ORLANDO, Fla. -- Another game, another onslaught of casually delivered impossibility from Stephen Curry. His 51 points (aided by only a single free throw) lifted a tired Golden State Warriors squad over the Orlando Magic 130-114. He did it on the second night of a back-to-back, having just scored 42 points in Miami. In that game, Curry merely hit a 40-foot shot to beat the first-quarter buzzer before, later, deciding things in crunch time. On Thursday, he capped an incredible 24-point third quarter with a 44-footer off the half-court line. That bank shot had the Orlando crowd screaming with delight as Curry’s teammates laughed uproariously on the bench.
They didn’t laugh because they were shocked. They laughed because they weren’t. They laughed because there’s nothing more absurd than getting used to absurdity.
“Haha, I actually knew he was going to hit that half-court shot,” Klay Thompson said after the game. “I swear I did. I actually told [Brandon Rush] on the bench, 'Watch, he’s going to hit this.'" Thompson added, “We’re witnessing greatness.”
Thursday morning, NBA legend Oscar Robertson, no stranger to greatness himself, went on Mike & Mike and spoke dismissively about Curry’s dominance. Ex-players are prone to this kind of talk, the “back in my day” bromides that soothe the ego while paying homage. If we’re lucky, we’ll all live long enough to fondly remember the past at the expense of a confusing present. If many fans are lucky, they’ll continue to see a player’s greatness define basketball to the point of warping it, rendering the game unrecognizable to those who once mastered it.
"If I've got a guy who's great shooting the ball outside, don't you want to extend your defense out a little bit?" Robertson said. "I just don't think coaches today in basketball understand the game of basketball. They don't know anything about defenses. They don't know what people are doing on the court."
Curry, for all his popularity, seems to attract more of these kinds of denigrations. This is perhaps because he makes the present so confusing. It goes deeper than defying the idea that jump shots don’t win championships. Curry has won, and he’s pushing the game beyond limits we even considered, all the while looking exactly like someone who wouldn’t. This is, after all, the player who was once nicknamed “middle school” by teammates for his scrawny, youthful appearance.
After the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr expressed his current state of disbelief, saying, “A 3-point shot is like a layup. A half-court shot is like a 3-point shot. Steph just, that’s what he does.”
Kerr might not be exaggerating in saying that Curry’s half-court shots are like another player’s 3-pointers. This season, Curry is 4-of-11 from beyond 39 feet, good for 36 percent. In the range between 28 and 50 feet, Curry is 35-of-52, good for an efficiency that exceeds making 100 percent of your 2-point attempts.
Robertson is correct in saying defenses need to extend themselves far out, but the Magic tried that. Victor Oladipo was pressing up on Curry as ferociously as he could. Curry took advantage by cutting the other direction for layups. Since defenders can’t just cede open layups, Curry used that threat to create a few of his 10 3-pointers.
“I've heard people say you need to take his space,” Curry’s trainer Brandon Payne said via phone after the game. “Well, if you get up tight on him, that's actually what we want you to do. We want you to get up tight on him because then it's going to open lanes to the basket when he plays off the high post.”
Payne, who mostly works with Curry in the offseason, doesn’t buy the idea that the old ways would trump what Curry’s currently doing.
“To say that you would completely shut him down or render him not effective with more physical defense, I don't think that's accurate. He just has too many things he can go to.”
After having worked with Curry for so long, Payne believes something that’s as plausible as it is crazy: This is more of a beginning than a peak. Curry is stronger now than he was in his early 20s, and it’s helped him shoot these long-distance tries.
“The strength that he has is allowing him to step further and further back without changing his mechanics," Payne said. "He's able to create any look that he wants because he's able to get backward away from pressure.” Now that the deep threat is established, Curry is toying with new ways to leverage it. If only it were as simple as, “extend your defense out a little bit.”
There might be some truth to Robertson’s statements, specifically when he explained Curry’s success with, “I just don't think coaches today in basketball understand the game of basketball. They don't know anything about defenses.” Curry’s play can throw what is known into question, twisting accepted basketball truths beyond recognition. What does a coach really know about defense when facing a guy who’s 67 percent between 28 and 50 feet? Robertson is wrong in assuming an easy fix to the Curry problem, but largely correct in assuming that coaches have a dearth of solutions.
Kerr summarized Curry’s run right now, saying, “He’s doing things that nobody’s ever done before.”
Steph Curry isn’t just great. He’s pioneering his greatness. And it’s hard to fault legends of the past for struggling to fathom a future that bears little relation.