Steph doesn't seem like himself after his injury. As we approached Game 7, I took a look at the evidence and asked Curry to assess his shooting in the Finals. He knows it: He's getting great looks, but for whatever reason, the easy shots have become hard.
The Cleveland crowd hushed and collectively held its breath as Stephen Curry stepped into a wide-open 3-pointer. The Cavs were up by nine points with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, but the Warriors were rallying. Leaving Curry open in this circumstance was just about the worst-case scenario.
After Curry flicked the deep 3 from the right wing, he watched the ball descend toward the basket, pushed out his hips and leaned backward as if to correct the ball's trajectory with his posture. No luck. The ball caromed off the side of the rim. As Tristan Thompson recovered the miss, Curry could be seen holding his palms up in the air in frustration as if he were asking the basketball gods a one-word question:
Most of us are asking the same thing. Why is Curry suddenly looking human after a regular season in which he became the only player in NBA history to average at least 30 points while being a member of the 50-40-90 club? In the playoffs, he is averaging 25.6 points on 44.5 percent shooting from the floor, 41.5 percent from deep and 91.5 percent from the charity stripe. Those are great numbers for most players but a step down for Curry.
What's different? The popular response is that he's hurt. Maybe he's slowing down after straining his MCL and turning his ankle in the first round of the playoffs. Perhaps his game has changed, and he isn't taking the same shots.
After digging into a wealth of data, it became clear that the biggest difference is the easy shots for Curry have suddenly become hard.
To the eye, Curry might not look right. He seems slower. He isn't as sharp. His shots seem a little flatter. He seems to be more clumsy with the ball. But a dive into the empirical evidence doesn't suggest a drastic difference between Curry's pre-injury and post-injury performances. For instance, we can look at Curry's average speed in games and how much time he spends running quickly since he got hurt in the first game of the postseason. In the regular season, he averaged 4.32 miles per hour and spent 6.7 percent of his time running quickly, according to SportVU analysis. In the postseason? Those numbers are 4.35 mph and 7.0 percent. If anything, Curry is slightly speedier than his unanimous MVP self. His workload numbers are nearly identical as well.
What this doesn't capture is his lateral movement, and that's certainly an important distinction when talking about MCL injuries. The MCL is a primary ligament that promotes and protects side-to-side movement. Jeff Stotts, an injury expert who maintains the InStreetClothes.com injury database, wrote at the time of Curry's MCL injury that "lateral movements, particularly on the defensive end, will be his biggest obstacle forward." Subjectively, it seems that Curry isn't regularly stepping sideways into his jump shot, which has become a signature move for him to create space.
You might think that Curry has taken fewer deep 3-pointers, but that isn't the case, either. The frequency of his 30-footers has stayed remarkably consistent from the regular season to post-injury standards. His 3s aren't dropping as much, but considering how rare those instances are, it might be nothing more than a small sample.
A deeper look into Curry's shot analytics reveals something fascinating: The easy shots have become difficult.
Leaving Curry open is the closest thing to a cardinal sin for an opposing defense. Even Cavs forward Richard Jefferson's Snapchat of the Cavs' locker room before Game 6 revealed a three-word scouting report on Curry:
No air space.
That decree rings true when you look at his performance in the regular season. Among the 17 players with at least 200 wide-open 3s (6 feet or more), Curry ranks No. 1 in efficiency, per SportVU data analysis. Curry posted an effective field goal percentage of a scorching 72.3 percent (weighted for the extra value of a 3-pointer). No other player cracked the 70 percent threshold. Leaving Curry open on a 3-pointer is basically a layup for him.
Well, not anymore. This postseason Curry has been pretty average on those opportunities. On 61 wide-open 3-pointers, he has made just 23, for an effective field goal percentage of 56.9 percent.
That's still a good percentage and a worthy shot for Curry and the Warriors' offense. But it's quite pedestrian. In fact, this postseason, you're better off leaving Kevin Love, LeBron James, J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving open. Again, we're talking about the greatest shooter ever here.
The craziest thing is Curry has been better on contested 3s than wide-open ones in the postseason. When a defender is within 6 feet, he's effectively shooting 59.2 percent on his 3-pointers, compared to just 56.9 percent on the easier opportunities.
Does Curry like the looks he is getting?
"I've gotten really, really good looks this series," Curry said. "I'm a low-key perfectionist when it comes to shooting. So it doesn't matter if it's training camp in September or in the Finals, I'm mad when I miss an open shot. And my approach to the next play is the exact same; I have the exact same amount of confidence."
The numbers reflect Curry's intuition. In this series, he has made just six of 20 wide-open 3s, which, remarkably, is the same figure as Harrison Barnes, who has become a punching bag for the public. Given the quality of looks that takes into account defender distance, type of shot and shot distance, the average player would make eight of 20 of Curry's wide-open looks -- or two more than his total.
But Curry is not the average player. He's the Babe Ruth of 3-pointers.
Curry has struggled to knock down the 3-point layups, but he's also missing the regular layups. In the regular season, he was one of the league's best convertors at the rim, thanks to his ability to twist and finish unorthodox shots. All told, he shot 70.3 percent in the restricted area. In the Finals? That number has fallen to 41.7 percent, as he has made just five of 12 layups. No other player with at least 12 attempts against the Cavs this postseason has been worse.
Curry's ability to make layups used to be one of his greatest strengths, but now it has become a weakness. His conversion rate on layups fell from 70 percent against the Blazers in the semifinals to 52.2 percent in the conference finals to 41.7 percent in the Finals. That's not a trend Warriors fans want to see. Given the quality of looks, the average player should hit 61 percent of Curry's layups in the Finals. It's not that he's taking impossible shots in the trees of the Cleveland defense.
By most standards, there's absolutely nothing wrong with Curry. As ESPN's Kevin Pelton touched on Friday in his weekly chat, Curry's true shooting percentage in the Finals is .603 while using 31 percent of the Warriors' plays. That's an incredible mark. Since 1997, 24 players have taken at least 75 shots in the Finals with a usage rate above 30 percent. How many have shot more efficiently than Curry's current rate? Just one: Kevin Durant in the 2012 Finals, when he posted a .650 true-shooting percentage. Even in this Finals, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are not as efficient on their shots as Curry.
As such, we shouldn't go overboard with Curry criticism -- he's already set the record for 3s (28) in a Finals.
But it's fair to point out that we're talking about a guy who registered a .669 true-shooting percentage during the regular season. The difference is he isn't hitting the easy shots he normally makes. If the Cavs continue to give Curry air space, and those shots start falling in Game 7, watch out. Although it seems unlikely now, we might be one great performance away from the two-time MVP becoming the Finals MVP.
"Four out of the six games I've played pretty well to my expectations, my standards," Curry said. "So I need to take it up another notch for Game 7. And that's what the greats do."