“You better buckle up,” Kevin Harlan advised after Stephen Curry made his second 3-pointer in 32 seconds, which was also his fourth triple of the opening quarter against the Clippers on Thursday. “This feels different.”
Harlan was right: Nothing else in the NBA feels quite like Steph’s sui generis style of instant incineration. What’s nuts, though, is that he was also wrong, because we’ve seen this before.
Curry’s opening frame on Thursday—25 points on perfect shooting (4-for-4 inside the arc, 5-for-5 outside it, 2-for-2 from the free throw line)—was the eighth 25-point quarter of his career. Nobody else in the past 25 years has more than four. It was the 30th time he’s made at least five triples in a period, more than twice as many as any other player over the past quarter-century. What makes Steph magic exists in the moment; what makes him immortal is that those moments just keep happening, again and again and again.
Even as the 3-point-attempt rate continues to rise, fueled by an ever-growing legion of young players who came of age watching the Stephs and James Hardens of the world, Curry remains a special spectacle—the focal point of every fan, and every Warriors opponent, every second he’s on the floor. And nobody’s more conscious of that than he is. The best outcome for the Warriors offense is typically Curry shooting. (Revolutionary analysis, that.) The second-best often comes when he leverages all that attention to open doors for everyone else.
After a Clippers miss, Eric Bledsoe picks up Curry in transition, while Paul George backpedals into the lane to protect the rim. Steph processes that by the time he reaches half court, picks up the pace a bit, and cuts through the paint. Bledsoe sticks with Curry, because you don’t want to leave him alone for a millisecond; George steps up to cut Curry off, because you don’t want to leave him alone for a millisecond. The result: a wide-open corner 3 for Andrew Wiggins.
A couple of possessions later, Curry gets off the ball early, then moves to the left wing to set a screen for Jordan Poole; instead, Poole rejects it, cutting into the paint as Kevon Looney makes an entry pass to Draymond Green on the right block. As Curry turns his body to reset, Bledsoe guards him with a technique that would have chaperones at a Catholic high school dance interceding to insist on the creation of space for the Holy Ghost:
Check out the other Clippers as Green backs in on Marcus Morris Sr.: Ivica Zubac and Reggie Jackson staring at Steph, and George in the weakside corner, eyeballing Draymond. I’m guessing PG had more than an inkling of what was about to happen: Curry and Green, forever mind-melded, use Bledsoe’s physicality and the focus on trying to prevent a release to the arc for a quick catch-and-shoot to kick open the back door, with Draymond delivering a thread-the-needle feed for an easy layup.
Once the defense has to start worrying about the back door, too, even more avenues open. Jackson sinks back as Curry cuts from the corner to avoid giving him another clean release to the cup, so Steph changes direction and darts out to the wing for a Draymond feed. This is a five-alarm fire for the Clips; Jackson and Morris race to put it out, sprinting out with hands up to keep him from raising up. The five-alarm fire, though, quickly turns into floodwater against a dam (Steph Curry: mixing metaphors!), with the Clipper D springing a leak as new addition Nemanja Bjelica—who looks awfully comfortable in Golden State’s movement-heavy approach—slips behind Luke Kennard into a wide-open lane, where Curry hits him with an inch-perfect lob for a layup.
As maddening as pundits and Warriors fans can sometimes find Steve Kerr’s commitment to free-flowing, read-and-react offense—particularly when Golden State’s players don’t quite have the seasoning and savvy to make it sing—there’s a reason the coach favors it. It goes along with all the highlight-reel packages of Steph scorching overmatched defenders in isolation …
… and with the audacious flick-of-the-wrist bombs—including a near-logo heartbreaker that George had apparently been asking for all night—that capped a 45-point night to deliver a 115-113 win.
It’s because, while they’re impossibly athletic and remarkably gifted, at the end of the day, NBA players are like you, me, and Kevin Harlan; they know that Stephen Curry moving around the court feels different, too. They’re only human. And they can’t take their eyes off of Steph, either.