those 20,798 had seen a show, all right. It just wasn't the one they expected, and when it was over, all Curry cared about was that the 43-4 Warriors had held off the 7-41 Sixers.
"We've got to win, man," said Curry, who had an uneven game Saturday with 23 points, six assists, and seven turnovers. "It's a long season. We're disappointed in how we played, but we've got to win."
At the core of this electrifying night, of the spectacle of Curry and the Warriors' beautiful basketball in the first half and the Sixers' audacious rally in the second, was that balance that sports always seeks to strike between competition and entertainment. Golden State is the defending league champion, chasing the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' 72-10 regular-season record and the greatness that would accompany back-to-back titles, but a quick glance around the Wells Fargo Center made it clear that Curry's presence alone made the game an event. Toddlers wore the Warriors' colors, blue and gold. A teenaged girl held up a sign that read: Hey 76ers, Can The Process Bring Us Steph? And before Curry began his warmup routine, hovering around the three-point arc, taking ordinary jumpers and trying trick shots, the Sixers took a telling precaution to protect him.
Curry's pregame shooting displays have become the second-greatest attraction in the NBA - behind seeing him and the Warriors play an actual game - and the Sixers didn't dare run the risk that spectators might get too close to the court and to him. At best, they might distract him, disrupt his rhythm, and ruin the fun. At worst, someone could create a situation that put his well-being in peril. So the Sixers had members of the arena's security detail hold a yellow rope around three-quarters of the court - both baselines and the sideline opposite the scorer's table.
"That's not normal?" Curry joked. "I've never seen that before. I mean, I've seen people show up to watch us warm up, but that was a little different. I ran into [the rope] a couple of times."
The magic and magnetism surrounding Curry seem the product of his unique skills and a matter of marvelous timing. For a generation, the NBA's greatest players have been men who, one way or another, have kept the public at a distance. Tim Duncan and his milquetoast personality, Kobe Bryant and his white-hot competitiveness, LeBron James and his unfathomable athleticism - Curry connects with people to a degree that those three have not. There's something heartening about watching a 6-foot-3, 190-pound guard, a 27-year-old who looks like a 19-year-old you might pass on the street, doing the things he does with the skill and effervescence with which he does them.
"There is a balance and a swagger and a sort of street feel that Steph has with his ability to handle, his ability to shoot," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "It's a little bit sexier, the way he gets stuff done. . . . His overall game is probably more appealing to the younger generation now in sports."
Beyond the eye-popping numbers that Curry is putting up this season - he entered Saturday's game averaging a league-high 29.9 points and shooting 51 percent from the field - he has emerged as maybe the most marketable man in the sport. Forbes reported in November that, over the previous year, sales of Curry jerseys had increased 581 percent and his merchandise sales had increased 453 percent. That's correct: three digits and no typos in either of those figures.
"Steph is getting to that point where he's transcending the game in a lot of ways," said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, a teammate of Jordan's for more than three seasons. "People who wouldn't otherwise be interested in basketball are interested in Steph, and that's how it was with Michael. . . . He does amazing things, and the crowd, even though they're cheering for the home team, is legitimately thrilled to watch him do his thing."
He didn't have that kind of night Saturday, but it was thrilling nonetheless, because no one could have expected it. The Sixers had an impossible upset in their reach until Curry started dribbling up court on that final perfect possession, and the truth that's defining the NBA these days was reaffirmed: Even a bad, bad, bad game for Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors can be something to behold.