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Threat of Stephen Curry's half-court heaves helps Warriors win

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Golden State Warriors beat the Utah Jazz 115-94 in complete team effort, the kind of game they hadn’t had in weeks. For once, they didn’t need Stephen Curry to play spectacularly. Amid the various contributions, Curry delivered a relatively pedestrian stat line -- 12 points, 10 assists, 4-of-12 shooting.

That line belied his impact or, at least, the resonance of one particular highlight. At the end of the half, with time running down, Trey Burke rushed at Curry to prevent a half-court heave. Curry crossed him over, right to left, then unleashed a 55-foot runner. Such shots are usually classified as “prayers,” acts in need of supernatural assistance.

There’s no expectation you actually make this kind of shot. That is, unless your name is Stephen Curry, whose 50-foot bombs carry a dramatic pause as they fly to the destination point. Naturally, the try banked in, and Curry sprinted to the locker room. “It was like when Bo Jackson ran out of the stadium,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr appraised. “I’m glad he came back for the second half.”

Maybe nobody actually “expects” these shots to go in, but they carry the suspense of an MLB slugger taking a cut: A home run is unlikely, but likely enough to stoke fear in the opposition and hope in the home crowd. “When he shoots it, you know it has a chance,” Kerr said. “I don’t know how many he’s hit so far this year, but it’s incredible.”

To answer Kerr’s question, Curry has hit 5-of-13 shots from beyond 39 feet, good for 38.4 percent. It’s not just notable that he’s making these buzzer heaves at this clip, but that he’s taking them at all. Curry has spoken of wanting a 50-40-90 season, and these shots represent a threat to those percentages. Field goal percentage protection is why most stars avoid these shots completely. For example, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have yet to attempt a shot beyond 39 feet.

To be fair, this doesn’t make James, Durant, and Westbrook different from much of the league. In a 2013 USA Today article, a since-retired Shane Battier talked to Sam Amick about the issue of buzzer-heave avoidance. As Battier said, "It's not worth it. Even though statistically speaking, it's a positive -- it's a plus-play [in terms of probabilities of success]. If you shot every buzzer-beater, you're going to make one out of -- whatever the odds are.”

Kerr admitted to having been one of those buzzer-heave avoiders in his playing days. “Yeah. I used to do that. Waited a little split second, ‘Oh, it was after the buzzer?’ Ya, a lot of guys do that, and that’s what makes Steph and his percentage so incredible.”

Other stars have ceded this particular stage to Curry, and he’s turning it into an event. The anticipation is palpable as he tries to get one off at the buzzer. As Kerr explained, “Steph doesn’t really care about the numbers, which is great. He knows he’s got a chance to make, so he lets it fly. He also knows it’s going to bring the house down when it goes in, and it’s just electric when he does it.”

The atmospherics are sublime, but the shot is starting to impact the game in tangible ways. With 1.6 seconds left in the third quarter, the Warriors leveraged the threat of a Curry half-court heave into two points. Curry set up over 70 feet from the hoop, with the Jazz fixated on his movements.

As Curry ran toward an inbounding Marreese Speights, Leandro Barbosa snuck behind enemy lines. Speights saw the opening and hit Barbosa in stride for a layup. “I wasn’t going to throw it to Steph anyways, because I knew they were going to guard him,” Speights said. The center acted out the throwing motion, with a summary: “Over the top. Great arc on it, seven [points].”

It sounds hyperbolic on its face, but this might be unprecedented in NBA history. A team is now using the credible threat of a half-court shot to open up other opportunities. Kerr described how Utah guarded Curry in the backcourt by saying, “I’ve never seen it, but it makes sense, right?”

It makes sense because Curry is doing things that don’t. It makes sense because breaking convention is now a Curry convention.

It’s perhaps unfair to devote so much focus to one man’s shot on an evening where so many of his teammates delivered. Draymond Green (17 points, seven rebounds, five assists; and defended Rudy Gobert for stretches) and Klay Thompson (9-of-14 for 23 points) were especially sharp.

At the same time, Curry’s half-court habit speaks to an unselfishness that informs how this team plays. So taking that shot might depress his percentages? It's a small price to pay when the payoff is so much joy.