Sports

There’s Nothing Quite Like the Magic of Steph Curry

The 2020-21 NBA season hasn’t been devoid of delight, exactly. There’s been stuff to savor: the overwhelming brilliance of Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, the ascent of the Jazz and the Suns, the surprising resurgence of the Knicks and the Hawks, a galaxy of stars shining brightly on any given night, etc. For the most part, though, this season—conducted in the throes of a pandemic, abbreviated and accelerated, with injury, illness, and overarching anxiety suffusing each night’s slate—has felt compromised. Gray, blighted. As Raptors guard Fred VanVleet recently told reporters, “Probably the most unpure year of basketball I’ve ever been a part of.”

“The NBA is a great balance of, like, the pure love and joy of one of the best sports in the world mixed with a billion-dollar industry,” VanVleet said, speaking from the perspective of a man whose near-All-Star season was derailed when he and several teammates and coaches contracted COVID-19. “And I think this year, the industry side has taken precedence over some of the love and the joy.”

That tilt has been impossible to ignore as of late; as more players break down and more blowouts pile up, it’s become harder and harder to locate that love and lock into the joy.

That is, until you land on a Warriors game.

You probably know the numbers by now. After hanging 49 points on Embiid and the East-leading Sixers on Monday, earning MVP chants in Philly as he did it, Stephen Curry is averaging 40 points in the 11 games he’s played since returning from a tailbone contusion. He has made 46 3-pointers in his past five games; nobody’s ever made more in a five-game stretch. Klay Thompson has five career games of 10 or more 3-point makes, which is good for second on the all-time list; Steph has splashed at least 10 triples six times this season, including in four of his past five games, raising his career total to 21.

Curry has scored 40 or more five times this month, and 30 or more in 11 straight, to vault over Bradley Beal and into the lead for this season’s scoring title. He led the league in scoring only once before: in the 2015-16 season, when he propelled Golden State to an NBA-record 73 wins and made history as the first player to unanimously win Most Valuable Player honors. Five years later—at age 33, without Klay riding shotgun, with Draymond Green having lost a step, without the Iguodalas and Livingstons and Barbosas and Boguts who helped make those Warriors go—Steph is producing at nearly that exact same level:

Unanimous, Ruling (Steph Curry, Then and Now)

Season MPG PTS REB AST FG% 3P% FT% TS% 3P 3PA USG% Points Per Shot Attempt PER
Season MPG PTS REB AST FG% 3P% FT% TS% 3P 3PA USG% Points Per Shot Attempt PER
2015-16 34.2 30.1 5.4 6.7 0.504 0.454 0.908 0.669 5.1 11.2 32.6 1.356 31.5
2020-21 34.0 31.4 5.5 5.9 0.491 0.431 0.922 0.665 5.2 12.1 33.7 1.361 26.9

He’s doing this because he has to. With the exception of Andrew Wiggins and occasionally Kelly Oubre Jr., there is nobody else on the current Warriors roster who can reliably create his own shot, and certainly nobody else who can create one as likely to go in, from as many different areas of the court. He’s doing it because Golden State—now 29-29, in ninth place in the Western Conference, with an injury-wracked and ill-stocked roster—needs every ounce of offense Curry can muster just to stay afloat in the race for a play-in tournament that might not motivate Draymond but represents the team’s most viable pathway to the postseason.

The Warriors average 115.6 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Curry on the court, which would rank eighth in the NBA over the full season. They average 99.9 points-per-100 with him off the court, which would rank so far below the last-place (and tanking) Thunder as to fall somewhere around the Earth’s inner core. He is Golden State’s puncher’s chance, and that punch is a late-’80s Tyson uppercut, and over the past three weeks, he has been landing it with ruthless, unerring, jaw-dropping efficiency.

The numbers are incredible, impossible, but the magic is not in the numbers, and it never was. It’s in the Houdini-ass ability to escape straitjackets with a live dribble, to squeeze through barely there openings like smoke through a keyhole to create the space to rise up. It’s in the fact that everybody in creation knows what’s coming—that Steph coming off a screen to pull is a certainty—and yet he still keeps getting to that shot.

It’s in the way he bends space and time with quick starts and even quicker stops. Stephen Curry made George Hill teleport Monday night. The trip took only half a second, and it wasn’t by choice, leaving Hill looking motion sick:

There’s Nothing Quite Like the Magic of Steph Curry

In May 2018, as the Kevin Durant–era Warriors were on their way to a second straight NBA championship, Jared Wade described the difference between Golden State’s two iconic talents like so: “KD will put 8 points on you every quarter forever in his sleep. Steph, in under five minutes, will have you questioning the reason you ever decided to play basketball.” For those of us on the other side of the screen, those five minutes are an answer—a reminder of why we started watching in the first place, and why we still do.

Curry is not the only transcendent player in the NBA. We will tell our children and grandchildren what it was like to watch LeBron do everything at a higher level than basically anyone ever, and Durant destroy softly and constantly, and Kyrie weave, and Zion explode, and Giannis extend, and so on, and so on. But nothing else feels like this.

Nothing else feels like it does when Steph becomes wreathed in flames and just starts experimenting, exploring the studio space to see how far he can push the boundaries of what we understand to be true about how the ball finds the net. It’s what we’re searching for night after night—the moment that makes you leap out of your seat and start speaking in tongues, the fleeting glimpse of forever we hope against hope we might catch every time we tune in.

I don’t know how long it will last; nothing that burns this hot can last, and nothing gold can stay. I don’t know if it will make the Warriors a playoff team, or that it’ll win any awards, or whatever. I do know, though, that I don’t particularly give a shit about any of that other stuff when I’m watching Steph these days. All I care about is seeing the ball get back into his hands, and seeing what he’s going to do with it next. That’s the magic. That’s the love. That’s the joy. It’s what this season’s been missing, and why so much of it has felt so broken. It’s here now. Grab it with both hands and enjoy it for all it’s worth.



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