OAKLAND -– One is the reigning MVP, who has elevated his game and this season has become the most popular and hypnotic player in the NBA.
The other is Oakland’s Own, the player most likely to thrive in the face of rejection and who, somehow, has lifted a team that was written off before the season into playoff position.
Of the many reasons to watch the Warriors-Trail Blazers game Friday night, none is more compelling than the game within the game featuring Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard, two point guards similar in size and makeup.
Though the Curry-Lillard battle always holds tremendous promise, there is extra sauce in the wake of the last meeting. The Warriors went to Portland on Feb. 19 and were smoked, 137-105, easily the most lopsided of their six losses this season.
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Moreover, Lillard played the signature game of his career: 51 points on 18-of-28 shooting, including 9-of-12 from deep, seven assists, six steals and zero turnovers.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr after the game said Lillard “looked like Steph Curry out there.”
Lillard's response, a few days later, created some space for himself and his game.
“I've got a lot of respect for Steve Kerr," Lillard told Portland-area reporters. "But when he said I looked like Steph Curry, I didn't like that either.
“It might seem like a compliment coming from him and how he meant it. ... If anybody had a good game against us, I don't think coach (Terry) Stotts would go and say, 'He looked like Damian Lillard. So it depends on how you want to look at it."
And now, the rematch comes in the arena a few blocks from the neighborhood where Lillard grew up. He is sure to be supported by dozens of family and friends.
“I’m more excited this time going back,” Lillard told reporters, “than I have (been) since my rookie year.”
[POOLE: Gameday: Warriors seek vengeance on Trail Blazers at Oracle]
The Blazers, after losing four starters in the offseason, entered the season as a rebuilding project and quickly, behind Lillard, have become a playoff team. They have become, in a blink, Dame Lillard’s team -– perhaps even more than the defending champion Warriors are Steph Curry’s team.
Expect Curry to want to make a statement while protecting his home court.
“As a competitor, you’re always going to take it personally,” Draymond Green said of Curry’s reaction three weeks ago. “I don’t think he’s necessarily down about it. Dame’s a great player. He’s capable of having those types of games. As a competitor, you’re going to take it personally. But it happens.”
Snubbed once again in the All-Star selection process, Lillard has taken his already lofty game even higher since the break. That win over the Warriors launched a streak of 11 games during which he is averaging 33.5 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the field. He has scored 30 or more in eight of the games.
“I’m not sure how to describe that,” Green said. “He has been on a tear.”
Curry, though, was spectacular enough in February to be named Western Conference Player of the Month.
Anticipate fireworks Friday night, because there is plenty of ammo. Anticipate these two players, these two leaders, playing with pride and passion and purpose. The most difficult task for each may be finding balance between their own offense and that which they must create for teammates.
Yes, it’s a team game. Yes, this particular game is plenty attractive. But Curry and Lillard, as individuals facing each other, is must-watch basketball.