When it’s right, there’s still nothing like it. In the third quarter of Golden State’s first Western Conference Finals matchup against the Dallas Mavericks last week, as the Warriors stretched a 9-point lead to 19, Stephen Curry did his recognizable thing. Dribbling into the corner and running into a double-team, he flung a blind pass back over his head — less to Draymond Green than to a notion of where Draymond Green might be — and tracked back toward the wing. Dorian Finney-Smith let up for a quarter-second; that was all Curry needed. In one fluid motion, Curry looped around a screen, got the ball back and flicked up a 3-pointer. The lead widened and the dancing started.
The Warriors got more of the same in their wins in Games 2 and 3, as Curry connected on 11 of 20 triples on the way to 63 points. But such salvos from history’s finest shooter have been rarer, across the 2021-22 season and postseason, than they used to be, even as Golden State has extended a resurgent year into a 3-0 lead in the conference finals. During the regular season, Curry shot 38 percent from three, the first time he’s failed to crack the 40-percent mark. In the playoffs, he’s shooting 38.4 percent, the second-worst figure in his postseason career. Nights when his marksmanship buries the opponents are now offset by those in which his misfires help keep them in it. In Golden State’s only loss to Denver in the first round, Curry — coming off the bench as he returned from a foot injury — missed eight of 11 3-point tries. Over back-to-back games against Memphis the following series, he went 5-for-19. That night he shimmied on Finney-Smith? Just 3-for-9, which was once considered an off night.
When great players get worse, though, we can come to know them better. Just as Tim Duncan’s balky knee made him flip deeper into the indices of his catalog of post moves and Michael Jordan’s diminished hops clarified his documercial-worthy competitiveness, Curry’s off shooting year has brought into focus everything else he does to make the Golden State machine hum. His finishing ability at the rim has long been under-celebrated; he sequences feints and tosses odd-angled spin off the backboard as well as anyone in the league, on nights when Kyrie Irving isn’t playing. Unlike other notable avatars of basketball’s new age, Curry willingly plumbs the midrange when playoff defenses take away the optimized stuff behind the arc or in the lane. His off-ball movement is no secret, but it remains astonishing: the reason why Andrew Wiggins can spend entire quarters driving past closeouts and why Jordan Poole, six months into his ascent, hardly knows what a double-team looks like.
The story here isn’t that Curry has overhauled his game to accommodate a fritzier-than-normal stroke; over the regular season, 59 percent of his shot attempts came from three, the highest rate of his career, according to Cleaning the Glass. It’s something simpler; he just had excellence to spare. Curry’s effective field-goal percentage this season dropped to 55.5, his lowest full-season mark since 2012-13, but that still put him in the 90th percentile among point guards. He scored 122.7 points per 100 shot attempts, a drop-off of more than 11 points from last year’s not-even-career-best number … and graded out as the best in the NBA at his position.
If the numbers have fallen somewhat, the secondary effects of Curry’s shooting have diminished not a tick. Nobody warps defenses like him, and he now has 13 seasons of reading and responding to their various overreactions under his belt. Here’s a sequence selected more or less randomly from Golden State’s Game 3 win.
Wiggins sets a screen for Curry, a routine action that defenses still treat as an emergency. Two Mavs step up to bracket Curry; the rest rotate over against the drive. Reading their momentum, Curry plays the numbers. A cross-court pass to Green and a slip from Wiggins, and the Warriors have converted reputation into a lob layup.
“The game is the game. Basketball is about sharing the ball,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said last week. “Put it on the floor, draw a defender and move it on. That’s what our team has been built on for a long time.”
Without naming Curry, Kerr was laying out his star player’s ethos, and its effect on the club. Over three games against Dallas, Golden State has tallied 30 more assists than their opponents, and where the Mavs’ shot chart is one of stubbornly sticking with it, the Warriors’ reflects a willingness to take what comes. The Mavs have hoisted 138 threes so far; the Warriors just 89. After a few slow years, the Golden State system is once again revved up — Poole’s brazen shot-hunting, Wiggins’s rocketship impressions — but Curry remains the instigator. When he’s been on the floor these playoffs, the Warriors are 13 points per 100 possessions better than when he’s off; none of his teammates come close.
Another minor but telling moment in Game 3 came midway through the third quarter, when Kerr called in a screen-the-screener set for Curry.
Curry had already hit four threes on the night, but this time he curled tight around Moses Moody, took the pass at the elbow and popped in a midranger to push the lead to double-digits. The shot was a hair-trigger beauty — anybody who’s watched his viral warmup routine from back in February knows that Curry’s aesthetic appeal doesn’t rely on distance — but also a window into the Warriors’ postseason mindset. They thrive on subverting expectation. That could mean slipping backdoor against an overleveraged defender or hoisting a three from obscene distance, or it could mean pulling out a play from the NBA of two decades ago.
If 146 series’ worth of history is any indication, the Warriors will shortly be back in the Finals for the sixth time in Curry’s career. Their standing will be different this time around; they’re neither the norm-exploding upstart of 2015 nor the outrageously favored juggernaut of 2017. The key pieces from past championship runs are older and more reliant on veterans’ guile than youthful ingenuity. But that’s what distinguishes the players and teams who become champions from those who stay at that level: the ability to get a little worse and compensate, to lose something and still win.
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