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Sports

NBA Playoff Memories: Stephen Curry vs. The World

When Steph Curry steps back for three, there's not much at stake: just the nature of the individual in society, is all.
June 20, 2014, 6:45pm
Photo by Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports

I came late to Steph Curry. An Oakland transplant at the height of Free Darko, just a month before the Warriors gave Monta Ellis a six-year contract, I was an Ellis partisan, someone who believed he was visibly, obviously special, and thus I was someone who was actively offended when the Warriors banished him to Milwaukee in exchange for a big white libertarian stiff from Australia named Andrew Bogut and more time and space for Curry. Curry was, I thought, Ellis Lite: maybe a little more reliable shooter, but less explosive, no better a defender, and more injury-prone. This was March of 2012. I was still not fully sold on Curry when a buddy and I ended up drinking beers and eating fries in front of a huge TV this past winter—but every time I looked up, Curry was exerting that uniquely pervasive dominance only wing players can possess. When he had the ball, the defense bent and warped around him; when he didn't, his teammates had surfeits of time and space to use for their own purposes, because their men always had to have an idea where Curry was, and what he might be doing. Curry hit four of nine threes that night, and passed masterfully, finding open men exploiting the torn seams he was creating in the opposition's defense simply by existing as Steph Curry, the man with the world's best jumper and cleanest shooting form. After one or another rainbow 27-footer snapped the net, I turned to my friend and said "He really is a magical little man." This was a fairly forgettable game against a Lakers team with a minor-league roster. I'm getting to the playoff moment.

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When I was a kid, after I fell in love with basketball, I lived in Denver. What I'd fallen in love with was TV: this meant the Lakers, Celtics, and, sort of, the Sixers; this meant Magic Johnson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy. Larry Bird, Dr. J, and Charles Barkley. Once I showed up in Denver, I had to learn to love basketball as not played by the impossibly skilled and competitive titans of the game who filled those rosters. I had to learn to love the Nuggets. One of the more formative games I remember had that Lakers team in town, near their overwhelming peak. A close game in the fourth quarter, it seemed that every trip down, Magic would deliberate judiciously before picking his weapon: now Byron Scott for three, now James Worthy for an open jumper, now Kareem for a skyhook, now himself, backing his man down. A dominant team, run by a player who seemed in full control of the game when the ball was in his hands, anyway, as when the Nuggets had the ball.

Fat Lever was busy having one of his greatest nights, a night where there was no control whatsoever. From the Lakers' perspective, it must have felt like they were fighting an agent of chaos: a 6-3 guard, sniping rebound after rebound away from bigger players, slipping between bodies for off-angle layups, stealing slow passes or soft dribbles, shifting the ball frantically to a teammate suddenly open because of the maelstrom he created. Watching it was to see the individual nearly transcending the collective at its best. Nearly: the Lakers, naturally, won, and I was left with a somewhat confused politics and aesthetics, both of which celebrate individual mastery and the sublime telepathy of collective action.

This brings us to LeBron James versus the San Antonio Spurs in the first half of Game Five from last week. Just kidding: that half of play was beyond reproach, and commentary on it must be nothing other than "Holy shit, will you look at that." No, it brings us to Warriors/Clippers, Game Three. Where the Lakers of my youth had had a deaths-head panoply of offensive options, the Clippers had silos full of big men able to exploit the Warriors' absent Andrew Bogut, aged Jermaine O'Neal, and absolutely useless defender David Lee. All night long, Blake Griffin hit shot after shot: 15 for 25, 32 points, several impossible feats. DeAndre Jordan was right there with him, 22 rebounds, five blocks, and a handful of crushed dreams. And there was Stephen Curry. He had a middling shooting night, and the bulk of the evening's impossible jumper quota was filled by Klay Thompson. Then the fourth quarter started. Curry assisted on a ludicrous Andre Iguodala dunk; a bit later, he crushed a three, found Thompson for a matching three, found Thompson for a couple more, racking up assists in a game that was, obviously, just out of reach. The Clippers always seemed to have it, always knocking the lead back to five or seven, letting Curry run himself dry just keeping it that close.

96-90, under a minute left. Curry rolls to his right and with a hand in his face strikes from what had to have been 27 feet. Time passes; 97-93, like fifteen seconds left. Curry and David Lee exchange passes, and from just about the same spot as last time, Curry's form goes all to hell and he launches one like a surly teen flinging a medicine ball, ends up on his ass as the ball, of course, ends up spiking through the rim for three. One-point game. Clippers hit a free throw, Warriors get the ball back, with 8.6 seconds left, a two-point deficit, and Stephen Curry. Twenty thousand people at Oracle Arena, the hundred or so in the bar with me, Curry himself, probably: everybody absolutely knew whose hands the ball was seeking, and when he leapt back to end up in the spot he'd just hit two from, everybody knew how this one ended: ball, in basket; score, in the Warriors' favor; time, expired; Curry, magical.

Airball. Buzzer. Warriors lose.

A lot of what we learn in childhood is bullshit. This is not unreasonable: children aren't very smart, and they are annoying, so it's sensible to tell them things that they can understand and that will keep them in line. Some of the lessons, though, endure. What you want probably won't happen. The many usually beat the one. Beauty doesn't always win.