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SHAME ON US FOR UNDERSTATING STEPH CURRY’S GREATNESS, SOMEHOW
We’ve seen him revolutionize basketball and shoot better than anyone who has played the game, but Curry’s 50-point revelation Sunday gives us pause about his rightful place in the all-time pantheon
When he wasn’t smiling in the third quarter, as the sinister hitman on a knowing prowl, Steph Curry was so wired that he took off on a crazed sprint, his momentum prompting a stumble and a joyful spill. And that was minutes AFTER one of his greatest highlights in a career of epic cinema — splitting a double team, scooping a floating layup from a dozen feet with his right hand, hitting the floor hard, laying there in brief pain, then getting up and stepping to the free-throw line, where he smiled again, his trademark mouthpiece dangling, before making the shot and raising his arms and hopping away.
He was overtaken by his superpowers, lifted by his own natural drug.
Stephtosterone, call it.
“Attitude can manifest a lot of things,” Curry would explain. “The smile was intentional. Just try to be in the present.”
Silencing the cowbells in a small town, eliminating a team not ready for postseason prime time, the sorcerer was out of his mind Sunday. And I just might mean that literally. His smiles later turned to snarls, with nasty language for enemies real or perceived, then some repeated nods for the world at large and a mock push of a button that lights the purple beam outside Sacramento’s arena. He reads social media. He hears noise. He knows what people were saying about the impending death of the Golden State Warriors, the summer departure of Draymond Green, the end of a four-title dynasty, that they were aging and wheezing to the point they should stop and play bingo on the last bus ride up I-80. He knew an opponent, Malik Monk, had called them old. He also knew Charles Barkley had predicted the Kings would win Game 7, which meant Curry’s life as a champion would be over as he gradually faded into his twilight.
Take those violins and shove them, he said. Shut up and fiddle.
In the history of the National Basketball Association, no player ever had scored 50 points in the seventh game of a playoff series. Not Michael Jordan. Not LeBron James. Not Kevin Durant. Not Kobe Bryant. Not Wilt Chamberlain or Shaquille O’Neal. But just as he arrived frail and smallish and shocked us in becoming the deadliest shooter ever, while birthing the sport’s three-point revolution, Curry sprayed mace into the faces of those who thought he and his team were finished.
Fifty points. Which came after a sleepless Friday night, caused by a troubling Game 6 defeat at home, and a rousing Saturday speech that left his teammates with goosebumps. Normally, Green addresses the team in such a moment. This time, Curry spoke up, urging everyone to trust him or just stay home. He kept his promise, one might say.
“We're defying the odds by still playing at this high of a level. Everyone wants to see you fail,” he said after the 120-100 shakedown, which sets up an unlikely reprise of last decade’s rivalry — Curry vs. LeBron James, now a Los Angeles Laker — in a national collision on the California coast. “That's kind of the nature of where we're at right now. We love when we still prove a lot of people wrong. It's part of our vibe now.”
Can anyone on this planet stop him?
“Hopefully,” he said, “we never find out.”
His barrage was achieved every way possible, from preposterous bombs to twisting forays through weary bodies. There was a dagger when he took a baseline give-and-go from Green and drilled one of his seven three-pointers, on a day of 20 field goals, when his team needed every one of his 38 shots, eight rebounds and six assists. This was not an afternoon when his foundational partners in championship crime were helping much. Klay Thompson struggled with his shot, going 4 of 19. Green behaved himself and contributed a bit. But without a legendary explosion from Curry — and 21 rebounds from Kevon Looney, who had eight offensive boards in the decisive third quarter — they probably would have lost as Barkley predicted. All that remained were the testimonials. They stretched from social media — where one tribute came from a possible next-round opponent and former teammate, Durant, who wrote, “Legendary 30. 50 pieces,” — to his slack-jawed mates in the locker room.
“What an incredible all-time performance,” Thompson said. “This is a Game 7 I’ll forever remember as the Steph Curry game.”
“To watch Steph have the game he had, total domination,” Green said. “These are the moments — I’m a basketball fan, and as a fan, you appreciate it. But as his teammate, that's the guy you want to go to war with. He left no doubt. You look at all the things we have gone through as a team, to win Game 5 here and then go home and lay an egg, to come back here on the road and do it all over again, and do it even better, that speaks volumes.”
Leave it to coach Steve Kerr, the common denominator between Curry and Jordan, to draw the comparison. “He doesn’t surprise me,” Kerr said. “We all take him for granted because he’s brilliant night after night, and we’ve been watching this for 10 years. You just have to remind yourself every once in a while, big picture, this is one of the great players in the history of the game. But that’s how I felt back in my playing days with Michael Jordan. You’d see it night after night so you just took it for granted. That’s how it is with Steph: It’s over and over and over again, and the resilience and the work that goes into that and the focus is incredible to watch.”
Recently, Curry introduced a new self-description to the lexicon of Steph worship: irrational confidence. Of course, he is better at producing apt prose than the sportswriters who cover him. “You got to have it," Curry told ESPN. “The security in myself to know I am who I am and how I play is how I play. Whatever comes out of that you kind of live with. It's not passive; you have to work. I think that's the biggest thing. It's a different way of looking at the game, looking at yourself. Almost like an irrational confidence that comes with it just because you are that type of dude.”
That type of dude just delivered the working definition of a Most Valuable Player performance. He has won two such awards, one more in the Finals, and he won’t win again this season. But the frontrunner, Joel Embiid, is injured as usual and might not survive the conference semifinal round. Nikola Jokic has won the last two MVPs and looks primed for a Finals appearance, but the third contender, Giannis Antetokounmpo, bowed out with a shocking loss last week and, worse, tried to rationalize his team’s failure. Meanwhile, at 35, there was Curry, hammering home another mission statement while giving the game’s historians something to ponder.
Have we somehow understated his all-time place? He never has been considered for a berth in the ultimate pantheon, one of the four greats on a mythical Mount Hoopsmore. Shouldn’t he at least be in the conversation now? How many players could have executed such a slaying when so much was working against them? Jordan, yes. Who else? Green talks too much, but when the topic is Curry, it’s worth listening to his G.O.A.T. case. “One of the most unique things about Steph is — we all argue like, ‘Oh, is Jordan the G.O.A.T? Does LeBron dethrone him?’ Whoever your guy is, who you think is the G.O.A.T. Everyone debates it. There's no debate. (Curry) is the greatest. So that confidence runs different. But I think we all here in this world know, there's no debate. He's the greatest — and that's a special thing.”
He isn’t there yet, but if Curry somehow wins a fifth title with a team on the wane, with Thompson and Green in decline and young Jordan Poole not always pulling his weight, we’ll certainly be reviewing his legacy. In that vein, his duel with James, starting Tuesday in San Francisco, will tweak another ongoing debate: Who has had the bigger career? LeBron is the all-time scoring leader, but no one ever has shot the ball better than Curry, who won three of his titles against James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The last one came five years ago, back when the league’s TV ratings were booming. This, too, is an irresistible showdown packed with champions who want more.
“It’s going to be epic,” Green said. “You got Steph, you got Bron, doing it all over again.”
What we’re about to see is worthy of your time, night after night, probably the last in a series of clashes between the sport’s biggest names and titleists of the last dozen years. Steph Curry will continue to be humble, in his passive-aggressive way, and he’ll downplay what is happening here. “Once the ball drops,” he said, “it’s just playing basketball at the end of the day.”
No, it’s a symphony mashed up with a rave and a religious experience. And what possibly does he have in mind for an encore?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.