The final regular-season game between the Golden State Warriors and the Phoenix Suns on Saturday left observers of the high-quality rivalry wanting more.
A playoff series between the Warriors and Suns is almost too delicious to contemplate. They are two of the four highest-salaried teams in the NBA, teams that built to compete at the highest level. The star power combined with the simmering animosity could make it appointment viewing.
Warriors’ guard Stephen Curry beat the Suns with a 30-foot 3-pointer from the right wing with 0.7 seconds remaining, capping a 30-point game and enabling the Warriors to take a 113-112 victory and prevent the Suns from sweeping the four-game season series.
Curry’s brilliance — he also had nine rebounds and six assists — was nearly matched by Suns’ guard Devin Booker, who had 32 points, four boards and six assists.
As compelling as fourth-quarter back-and-forth between Curry and Booker, the matchup between Warriors forward Draymond Green and Suns center Jusuf Nurkic was just as engaging and combative.
The teams met for the first time since Green struck Nurkic in the face in the second quarter of the Suns’ 119-116 victory Dec. 12. The NBA suspended Green indefinitely (he missed 15 games) the next day, and he was required to meet with a counselor and league officials throughout. Green had been suspended five games in November for putting Minnesota center Rudy Gobert in a headlock.
“That brother needs help,” Nurkic said after the Dec. 12 game, with the Gobert incident as backdrop.
Which brought the teams to their final regular-season meeting. Because the Warriors played a small lineup Saturday, the 6-6 Green was matched against 7-0 Nurkic on both sides of the floor for much of their time together on the court. It animated both.
After Nurkic was called for an offensive foul while posting up against Green in the first half, Green flexed and hit his head, a gesture he later said was calling Nurkic a dummy.
Nurkic went into an exaggerated crouch and slapped his palms on the floor — the universal “little man” sign — after scoring over Green in the third period. Green returned the favor after flipping a shot over Nurkic moments later.
Green made one of the biggest plays off the game down the stretch, when he used his quickness to drive around Nurkic for a layup that gave the Warriors a five-point lead with less than three minutes remaining.
The sparring continued afterward.
“It’s sad,” Nurkic told reporters later . “He didn’t learn anything. He’s going to hit somebody else again. Take back everything I said. He don’t deserve a chance. Just antics, trying to hit people.”
Green responded in kind.
“He can keep rocking with that same horse that he rode in on,” Green told reporters. “He can ride his (behind) right out of here on that same horse. It’s not working. I thought I was great tonight. He tried to get in my head, and it didn’t work. If he wants me to walk around quiet, like him, I’m never going to do that. Quiet guys don’t win.”
Green had 15 points, nine assists and seven rebounds Saturday, and his tight defense on Durant kept the Suns from getting a shot after Curry’s final make. Curry went into an exaggerated crouch after his shot went through.
“He’s given us a lift every game he’s been back,” Curry told reporters. “He connects our defense, but you can talk about his defense every game. What he did offensively tonight, especially in the fourth quarter. He gave us great energy in the sense of having that competitive spirit you need to win a game like tonight, to meet the moment.”
A Warriors-Suns playoff rematch is certainly possible, given the tightly bunched Western Conference standings. The Suns are straddling the line that separates the top six playoff qualifiers from the four playin teams. Four teams are within one game of each over at No. 5-8.
The Warriors are one-half game ahead of the Utah Jazz and one game behind the Los Angeles Lakers with 32 to play. Golden State has won four in a row and six of seven, the only loss coming at Atlanta in overtime, and is 7-4 since Green returned Jan. 15.
“That month off, that suspension was real,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “He knew that his career was on the line or is on the line. He understands that he’s got to be the guy he’s been the last nine years, not the one he’s been the last year. I see him doing that.”
Curry again: “Draymond knows how to walk the line that he needs to walk.”