Stephen Curry's next stage: MVP has Warriors closing in on the NBA Finals
This story appears in the May 25, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The uprising starts innocuously. A ragged warmup, a swollen deficit, a sidelined teammate...a hard foul, a gnawed mouthpiece, a mystified question (“What’s going on here?”)...a shot off the back rim, a smirk, a correction...a wet jumper, and another, and a feeling...a pull-up in transition, a one-legged leaner, a moonbeam from 27 feet...a high-step, a shoulder-shimmy, a point to the rafters...a mandate from the court, the bench, the stands: “Give him the ball!”...coaches scrapping rotations, opponents draining timeouts, fans spilling beers...a delirious bench, a traumatized defense, a basketball arena turned tent revival...and the 6' 3", 190-pound pixie in the middle of the madness, thinking only about his read on the next pick-and-roll, because if he ever allows himself to savor any of this, it will be gone.
“You keep your foot down and consume yourself with everything else that’s happening, every other little detail,” Warriors point guard Stephen Curry says. “The idea is to shut out every possible distraction, and think about your teammates, so you don’t think about yourself. Because you know the hot is eventually going to run out and the moment is going to pass.” The colleges that bypassed him, the crowds that harangued him, the scouting reports that insisted he was too small, they never enter his mind. “Distractions,” he says. He doesn’t need any more fuel. It’s harmony he’s after, between ball and wrist. There is no way to articulate how fine-tuned he feels, except that he keeps hollering, “Short!” on shots that swish through the front side of the net rather than the middle. He chirps, “Hold it!” when he knows the shot is true.
The Zone has been around as long as sports themselves, but the Curry Zone is bigger, hotter and more enduring than any before. He describes the first time he stepped inside that blast furnace, as an eighth-grader in Toronto, playing for a travel team called the 5–0. “I shot everywhere,” he says, “and I couldn’t miss.”
He scored 63 points that day, but his dad skipped the last 20 because he was in a hallway outside the gym. “All these people were coming in to see what was going on, and there was so much commotion, it seemed like he was never going to stop,” former NBA marksman Dell Curry recalls. “I had to get out of there. I felt bad for the other team. I couldn’t watch what he was doing to those kids.”
Dell’s oldest son is now the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, far more than a sniper. He is a brilliant ballhandler, a telepathic passer, a reliable defender. But he is still defined by those hysterical stretches when fire shoots out of his fingertips. In the Western Conference finals, he will face the Rockets and MVP runner-up James Harden, an intriguing matchup that comes with the usual caveat: “If Curry goes off. . . .” Houston will likely trap him 30 feet from the basket, forcing him to surrender the ball, even if that means open looks for everybody else. The threat of Curry has become almost as significant as Curry himself. Teams are terrified of getting locked in his fun house, between its walls of noise, three-pointers plopping on their heads.
But it happens anyway. It happened to the Pelicans in Game 3 of the first round, when Curry capped a 20-point fourth-quarter comeback with a tying corner three while being flattened by two giants. And it happened to the Grizzlies in Game 4 of the second round, when Curry scored 21 points in the first half, reversing the tide of the series. It has happened so many times in so many gyms throughout his 27 years that those closest to him can see the Curry Flurry coming, like animals sensing earthquakes. If his warmup is poor, if his team is trailing, if his season is teetering, if a sidekick is hurt or suspended or otherwise indisposed, if he is jostled or provoked or wronged in any way, take cover. Those are a few of his tells. His performance rises with the stakes, and for a franchise that hasn’t reached the conference finals since 1976, the ante has never been higher than it is right now. “On the big stage everything slows down,” Curry says. “You’re comfortable. You’re not rushed. You know it’s do or die, but you treat it like it’s game 27. You can do that because you’ve been there before—and failed.”
Eighth grade was not the first time he entered the Curry Zone. It’s just the first time he remembers. “He was doing that stuff when he was six,” says Malcolm Sanders, who coached Curry’s first team at Naomi Drenan Rec Center in Charlotte, appropriately called the Flames. “He’d hit one, and then another, and you’d see this smirk on his face, and you knew it was over. People came to watch him. He gave shows.” The Flames, according to Sanders, did not lose for four years. When Curry was nine, they joined the AAU circuit, renaming themselves the Stars. They didn’t lose then, either, advancing to the 10-and-under national championship game at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex outside Orlando.
The Stars led most of the way, Sanders recalls, but the Potomac Valley Blue Devils rallied late and took a three-point lead. In a timeout the coaches designed a final play, a three for Curry on the right wing. It worked perfectly, and Curry was fouled on the shot. He walked to the line for three free throws. “Steph doesn’t miss,” Sanders thought. “This is our game.” He missed the first.
Curry kept his composure, sinking the second before purposely clanking the third, but he broke down when the buzzer sounded. “It was a moment that defined my childhood,” he says. “It was all I thought about for a year. I felt I could go one of two ways afterward. I could run from that moment or I could want it again. I decided I wanted it.”
Four years later Curry moved to Toronto because his dad signed with the Raptors. He enrolled at Queensway Christian College and joined the school’s eighth-grade team, typically a .500 outfit. Once Curry arrived, pouring in 40 points per game, Queensway never lost. In the semifinals of a tournament at Mentor College, Queensway faced powerful Hillcrest Junior Public School, and the Saints were dwarfed at every position. “Steph was 5' 5", and they guarded him with guys who were 6' 2",” recalls former Queensway coach James Lackey. “They were very physical with him and knocked him around in a way he hadn’t been knocked around before.” With about a minute left, Queensway trailed by six, and Lackey told his players: “I don’t think we’re going to pull this out.”
“Give me the ball,” Curry piped up, “and we’ll win.” You know what comes next.
“Remember when Tracy McGrady scored 13 points in less than a minute?” Lackey asks. “It was that kind of ridiculous. It was a three, a steal, another three, an offensive foul, another three. We didn’t just win. I think we won by eight.” There are scores of similar stories, stretching from Ontario to Oakland, now bordering on folklore. There was Curry’s first varsity game at Charlotte Christian School, in the North Carolina state tournament, when he waited all of 40 seconds to cross up a defender and bury a three. “That guy,” Charlotte Christian coach Shonn Brown gushed on the bench, “is the future.”
There was Curry’s first college game for Davidson, at Eastern Michigan, when he had 13 turnovers; and there was his second game, at Michigan, when the staff stuck with him and he scored 32 points. There was his first NCAA tournament win, when Davidson trailed Gonzaga by five at halftime and power forward Thomas Sander broke his thumb. “How do we handle this?” coach Bob McKillop wondered. Curry scored 24 points in the final 15:23 minutes. And there was his second NCAA tournament win, when the Wildcats fell behind Georgetown by 17 and Curry missed 13 of his first 16 shots. How do we handle this? Curry scored 18 points in the final 7:13. “Sinatra sings the song,” McKillop says. “Pavarotti hits the note. The magic comes out of the bottle. You want to know when it happens. It happens at the defining moments.”
Nothing seemed definitive about game 82 for the 2009–10 Warriors, who entered it 25–56. But it was the last game of Curry’s rookie season and the last game of Don Nelson’s coaching career. The Warriors arrived in Portland with six healthy players, before they lost another to injury and one more to fouls. They had to use the guy who fouled out. Curry rose above the chaos, putting up 42 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, a memory that helped sustain him when losses and ankle injuries spoiled his next two seasons.
“When people count you out, tell you there’s no chance, that’s when it’s easy for me to really focus,” Curry says. It’s no coincidence that, two hours before his 54-point outburst at Madison Square Garden in February 2013, Golden State forward David Lee was suspended due to a skirmish the previous night in Indiana. Then the team bus got pulled over on the way to the arena for an illegal U-turn. Warmups were late and rushed. “Isn’t that how it always goes?” says Warriors center Andrew Bogut. “Everything is messed up, we’re playing crappy, we’re down 10, and all of a sudden: Bam! He’s taking shots you wouldn’t recommend anyone else take. Kid doesn’t have his feet set, his body isn’t facing the basket and he’s still knocking them down.”
Look back, for instance, at his first playoff series, against the Nuggets in 2013. Lee was out with a hip flexor, and by Game 4, Curry had a sprained left ankle and a swollen left eye. He had one field goal in the first two -quarters—and 22 points in the third. “That was the beginning of his ascension,” says Golden State general manager Bob Myers. “It’s when he revealed to the world that the stage does not diminish his talent. Home, road, regular season, post-season, double team, great defender—he doesn’t change. Even the best athletes, their confidence wavers. His doesn’t.”
Most of these greatest hits are Curry’s picks, games he deems most meaningful and revealing. This season he has a dozen to choose from, but he pinpoints a home date with Dallas in part because it reminded him of New York. His warmup was so wretched that he asked player development coach Bruce Fraser what was wrong with his form. The Warriors trailed by 20 points after seven minutes. Curry fumed during a timeout. “He doesn’t get angry often,” says Golden State broadcaster Bob Fitzgerald. “But when he does, he takes it out on you.” Fitzgerald plays golf with Curry at California Golf Club of San Francisco. “If he’s not having the round he thinks he should have, or God forbid if you tell him that, he will flip the switch,” Fitzgerald says.
With one minute left against the Mavericks, Curry sat on 48 points, and the Warriors feverishly force-fed him the ball. Curry called a play for somebody else. “Get 50!” implored forward Draymond Green. Curry scrapped the play and drilled a 28-footer for 51. Afterward he asked Fraser, “Can you believe that happened?” Yes. “Steph is able to self-correct,” Fraser says. “He can be off, but if he just sees the ball go through the net one time, his body can get that feeling back—the feeling of a million shots he’s made in his life. And he can carry that feeling with him for the rest of the game.” The feeling overrides any uncertainty. When Curry nailed a game-winning three against Orlando in December, Fraser asked if he knew it was good when he released. “Of course,” Curry shrugged.
Before games, Fraser studies his arc and trajectory, searching for signs of what’s to come. He wants swishes, obviously, but shots off the back rim suggest Curry is close. Fraser ponders why so many Steph streaks follow a similar pattern, connected by dramatic backdrops and prompted by unforeseen obstacles. “The best shooters,” he says, “are so good they can sometimes get bored.”
Three days after his kid won MVP, Dell Curry went out to the driveway. He is 50, but he still plays on his court at home in Charlotte, and if he doesn’t make six of eight threes from his handpicked spots, he forces himself to do 10 push-ups. “That’s what I taught my boys [Stephen and his brother, Seth, a guard in the D-League],” says Dell, who hit 40.2% of his threes during his 16-year career, the 27th-best rate in NBA history. “You have to challenge yourself, make it competitive, or it can get monotonous.”
When Brian Scalabrine joined the Warriors as an assistant coach in 2013–14, he told Curry about a drill that Atlanta’s Kyle Korver completes after every practice. Korver takes 10 threes from five spots along the arc, and then repeats, working in the opposite direction, for a total of 100 shots. Scalabrine announced that he once saw Korver sink 99 when they both played for Chicago, and 94 regularly. “The whole team called bulls--- on me,” Scalabrine recalls. “They were like, ‘No way, that’s impossible, Steph is the best shooter in the world.’ I said, ‘Not spotting up, it’s Korver.’ Steph got mad. I still don’t know if he likes me because of it.” But Scalabrine noticed something shortly after the exchange. Curry started using the drill, and almost two years later, he still does.
On the last Tuesday of the regular season, at the Warriors’ training facility, Curry sets up in the right corner and splashes nine of 10. “Good,” says special assistant Nick U’Ren, rebounding for him. Curry moves to the right wing and cans 10 of 10. “Better,” U’Ren nods. Curry skips to the top of the circle and drains 10 of 10 again. U’Ren turns to a couple of spectators under the basket. “Wow,” he mouths. Here it is, the Curry Zone. He starts 48 of 50. Four times he yells, “Short!” on shots that swish. He sweeps back across the perimeter, hitting 10 of 10 from the left corner, 10 of 10 from the left wing. Teammates are watching. Cameras are filming. “Don’t get giddy,” Curry tells himself. He’s made 77 in a row, and when he finally misfires from the top of the circle, he grabs Green’s jersey and screams. He finishes 94 of 100.
The next morning, at shootaround, is different. He’s only making about eight of every 10. “He’s bored,” Fraser says. For most of the population, it is a challenge to launch a leather sphere into an iron circle from 23 feet away. “For Steph, it’s easy,” Fraser says. “When he misses, it’s usually because he’s not locked in, so you have to make it interesting.” Fraser calls out to Warriors coach Steve Kerr, “You want a piece of my guy?” and they start a free throw contest. Then it’s a three-point contest with assistant Luke Walton. Then it’s a game of bump-out. Warriors practice can feel like a state fair. “He needs the action,” Fraser says. “And when he gets it, he just snaps on.”
This does not bode well for the Rockets, who find Curry under the biggest of big tops, having failed to corral him on smaller platforms. Houston dropped all four meetings against Golden State this season, each by double digits, and eventually grew desperate. Before a matchup in mid-January, Harden told his teammates that the Warriors “ain’t that good”; the Rockets fell by 25. In the rematch four days later, Trevor Ariza enraged Curry with a third-quarter bump; three minutes later the Rockets trailed by 30. Ariza was just following a well-worn game plan, to invade Curry’s air space and pray he comes unhinged. “That’s what everybody tried to do, get real physical with him,” says Warriors associate head coach Alvin Gentry. “But I don’t think it worked. I think it initiated something in Steph where he played even better.”
Gentry spent last season on the Clippers’ staff and shared with Curry elements of their approach. “I told him what we did,” Gentry says. “We were determined not to let him beat us.” The Clippers trap Curry so far away from the hoop, he struggles to get off a shot, much less get on a roll. “But you can win in other ways,” Gentry told Curry. “If you are constantly creating double teams, and moving the ball, no one will be able to beat us.” Gentry didn’t have to elaborate. In Curry’s final year at Davidson, he scored 44 points against Blake Griffin and Oklahoma, and a week later faced Loyola of Maryland. Loyola stalked Curry with two defenders. He attempted three shots and didn’t score a point. Davidson won by 30.
That example, while extreme, was instructive. Curry averaged 23.8 points this season, fewer than his 24.0 last year, but the Warriors won a league-high 67 games—up from 51—because they consistently played four-on-three. Curry’s great gift, besides his shot, is leveraging the attention/anxiety/terror that shot inspires. Green (11.7), guard Klay Thompson (21.7) and forward Harrison Barnes (10.1) all averaged career highs in points this season playing off Curry. “I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve mastered it, because I haven’t, but every year I’m fine-tuning the balance,” Curry says. “I’m getting the feel of what needs to be done based on the flow of the game—who’s hot, who’s not, and whether I’m in rhythm.”
He cannot forget about himself, not when the Warriors are just a few Curry Flurries from their first championship in 40 years. Without forcing the feeling, he must recognize it, the numb sensation he experiences as the zone opens and the math changes. One bucket becomes five, two points become 20, and a struggle becomes a circus. “You don’t know when it’s going to happen,” Curry says.
You only know that it will.