Published May 14, 2019
I’ve been a sports fan my entire life, and for most of it, my loyalties have not been geographic. What attracts me to athletes isn’t so much the team they play for, but rather the qualities they embody: poise, discipline, courage, competitiveness; elegance, creativity, artistry. Sports at its best is a showcase for human excellence, an arena for human drama. When you witness certain athletes perform well—sometimes magically—particularly under intense pressure, you know you’re witnessing something special, and fleeting, and worth savoring. Which brings me to last Friday night, when I watched one of the most unforgettable single-game performances in NBA playoff history.
The Golden State Warriors, two-time defending champions, were leading the Houston Rockets in the best-of-seven series, three games to two. But in the second half of Game 5, Kevin Durant—the best player in the playoffs this year and one of the best scorers in NBA history—went down with a series-ending calf injury. The Warriors squeaked out a victory in Game 5, 104–99, thanks to some late-game heroics by Curry. But Game 6 was played in Houston, where the Rockets had won a dozen home games in a row—and because of the injury to Durant, the Rockets, who pushed the Warriors to a seventh game in their series last year, were heavily favored to win.
It wasn’t just Durant’s injury that made the Rockets such favorites, but also the fact that the Warriors point guard Steph Curry, a two-time Most Valuable Player award winner, was having a terrible series. His shooting percentage was dismal. He missed layups and uncontested dunks, committed sloppy turnovers, found himself in constant foul trouble, and, on top of everything else, dislocated a finger on his left (non-shooting) hand. During the first half of Friday night’s game, Curry was nearly catatonic: zero points, three fouls, and only 12 minutes of playing time. Yet the Warriors, thanks to some outstanding contributions from the bench, entered the second half tied for the lead.
Then Wardell Stephen Curry II took over.
In a performance for the ages, Curry scored 33 points in the second half, including 23 points in the fourth quarter, a tally exceeded only by Allen Iverson in the past 20 postseasons. Even more impressive is that Curry scored 16 points during the last five minutes of the game—a total it took the entire Rockets team to equal. There’s no other NBA playoff game in which a player has gone from being so awful to being so unstoppable. Curry was “a complete nonfactor in the game,” his coach, Steve Kerr, said. “And then [he] just completely took over the game on a night when everything was going wrong.” Kerr added, “If that game didn’t personify Steph Curry, I don’t know what did.”
The Warriors won, 118–113, to advance to the Western Conference finals against Portland. The Dubs’ quest for a three-peat—winning three consecutive championships in a row, and their fourth championship in five seasons—goes on.
Steph Curry is the greatest long-range shooter in NBA history. He’s also the best free-throw shooter. But he isn’t the best player in history, and he may not even be the best point guard. Yet what sets Curry apart from almost every other player, past or present—including Michael Jordan and LeBron James—is how he has revolutionized the game.
“Curry is to hoops as armed drones are to war,” Henry Abbott of ESPN The Magazine wrote in 2016. “The range. The unpredictability. The inescapability. He’s destroying defenses that don’t even know it is time to play defense. And now that we know this exists, it’s difficult to imagine the future could possibly look anything like the past.”
To understand Curry’s effect on the game, it’s helpful to know a little bit about the history of the three-point shot in professional basketball. When the three-point shot debuted in the NBA during the 1979–80 season, it was dismissed as a “gimmick.” John MacLeod, a respected coach for the Phoenix Suns, said at the time, “It may change our game at the end of the quarters, but I’m not going to set up plays for guys to bomb from 23 feet. I think that’s very boring basketball.” The Boston Celtics’ legendary coach Red Auerbach put it more bluntly: “We don’t need it. I say leave our game alone.”
At the end of that first season, teams averaged fewer than three three-point attempts a game. It wasn’t until the 1987–88 season that Danny Ainge of the Celtics became the first player to make more than 100 three-point attempts.
Then the Curry era began.
In the 2012–13 season—his third in the league—he set a record by making 272 three-point shots. In the 2015–16 season, Curry made 402—still a record. (The New York Times said at the time that the record was such an outlier, it was “the equivalent of hitting 103 home runs in a Major League Baseball season.”) He led the league in three-point shots for five consecutive seasons. Kids began to imitate Curry like kids a generation before wanted to be like Mike.
The New York Times’ Victor Mather points out, “Even in a world without Curry, the 3-point record would be tumbling.” But Curry changed things in a way no one else had. He would pull up and calmly nail game-winning shots from 37 feet, more than a dozen feet beyond the three-point arc, which once upon a time was considered a challenging shot. (You can get a sense of Curry’s preternatural shooting skills by watching one of the highlight reels that have proliferated online.) He spread the defense in ways few other players ever have, forcing other teams to change their lineup in order to guard him.
But guarding him was hardly a guarantee of stopping him. Curry is able to make shots when defenders are draped all over him, barely allowing him room to get his quick-release shot off. That was the case in the last minute-and-a-half in Game 6 against the Rockets, when Curry was guarded by P. J. Tucker, an excellent defender. But Curry dribbled behind his back (twice), crossed over several times, went to his right, and fired a three-pointer that didn’t even touch iron. It was the kill shot.
“His spurtability, his ability to get points in bunches, is the best in the world, in the history of the game,” Curry’s backcourt mate Klay Thompson said. “I knew he was going to get going. There’s nobody better to have the ball in his hands at the end of the game. [His second half] didn’t surprise me one bit. He’s our leader. He plays with great composure.” And fearlessness, in the words of Steve Kerr. “That’s what makes him who he is.”
Curry can create shots off his own dribble, but what he does better than anyone else ever has is move without the ball, using screens to get open and “creating a vacuum of defensive attention wherever he is not,” as Chris Ballard put it in Sports Illustrated. He’s perpetual motion. That is one thing that distinguishes Curry from James Harden of the Rockets, a great scorer but one who plays best in isolation, going one-on-one, which causes the rest of the team to stagnate. What makes the Warriors different from any other team is their ball movement, the extra pass, the assists. When they are hitting on all cylinders, it’s a thing of beauty. The Warriors play the game in a way purists can love.
When Sports Illustrated honored the Warriors with its 2018 Sportsperson of the Year award, the magazine said it was for myriad reasons, including “injecting joy into the game and setting fire to conventional wisdom.” And the personification of that joy is Steph Curry.
“Our universe revolves around him,” the Warriors’ general manager, Bob Myers, told Sports Illustrated. He’s “the reason for all this,” Curry’s teammate Andre Iguodala said. Another teammate, Shaun Livingston, called Curry “the soul of the team.” And Kerr put it this way: “The whole culture revolves not only [around] his talent, his unselfishness, but his joy.”
That is perhaps the most striking thing about Steph Curry—the joie de vivre he brings to the game. It’s unmatched by any professional athlete today, and equaled by only a few in history. Magic Johnson is one; Muhammad Ali was another. (Curry doesn’t possess Ali’s cruel streak, which the boxer showed toward Joe Frazier.)
You see the ebullience before tip-off, when Curry amuses himself (and delights fans) with a two-handed, 40-foot pregame tunnel heave, which he performs with the help of a 65-year-old security official. He’s known to recruit teammates to use basketballs to play volleyball, bowl, and run football plays as part of their pregame warm-up. He keeps things loose, and he keeps things fun.
On the court, Curry is demonstrative and intense, entertaining, and at times playful. He often celebrates after hitting a three-pointer, sometimes doing the shimmy, hyping up his teammates and the home crowd. Curry radiates a feeling of enchantment and childlike delight with the game, which seems like an extension of life itself. He’s a fierce competitor without hard edges.
This season has been the most grinding one for the Warriors during their half-decade-long dominance of the NBA. Tensions have flared between Durant and the star forward Draymond Green. At times, the Warriors have appeared lackadaisical, distracted, and mentally worn down. The players seem to sense that their dynastic run is winding down. At these moments, it’s been Curry who has stepped into the breach, bringing the locker room together, telling the world and his teammates, “We cannot lose the joy that we need to play with.” He doesn’t want the dance to end. Neither do I.
The Western Conference finals with Portland begin at Oracle Arena on Tuesday evening. For at least the first part of the series, the Warriors wilar, the Warriors will happily cast their lot with their cheerful assassin, the overlooked high-school prospect who transformed the game, the best long-shooter ever to set foot on a hardwood floor.
Peter Wehner is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of the forthcoming book The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.