OAKLAND -- Stephen Curry turned back the clock a few days ago, returning to Davidson College.
Not in person but in spirit.
His latest haircut is, Curry says, the shortest he has allowed in at least a couple years and reminiscent of the close-cropped look he sported at Davidson. What’s different now is the beard. Invisible until a few years ago, it’s longer and fuller than desire and genetics had previously allowed.
“Proud of this beard,” Curry said Sunday, 50 minutes after the Warriors concluded practice. “Very proud.”
In the days running up to Warriors-Cavaliers II on Monday at Oracle Arena, Curry has transformed his dome. He is, once again the baby-faced assassin, only this time the look is accompanied by grown-man facial hair.
Curry’s new look comes on the heels of making alterations to his game. He’s playing with more force, being more assertive with the ball and taking a few more shots. His aggression has shifted into a higher gear.
“Lately, he’s been getting the rock and being aggressive and playing his game,” teammate Kevin Durant said of Curry. “Since that Cleveland game, he’s been playing on another level.”
Since that Cleveland game. That’s what it comes back to for the Warriors and for Curry. That Cleveland game, played on Christmas Day, is three weeks behind them yet the single-most eye-opening experience of the season. The Warriors led by 14 with 9:35 left and by 13 with 8:17 remaining and by 3 with 1:14 to play.
And lost, again, as in Game 7 of The Finals, on a late shot by Cavs guard Kyrie Irving.
“That was definitely a moment,” Curry said. “The Memphis game (Curry scoring 40 points but the Warriors blew a 24-point lead in a 128-119 loss on Jan. 6) was a moment. The Lakers game earlier in the year (a 117-97 loss on Nov. 4) was a moment. You’ve got to understand what went wrong in those kinds of games and figure it out as you go through, knowing you’re going to have some more slipups.”
Curry since the Christmas Day loss has advocated for more pick-and-roll action and gotten it, most notably with Durant as his partner. Curry wanted more time at point guard, and he's gotten it. His numbers have improved, and his overall effect has been more noticeable.
In eight games since Christmas Day, Curry has averaged 20 shots and 27.1 points per game. In the eight games up to and including the loss at Cleveland, he averaged 15.6 shots and 19.9 points.
Yet the real test comes when Curry sees the Cavaliers, against whom recent games have not been pretty. His last four games against Cleveland -- Games 5-7 of the NBA Finals and Christmas Day -- have produced 21.7 points on 36.6-percent shooting, 2.5 assists and 3.7 turnovers.
There’s another reason Curry wants to kill his Cavs demons, which began forming as the Warriors became the first team in league history to go up 3-1 in the NBA Finals and lose the series. That was mere months after Curry mentioned that the visiting locker room at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland still smelled of the champagne with which Warriors celebrated after winning The Finals in 2015.
Curry is tired of hearing about, well, his Cavs demons, whether the noise is coming from fans or players or folks he barely knows.
Playing golf in the Safeway Open pro-am at Silverado in October, Curry got an earful from playing partner Harold Varner III, who happens to be an Ohio native and, of course, a Cavs fan.
“He waited until the ninth hole because he was a little unsure about how I’d take it, how much of a good sport I would be,” Curry recalled. “And then, once he tested the waters, he didn’t hold back the rest of the round. But it was all in good fun.”
This is not the kind of “good fun” Curry cares to hear any more. As the Cavs come to town, he’s back in a familiar place, with folks doubting him, wondering if he has what it takes.
And he’s playing as if he has something to prove, just as he did at Davidson.