The unprecedented season of Stephen Curry

by

Wardell Stephen Curry isn’t normal.

Perhaps this is an obvious statement, figuratively speaking. But Curry, quite literally, is doing things on the court the NBA has never seen. As Gregg Popovich said recently, watching Steph play can put one in a trance.

“I was almost in a mesmerized state in our last game at Golden State watching Curry shoot,” he said prior to tip of Game 2 in the Spurs’ first-round series against the Lakers. “I was just watching. It was like playing against Michael Jordan. I was watching Curry make shots I couldn’t believe anybody could make.”

And really there’s a good reason for that, because at this rate, nobody has made the types of shots Curry has. Of the 551 instances in league history in which a player has scored at least 22.9 points per game for an entire season (Curry’s 2012-13 average), Steph stands alone as one of the most prolific shooters ever.

Basketball teams at every level are comprised of players who fulfill different roles to complete the group. Very basically, there are scorers, facilitators, rebounders and defenders, obviously among other, more specific skill sets. Clearly, the guys who can blend these talents are the ones who demand a higher premium, but the ability to efficiently shoot the basketball from the 3-point line has become one of the most valuable commodities within any given gameplan, especially with advanced metrics outlining just how crucial these shots are.

But when you think about the great 3-point shooters in league history, you mostly recall how they perfected that specific craft, many times at the expense of another. Steve Kerr torched the nets when he got a good look, but nobody ever asked him to score 20 points a night or defend the opposition’s best player. No lead was safe with Reggie Miller on the court, but even during his best scoring season (24.6 ppg in 1989-90) he knocked down fewer than two 3-pointers per game. Now, the popular ‘three and D’ players — the Shane Battier types — have become highly sought after because of what they offer on both sides of the floor, but there’s a reason why they’ve been given the previously mentioned moniker.

The idea of a high-volume scorer taking more than 40 percent of his total field-goal attempts from beyond the arc while still putting up at least 20 points a night was unusual. The group of players who could lead their team in scoring and still record elite 3-point numbers was an exclusive one, and not even Miller, Glen Rice or Ray Allen accomplished what the Golden State point guard did this season.

At just 25 years of age, Curry put up those 22.9 points per game while hitting 3.5 threes a night at a 45.3 percent clip, numbers never collectively matched in NBA history, according to basketball-reference.com. As far as shooters go, we’re currently privy to watching something special.

Shooting threes is not easy. It’s why, despite the high value of made attempts, they’re the lowest-percentage shot on the floor. It’s also why you don’t typically see a team’s first scoring option hitting so many at such a successful rate. Knocking down shots from NBA range is one thing when you’re open, but it’s another thing entirely when a defender’s in your jock all night.

And most big-time scorers do a lot of damage from the free-throw line, but not Curry. The diminutive star attempted more than twice as many 3-pointers per game (7.7) as free throws (3.7) while setting the record for made threes in a season. He also hit more shots from deep (272) than free throws (262) this year. In fact, 43 percent of his field-goal attempts came from beyond the arc; just 23 percent of his shots came from anywhere inside the paint.

And what’s more, his 3-point-shooting percentage was higher than the 45.1-percent mark he averaged from the floor in general, not something you often associate with a guy who averaged nearly 23 points in 78 games played. Roughly 67 percent of Curry’s shots were jumpers, yet he still managed an effective field-goal percentage of 54.9 and a true-shooting percentage of 58.9. But while the old adage says ‘you live by the jumper and you die by the jumper,’ Steph survives by his, and he hasn’t become any less lethal with the end of the regular season.

As his team prepares to host the Nuggets in Game 6 tonight, Curry heads back to Oracle Arena averaging 24.8 points per game on 47.4 percent shooting, including 3.8 made threes at 42.2 percent during the playoffs. He hasn’t slowed a bit, even with the ultra-intense atmosphere and general higher level of defensive focus that comes with postseason play. (To be clear, Denver hasn’t exactly been what you would call dominant, defensively.) But Curry can kill you from deep in so many different ways, it’s difficult to pin-point the most effective method of slowing him down.

While someone like Spurs guard Danny Green has been deadly from the arc as a spot-up shooter, by eliminating those good looks you effectively take away his ability to beat you from deep. But that’s not the case with Curry. During the regular season, Steph took at least 112 threes from each of the following four vantage-points: as a spot-up shooter (159 attempts), as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (155), in transition (128) and off the screen (112).

So even if you’re able to keep up with him off the screen, in transition or spotting up, the defensive assignment hardly ends there. As lethal as Steph is floating around the perimeter, he’s equally as dangerous dancing with the ball in his hands. He can destroy you going left or right, off the dribble or pulling up from 30 feet. And unlike many shooters whose percentages might regress toward the mean the more shots they jack up, Curry is like a dominant pitcher — if you don’t get to him early, you’re screwed. Once he finds his rhythm, he makes the impossible look easy.

But the NBA’s seventh-leading scorer will have his work cut out for him, as he will certainly face his toughest tests as the postseason moves on. Denver has focused its efforts toward thwarting the point guard’s success by pushing the limits of physicality. The modern-day limits, at least.

The Nuggets began pushing, elbowing, even tripping the 3-point assassin, disrupting his motions and even frustrating him into unwise fan interactions. And their tactics did not go unnoticed by Warriors coach Mark Jackson, whose post-game comments have made their rounds along with player responses. This series just became quite heated, and whether or not Curry will be able to withstand the punches for another round remains to be seen. But up to this point, it seems like the only thing that has remotely worked against the explosive shooting star.

“When you get close to playoffs and in to playoffs, you see those kinds of performances. It’s always memorable for all of us,” Popovich said that day. “Coaches, fans, players … everybody.”

If Golden State is able to upset the previously favored Nuggets and move on to a second-round date with San Antonio, the only blueprint for defending Curry might exist in Denver’s current rough-em-up gameplan. Because for what Steph has already accomplished this season, there is no precedent.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com.


  • a dose of manuness

    its the way he shoot the ball, just one of a kind rhythm shooter who demands double or even triple teams!

  • Graham

    Nuggets showed how to get him out of rhythm though, just knock him around a bit an don’t let him get comfortable. I’m surprised how easy it was for them once they figured it out. Makes me feel even better about a hypothetical match up with them if they do indeed make it out of the 1st.

  • Craig Thomas

    As both a Davidson student and ravenous Spurs fan, this is a dream matchup. Steph is an incredibly tough guard. I think maybe throwing multiple different defenders, especially Kawhi, on him for parts of the game can disrupt his shooting. We’ll see what strategy Pop will employ, but I think our post play will win the day. Spurs in 5-6.

  • Nima K.

    Some observations after the 3rd seed exit last night: 1. If the Spurs fall to the Dubs anywhere, it will be because we suck, not because the Dubs are good. The last 6 min showed just how inexperienced they are. 2. David Lee played for 2 minutes. Yes, he’s back already. 3. The Dubs are capable of pulling off a upset win in SA. But then again, Spurs are the better team, no doubt. 4. Steph is a kid. Dude has issues. Kinda like D12. 5. If there’s any one that can beat that crowd in the Oracle Arena, it’s Manu and Tim. 6. Dubs got lots of friendly ref whistles. Seems like now that the Lakers are out, the NBA actively is promoting this team. Curry is already being introduced as a superstar. My point: expect questionable foul calls in abundance, if the games get close. 7. The Spurs deserve to win, because the Dubs won’t make it past WCF, but the Spurs can. 8. What’s up with the Warriors and locker room group prayers? Did u guys see that? Like a whole team of Tebows. Creepy.

  • David Brinson

    GS prays before they play? Oh boy, I sense bouts of random nerdrage incoming.

  • The Douche Fairy

    GSW-SA fan here. I really hate Jackson’s style (the prayer, the ref-baiting), but he’s running better stuff than the Warriors have seen in a while. Part of that is the pieces, but it’s been a very nice break from the Nelson era.

    Now, onto the real stuff:

    1. The Spurs could lose if Curry starts up again. Now, with Pop on the sidelines rather than Karl, and with the suite of solid wing defenders this SA team has, I think that it’s going to be very difficult for him to get so hot that he can make up for the rest of the team. But the chance is there.

    2. Not really. This is the best thing Jackson’s done all season (other than starting Barnes). It was an homage to the classic Willis Reed moment with the Knicks in the 1970 finals. And honestly, I’m not sure about the effectiveness as inspiration, but that kind of attitude towards the game is just refreshing. Like when Pop hacked Shaq to start the season in… 2008?

    4. Not really like Dwight. He’s been a solid citizen and a pretty steady guy, this is his first time in the playoffs, and his first time as the real star of the team. I think the pressure got to him, and he’s got some growing to do, but he’s got a fairly level head (though Jackson’s not a very good model for that)

    6. The Warriors did benefit from some truly ugly officiating at the end of game 6, but they weren’t getting much help earlier in the series. Also, if you go back and watch those inbounds (which weren’t well drawn up/practiced, clearly), the Nuggets are just holding the Warriors’ guards. There’s no jockeying for position or trying to get between the inbounder and the target. It’s going to be hard for the refs to really give the Warriors a lot of help (at least on offense), because they shoot jumpers. Over the series, the Nuggets took about 50 more FTAs.

    7. I’m hoping the Spurs win, because they might have what it takes to beat Miami, but if they lose to the Warriors, then clearly they didn’t deserve to win.

  • idahospur

    I want the Spurs to win by a lot in at least one of the first two games, just so Richard Jefferson gets to play on the Spurs court once more. As well as win the series too.

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  • Tyler

    As far as defending Curry goes, I think there are two critical areas in which they need to focus – transition/secondary break and PnR.

    Curry has a knack for launching transition threes. SA needs to get back on defense and make Curry and GS play against 5 defenders. If SA doesn’t get back and find him early, Curry is going to find seams. Not only does Curry’s defender need to find him, SA, as a team, need to be aware. GS loves to run quick drag screens after the initial break. As a result, the man guarding the screener needs to be aware.

    As for the PnR, you can’t let Curry come off the screen clean. Curry’s defender has to be physical and fight over every screen. Also, normally the Spurs big man sinks to about the free throw line level on the PnR (most teams have there big jump out farther). I think SA will have to be a little more aggressive there. TD and Tiago are going to have to come out farther and run him off the 3 point line. And when Curry gives it up, make it tough for him to get it back.

    While he might not start out on him, I think Kawhi is going to get the assignment in crunch time. He’s got the length, motor and the physicality to fight through screens effectively. Having said that, defending Curry is going to take much more than one defender, it’s going to take a team-wide effort. Should be a fun, entertaining series.

  • Graham

    Joseph can probably do a great job at hugging Curry like a blanket. But look at the Nuggets again. Run him through screens all night, foul him hard. It takes him out of his game. He’s still liable to get hot, but it should dramatically reduce the number of hot streaks he has.

  • Tyler

    Curry will most likely be guarding Danny Green though.

  • Andrew G

    I can understand the hard-on people have about Curry, but one man armies (especially ones that don’t attack the paint) don’t make it very far. I said it before and I’ll say it again: after we lock down Curry, the Warriors have nothing. Lee entering the game was cute; I can only hope Jackson brings him out against us, we’ll let him take one legged 19 footers all day.

    Our post play will dominate this series. A Tim and Tiago tandem with Tony slicing and dicing will decimate. They will need to treat us the way we treated the Lakers: pack the paint. The main difference is that our shooters will actually put the ball in the basket when the pass comes their way.

    I’m glad we’re facing Golden State and not Denver. The Nuggets are a hell of a lot more athletic and better defensively (at least against us). We’ve been chasing opponents off the 3 point line all year, this series will exemplify that. I say the Spurs in 5, Joey Crawford will make his presence known at Golden State, giving them a two point win.

    To quote a certain someone: Post. Post. Post.

  • Graham

    Which means Green can ram him through a few screens from the bigs when he dives and cuts, or when he switches sides on the court.

  • Nima K.

    Definitely agree with your point 7. I hope the Spurs win, but I hope they win competently.

  • Tyler

    I guess my point was he’s not guarding TP and trying to fight through multiple screens each possession. He’ll be guarding Green, a guy who will spend the majority of possessions standing beyond the 3pt line.

    The Spurs just need to run their stuff and execute their gameplan. I don’t think you make major changes just to run Curry through a few more screens.

  • assistman

    I wanted Denver as a test and a challenge to score against their big physical defenders. I thought it would help our offense gain some experience before we have to deal with the Miami Heat.

    Curry has been my favorite non-Spur to watch play since he was drafted, but this Warrior’s team is not scary. Should be a fun series.

  • Birdman Birdman

    Uh. You meant the Grizzlies. The Heat don’t really have big, physical defenders. Yes, Birdman has been unbelievable (WHERE WERE YOU BUFORD?!), but he’s better as a help defender who can cover a guard driving at the rim, not so much of a 1 on 1 post defender. After that they have Bosh, Battier, and Haslem, none of whom are really big and physical.

    The Grizz, on the other hand, have a super-powered Gasol and a rejuvenated Z-Bo. We’ll see whether Duncan’s or Z-Bo’s time machine is better.

  • assistman

    No, I meant Denver. Thinking Iggy, Brewer, and Chandler prepare our perimeter guys for James, Wade, Battier. (Even though Wade and James do it with steals and blocks and pick their moments, having to deal with Denver for a series would be good experience, especially for Kawhi and Danny.)

    Memphis is a handful of a different variety, and will be the Spurs biggest threat in the West.

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  • ricroc

    Comparing Steph’s attitude to Dwight’s is laughable. They are nothing alike, you just haven’t watched any warrior games…

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