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Stephen Curry, Festus Ezeli and the Warriors’ Opening-Night Optimism

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

The Golden State Warriors’ winning percentage (1.000) and average margin of victory (plus-16 points) are both higher than they were in last year’s 67-victory march to a championship. So, clearly, the Dubs are now even better than the title-winning version we saw in 2014-15.

Except not, of course.

I throw out those stats, both products of the Warriors’ 111-95 win over the already injury-smacked New Orleans Pelicans, to keep the concept of perspective at the forefront of the discussion. I have some long-term thoughts that arose out of watching the Dubs handle the Pelicans on opening night, but remember that we’re working with one game here.

That said…Holy smokes, Stephen Curry!

And WHOA, Festus Ezeli!

The reigning MVP looked better in his first regular-season game with that title. Clearly suffering none of the dulled competitive spirit that often results from a pregame ring ceremony, Curry came out looking quicker, more confident and, somehow, even a little angrier than usual.

He ripped off 40 points in the game with a personal-best 24 coming in the opening period. Practically salivating at the chance to attack defensive zeros Ish Smith and Nate Robinson, Curry drilled deep pull-ups, got to the lane at will and celebrated each highlight bucket with some combination of a fist pump and a “do you chumps even know who I am?” scowl. It was a little mean — in the best way possible for Warriors fans.

Heading into the year, it would’ve been absurd to suggest that the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, believed by many to have just completed a charmed season, could possibly improve. But with an even tighter handle, an expanded array of shots in the lane and a level of confidence that now approaches unabashed arrogance (again, in a very good way), Curry is actually better. I’ve already leaned on the it’s-just-one-game crutch, so you can draw your own conclusions about what that might mean for a team that was a fraction of a point away from having the best offense in the league last season.

It takes a pretty special effort to get mentioned alongside a superstar in a season-opening recap, but Ezeli’s performance off the bench was clearly the second-most impressive storyline from the Dubs’ win.

Coming off the first summer of his career that didn’t involve some kind of injury rehab, Ezeli looked like a monster against New Orleans. Finishing with 13 points, four rebounds and a block in 17 minutes, the backup center was flat-out dominant inside. He tried (mostly successfully) to dunk everything he touched on offense, jamming through traffic on his first field goal attempt and later adding a few more slams — one of which came over Anthony Davis. All of those dunk attempts were made easier by Ezeli’s newfound ability to catch the ball.

Stone hands have plagued him throughout his career, but I’m hard-pressed to remember a single bobble in his time on the floor. Either he’s drilled his mitts into shape or there’s some Stick-um in his locker. Whatever the case, the Warriors should be happy.

On the other end, Ezeli’s typical exuberance resulted in him attempting to block absolutely every shot within his field of vision. That’s a problem that often takes him out of position and results in excessive fouling. But against New Orleans, it led to him stuffing one of Davis’ telescope-armed jump hooks.

Ezeli. Blocked. A. Davis. Jump. Hook.

Raise your hand if you believed that was even possible. Seeing none, let’s move on.

The Warriors didn’t come to an extension agreement with Ezeli over the summer, and it’s looking like they won’t negotiate again until next offseason, when the big man will be a restricted free agent. If performances like this become the norm, Golden State may wish it had overpayed in advance.

Because an athletic, aggressive, block of granite like Ezeli is going to command some serious offers if he stays healthy.

Ultimately, the Warriors looked a lot like they did last season: skilled, confident and unselfish. They comfortably blew out a playoff team that was missing a number of key players, but they did it without getting much production from mainstays Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala, who combined to shoot just 7-of-27.

With Curry somehow taking another step and Ezeli on a mission (and the rest of the core certain to play better going forward), the Dubs look as dangerous as ever.

It was just opening night. Just one game. But there’s every reason to suspect that the next 81 will look very familiar.

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