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How Steph Curry and Chris Paul's looming need for greatness shapes this sudden Suns vs. Warriors rivalry

CBS Sports logo CBS Sports 12/3/2021 Bill Reiter
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The second showdown this week between the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors has taken on, even early in this NBA season, the feel of a tensely-wound, must-watch playoff game. 

The basketball being played is stupendous, a fact underscored by Phoenix's 19-3 mark and the Warriors 18-3 record. Phoenix extended its win streak to 18 games Thursday night against the Detroit Pistons, a run that is its own powerful draw to see what's next. And the Warriors' history of greatness -- coupled with the Phoenix's Finals run last year -- has the hue of playoff basketball, even in December.

But a deeper pull -- one expressed by several NBA league sources this week, happy to talk as fans about Suns-Warriors because they, too, are captivated -- is the not-often-enough-acknowledged fact that Warriors-Suns is also the backdrop for a showdown between two of the greatest point guards to ever play the game.

It's the pull of history, as much as the pull of this particular basketball moment, amping this regular-season game to another level.

Warriors vs. Suns is great. Western Conference No. 1 vs. Western Conference No. 2 guarantees a level of basketball worth your time. But Steph vs. CP3 is the real pull, both for what it means now, and what they are battling for that may be remembered years from now.

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Tuesday's clash, which the Suns won 104-96, had the feel of a title fight. And even though Curry struggled, it's the starpower of these two greats that lifts this series to must-watch TV.

Magic Johnson is the game's greatest all-time point guard, but after him there is a very, very strong case for Curry at No. 2 and CP3 at No. 3. Curry is the greatest shooter in the history of the sport, bar none, even though he is also a point guard. And CP3, without the MVPs or championships to gild his greatness in a similar way, stands, for me, above most other players at that position.


Video: Suns show they're no fluke with win over Warriors (NBC Sports)

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Isiah Thomas makes a strong case. So too, though less so for me, do Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. But Curry's place is clearly ahead of them all, and Paul's stunning skills give him a Dan Marino-like best-ever-in-the-regular-season edge.

CP3, third all-time in assists, has been over his career a defensive force (and a grossly underrated one), a scoring machine when necessary including late in games, and the engine behind numerous offenses that could not have done what they did without him. What he has not done -- not in the way that matters -- is won.

And that is the other force -- that looming need for greatness before the age of both men and the rising challenges of younger stars close in -- that shapes this sudden Suns-Warriors rivalry, the one that captivated Tuesday, the one we'll be glued to Friday night, the one we'll see Christmas Day, and it seems increasingly likely the one we'll see as the decisive Western Conference series once the playoffs roll around.

There is between Curry and CP3, and so too between their teams, a faint feeling that the sands are running through the hourglass for each as they face each other down. They are teams poised for greatness, yes. But there also seems a looming expiration date.

For Steph, another ring would be redemption on a grand scale: Another championship without Durant, one after the injuries to him and his co-stars that many thought had put in the past Golden State's run of dominance, one that would vault him, for me, from Top 10 all-time player to maybe Top 5. For a 33-year-old point guard (34 by the Finals) to again lead Golden State to a championship, without K.D., after so many of us wrote that idea off, would be the stuff of legends.

And it would, not meaningless in its own right, give Steph four rings -- as many as LeBron James, at the exact moment those around the league are licking their chops in a spreading belief The King, at least as a sure-thing conqueror, is no more. 

For Paul, the need is more desperate. His greatness is unquestioned -- save a championship. To use the NFL again as a comparison: The gulf between Marino and John Elway is vast because one is a champion and one is not. But Elway secured his two rings in his final two seasons.  

CP3 almost got his first last season, coming up short in the Finals. How close that was -- and how surely he must know time is running out, no matter how extraordinarily he is playing at 36 -- gives every big moment he faces now a certain pull you can feel.

All of that is the undercurrent of these two teams, of their greats, and of what they are each fighting for.

LeBron James, dangerous though he remains, is seen across the league as something he has perhaps never been: Beatable. Utah is excellent in the regular season but it does not strike fear in teams come the playoffs. Portland is a mess. Denver is injury-plagued. The West feels open, and on the other side -- through each other, perhaps -- is what the Warriors' and Suns' two stars covet most: Another shot at the kind of basketball glory that can change everything. 

It may only be December, but that pulse of what-could-be is the current that runs beneath Friday night's game, the thing that could be at stake if either Steph or CP3 can turn their teams' early-season form into a championship. And in each other -- the point guards, and their teams -- they can see the biggest threat to getting there.

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