NEW ORLEANS -- On the night Kobe Bryant passed Michael Jordan on the scoring list, the stage was set for another superstar to grab some headline-seizing points. Tie game, shot clock and game clock hugging, 15-game win streak on the line, and Stephen Curry with the ball. There was a rumble of anticipation from a New Orleans crowd that had been cheering Curry’s 3-pointers as loudly as its own team’s baskets. Were we about to see a repeat of his game winner against the Magic? Maybe it’d be something more similar to the two midrange game winners he hit against Dallas last season.
Nope, it was an anticlimax. The Warriors sought to exploit Ryan Anderson on a pick-and-roll and the Pelicans trapped it well. Golden State’s point guard didn’t force matters, though. He lobbed a pass to an open Draymond Green, who found an open Klay Thompson. Thompson’s jumper was off, but the decision-making process that created it wasn’t.
As Green described it, “He really trusted us and that’s the right play to make. Unlike a lot of superstars he makes the right play in that situation. I mean, that was huge for him to give up that pass to me, and I was able to find Klay and he was able to get off a good look.”
The play served as another reminder of the kind of superstar Curry is. Though blessed with an ability to hit many “bad” shots, he’s more LeBron than Kobe. People love to watch Steph score, but the point isn’t points; it’s about plays. He is a point guard, after all.
Curry described the sequence in the context of his role on the 21-2 Warriors: “It’s making the right play. I didn’t want to rush. And I have 100 percent confidence in Draymond hitting that elbow jumper, if he were to take it. Or the play he made, to give it to Klay for his last-second shot. My job is to hopefully draw enough attention to make it easy on my teammates to make the plays.”
There’s also the other part of his job, which is the providing of “pyrotechnics,” as Warriors coach Steve Kerr described it. In the overtime, Golden State set Curry up with repeated 1-2 (Curry, Thompson) pick-and-rolls and gashed the Pelicans' defense for 17 points and the victory. Curry took his time off the screen and effectively ended the game with eight points that included two deep 3s off the dribble.
Those plays are a testament to just how great Stephen Curry is, but so too are the end-of-regulation play that didn’t lead to anything. Last season a visiting J.R. Smith observed that Curry likes to let the game come to him. When I asked Smith if he approached the game similarly, Smith said, “Nah. I wish I did. If I did I’d be a lot better player.” Avoiding bad shots matters, especially if avoiding them means helping the team.
Kerr explained how Curry giving up the ball has fueled the Warriors' offense at times: “I think what we try to do all the time is, if Steph gets doubled, just make the easy pass. Get it out of there. We got plenty of skill around him, and that’s what changed the Houston game the other night, the last five minutes. They kept trapping him on those drags and he just made the simple pass to Draymond. Draymond put it on the floor and we got easier shots.”
Kerr, who hit one of the most famous Finals shots because Jordan passed out of a double-team, has a theory on why there’s so much demand for superstars to take the last shots: “It’s because people are idiots, that’s why. The point of the game is to get an open shot and if a guy’s double-teamed he should pass it. That’s the game.”
On Curry trusting him in those moments, Green said it helps explain the success of basketball’s hottest team, theorizing, “That’s why we’re, whatever-and-2. That’s why. Because we play team basketball.”
The whatever-and-2 Warriors have indeed played incredible team basketball this season. That matters a lot more than who takes the last shot.