WASHINGTON — One of the best traditions in basketball happens when a player gets so hot that the crowd forgets to care about the game. Shots keep falling and heat checks fail to check anything, so allegiances are abandoned and everyone agrees that the score is irrelevant. It becomes a shared experience. Everyone feels lucky just to be there, and every time the player touches the ball, the crowd holds its breath with a collective "How ridiculous can this get?" kind of buzz.
Steph Curry scored 51 points in Washington last night, but for the record, that buzz was already there before he'd even made a shot. It started during shootaround, if we're being technical about things. At this point, every game Curry plays is a new exercise in "How ridiculous can this get?" and we still don't have an answer.
Afterward, Steve Kerr called him "scintillating", which is one more adjective to throw on the pile of hyperbole we all use to describe the best player on Earth.
"Was he 13-for-14 or something in the first half?" Kerr asked.
Correct. 36 points in the first half.
"He was brilliant."
This is the story of the game, but also this Warriors season, and really, the whole league. Steph Curry can do whatever he wants, and he's been doing it all year long. Wednesday was incredible, but so was the Spurs game last week, and the Cavs game the week before, and on and on. He's in God Mode right now.
If it's been obvious for a while, it's not getting any less incredible. The NBA hasn't seen a player this dominant since LeBron James on the Heat three seasons ago, and before that, probably not since Shaq in his prime. But it's different with Curry, which is part of what makes nights like Wednesday so much fun.
Take LeBron. You watch him move on the court for 30 seconds, and you may not be able to tell that he's one of the smartest players of all time, but it's abundantly clear he's quicker and more powerful than just about anyone on the floor. It doesn't make sense that anyone that gifted actually exists, but it feels perfectly rational to watch him dominate. Of course he's doing that. Or in the case of fans who somehow expect him to dominate all the time, it's probably more like, finally, he's doing that.
With Curry, no matter how much success he's already had, he's a skinny 6'3" guard from Davidson, and everything he's doing still only makes the thinnest layer of sense. How is he doing this?
All of it's enough to overshadow anyone else, but in case anyone ever asks, the Wizards were just as fun Wednesday. Even after Curry went nuts in the first quarter, they didn't quit, and they actually closed the gap. Part of this involved forcibly trapping Curry throughout the second half to get the ball to literally anyone else, but that's OK. Sometimes the obvious choice is the best one.
As Bradley Beal said afterward with a grimacing smile, "That's something we should have probably done in the first quarter."
Still, it made for a fun second half, and it was all a nice change. In a lot of ways, this year's Wizards are like a version of the old Warriors that went horribly wrong. We've all learned together this year that small ball doesn't work quite as well with Kris Humphries, Ramon Sessions, and Garrett Temple. There's been no Draymond-led defense, no Steve Kerr coaching, and a cascade of double-digit losses where the blowout wins are supposed to be. The shocking run of health enjoyed in Golden State is contrasted by more injuries than any team in the league for D.C. Meanwhile, a season that started with Kevin Durant dreams now has the Warriors as rumored front-runners, while Wizards fans are left wondering whether the team should give Harrison Barnes a max deal. It's been a long season.
But Wednesday was the exception. The energy that Curry injected into the stadium wound up lifting everyone, and what should've been a blowout turned into a shootout played at 150 miles per hour. There were standing ovations for both teams as the night unfolded, with Wall and Curry trading buckets, and a sellout crowd getting way more invested in the second half than anyone expected.
When Wall was asked if watching Curry go off in the first quarter was part of what pushed him to the quietest 41-point, 10-assist night in league history, he dismissed it, saying "I was just being aggressive and taking whatever shots I had."
On the other hand, he conceded, "We played with a lot of energy. We knew we were on ESPN, and we knew if we didn't play well we'd lose by 50 or 60."
As someone who sat through a Wizards 25-point loss to the Celtics last week—the same night the Warriors beat the Spurs by 30—I promise you that statement is literally true.
Also, this is what the Warriors do to teams. The fear alone brings out the best game from everyone they play, and that only makes it more amazing that they're currently sitting at 45–4.
To his credit, Kerr's doing his best to strike fear into his own team. "Our challenge through the rest of the regular season is to try to cut our turnovers back. It's something we harp on constantly. It's really easy to get caught in the track meet and start trying crazy things when you don't really feel threatened, but we should feel threatened, because the turnovers are killing us."
Depending on whether you're a professional basketball coach, that either reads as a perfectly rational critique of the Warriors or the words of an insane person. Either way, whatever Kerr's doing is working, and all this keeps rolling, with Curry at the center, and more heat checks every week. Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and OKC are waiting on Saturday.
But first, there's the White House champions visit on Thursday. Asked about meeting with Obama, Curry rolled his eyes and said, "I already met President Obama, so I'm not really excited."
"[Shots] might be a little contested," said Curry about what 51 points felt like. "But nothing's bothering you. It's a fun feeling, and you want to ride it until you can't anymore."
I have a couple different theories about Steph Curry. The first is that the quote above probably describes his whole life right now, and certainly this Warriors team.
The second theory is that even in 2016, 45 wins into this season and eight months removed from a title, he's still not quite appreciated the right way, the way LeBron was a few years ago. We're all watching history, and yet half the time basketball people gawk at Golden State, they're calling Draymond Green the true MVP of that team. Maybe he's too nice, or too small, but the same underdog qualities that make his success such a spectacle on a nightly basis keeps us from talking about him in the Jordan conversations that were earmarked for LeBron at 18 years old.
The final theory is that anyone not giving Curry that kind of respect can be forgiven, solely because he keeps getting better. He wasn't this good last year and he won MVP and an NBA title. Most Improved Player is a stupid award with nebulous criteria, but Steph should win it. He's on a completely different level here. I'm not a psychologist, and maybe Curry just worked all summer and got better, but it seems like the extra 30-40% of confidence he got from winning a championship has turned Curry into a force of nature the likes of which the NBA has never really seen before. Now he's the guy who talks trash with the President and has effortless 25-point quarters. And of course, none of these theories really matter, because thinking about Curry isn't half as fun as watching him.
An hour after the game, a reporter in the Wizards locker room asked what it's like to see three after three after three after three go in from Curry.
"Can't say nothing," John Wall said. "He's hot."