Editor's note: This story, on the secret skill that has fueled Stephen Curry's record-breaking career, was originally posted on Jan. 21, 2021.
STEPHEN CURRY KNOWS exactly how far he has left to go. Now that he's officially passed Reggie Miller for second place on the NBA's career 3-pointer list, Curry needs just 317 more to eclipse Ray Allen to become the top 3-point shooter in history.
To get there, Curry, the two-time MVP, will have to travel across roughly 200 more miles of hardwood while relying upon a part of his game that has, until now, received little attention. It's a singular skill that's been vital to Curry's iconic career, Golden State's three NBA titles -- and even the Warriors' current restart: his exhaustive, acrobatic work away from the ball.
It took Miller 18 seasons to reach his 2,560 3s. Curry did it in just over 11 -- in part because of his ability to run roughly 2.5 miles per game in order to get open. (That's nearly 70 marathons over the course of his career.) To commemorate Curry moving up the career list, and for a deeper understanding of just how he did it, we broke down, frame by frame, a scoring sequence from Game 4 of the 2019 Western Conference finals -- the last time Curry and Warriors were at the peak of their historic powers.
It begins with a miss.
The yellow digits of the Moda Center's game clock blink down to 1:10 remaining in the first quarter as Portland center Zach Collins' corner 3 clanks violently off the glass. It floats softly above the rim, then down into the outstretched hands of Golden State's Kevon Looney. The Warriors center hands it to Shaun Livingston, who takes one dribble, then shuffles it to Curry, who, according to Second Spectrum tracking data, takes the first step on this 226-foot journey.
Curry approaches midcourt with the ball and immediately falls victim to his own reputation. Over the past eight seasons Curry has, almost single-handedly, radically altered the geometry of the half-court offense. His range and accuracy have weaponized an area of the court 10 feet beyond the 3-point line that used to be largely dormant. Curry's shooting has been so otherworldly for so long, in fact -- he has led the league in 3s five times and is third among active players with a .434 shooting percentage -- that even hoops historians have to reference other sports to find a suitable comparison.
"Curry has the same effect as Lawrence Taylor," says David Thorpe, a TrueHoop.com analyst and executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Florida. "You always had to account for LT [a New York Giants Hall of Fame linebacker], and it made people paranoid and wore teams down mentally and you could use that fear to free up other defenders because people were so scared of leaving LT alone. Curry has that same effect. It was everyone's job to make sure LT didn't break your quarterback's leg in half. With Curry, it's everyone's job to make sure he doesn't break your back with his shot."
As Curry trots toward the top of the Moda Center court logo, still some 37 feet from the basket, five sets of eyes are glued on him. Three Portland defenders, including his younger brother, Seth, are above the arc and ready to engage. After more than a decade in the league, there are few freebies for Steph, even at 35 feet. On most trips up the court, and especially now with Klay Thompson still hurt and Kevin Durant long gone, this is the challenge that awaits Curry in the later part of his career: If he wants space to shoot, he has to carve it out by himself with his legs and his wits.
"Steph tests you in so many ways beyond just his shooting," says veteran NBA coach and ESPN analyst P.J. Carlesimo. "He is one of the best in the league moving without the ball. It doesn't get as much attention, but with his quickness and conditioning, Steph will run you to death. It's about the biggest nightmare you can have in this league. I mean, as a defense you've got to be thinking, 'Jesus, how many problems can we have trying to guard one guy on one possession?'"
Curry has been quietly working on this part of his game for nearly a decade. During the 2011 NBA lockout, he was home in Charlotte, where he joined former Hornets player Gerald Henderson for a unique workout -- no frills, but cutting-edge -- at Accelerate Basketball with trainer Brandon Payne, who specializes in neurocognitive efficiency.
Payne, 40, has a mad-genius approach to training and developing elite fundamentals, conditioning and cognition on the court. "Scoring without the ball," he calls it. And after just one session Curry sensed it was exactly what he needed. He called Payne that same night and asked if they could train together. Payne agreed. "OK, I'll be there at 7 a.m. tomorrow," Curry replied.
They've been working together ever since. And they remain close enough to this day that, on mornings after big games or tough losses, you're likely to hear Payne on the phone chatting with Curry from his cramped, messy headquarters in an old metal-framed warehouse south of Charlotte. "I have a tough job," Payne says. "I have to tell the greatest shooter who ever lived, over and over, 'It's not good enough.'"
Because Curry's pregame shooting routine is done in public and so widely known, most people assume that his offseason workouts are similar. The viral pregame routine, however, is not a workout. It's a kinetic activation process, like batting practice in baseball or hitting the range before a round of golf. The truth is, in his private offseason workouts with Payne, Curry rarely takes more than a handful of shots from the same spot and never runs traditional draconian hoops-conditioning drills such as wind sprints or gassers. Instead, he combines the two.
For Curry, a typical offseason workout looks something like this: Sporting a hilarious golfer's tan and usually some kind of colorful, prototype Under Armour sneaker, Curry flies through a nearly impossible, full-court version of the conventional star shooting drill. Designed by Payne, it consists of 10 shots -- from the corner, baseline and wing -- with full-court 94-foot sprints in between. And it must be done with a minimum 80% accuracy and in under 56 seconds or the drill repeats. Essentially it's the same drill run in nearly every basketball practice on earth, turbocharged to an absurd degree for Curry, whose year-round conditioning goal is to always be ready to take the floor within two weeks.
Last offseason, when Curry did this workout at Stanford, several Division I players in attendance begged to join in on Payne's ultimate scoring-without-the-ball drill -- they all either collapsed from exhaustion or gave up halfway through. That's exactly what Payne expects, though, since the drill is designed specifically to challenge Curry's remarkable conditioning and unique skill set in order to prepare him for challenges like the one against Portland.
"Steph's definition of conditioning is different than most," Payne says. "Lots of guys are in great shape. Can you be in the kind of great shape where you are fatigued after a long play like this and your quads are burning and you can't breathe but you can still maintain perfect mechanics and still make good decisions? Are you fatigued but can still execute at the highest levels? Because that's what truly matters."
Back in Portland, as the play unfolds, on Curry's far left, Warriors forward Draymond Green blows through midcourt on his way to the basket. Green had been guarding Collins in the far corner of the court on the previous possession, but now he wills his 230-pound frame the length of the floor in less than five seconds because, after seven years together, he understands that Curry's range isn't a weapon if there's no anchor under the basket to stretch the defense.
Curry continues dribbling toward the right wing, glancing up (and, then, trying not to stare) at the right side of the frontcourt. It's wide open. The only thing standing between Steph and an easy bucket is little brother Seth. The Currys are the first siblings in NBA history to face each other in the conference finals. But they've been in this position thousands of times before on the driveway court behind their family home in Charlotte. Steph says those endless, knock-down, drag-out games of one-on-one would go on for hours -- until someone either cried or bled.
The Curry family court is framed on three sides by a long driveway and flower bed, a three-car garage with light-brick archways and a row of dark-pink crepe myrtles in back. The pool runs down the right side of the court. And now, back in Portland, as Steph approaches the right wing, Seth, like any annoying little brother, seems to sense a split second early exactly where big bro intends to go: to the pool.
Steph offers up a halfhearted head fake to the left while sending the ball behind his back to his right hand, only to be cut off immediately. There's no blood or tears this time, but, in a win for little brothers everywhere, a startled Steph is forced to retreat and turn his back to his little brother to protect the ball and regain his composure.
Without hesitating or looking up, Steph instinctively drives to the middle of the court. This is no accident. The fundamental philosophy of the Warriors' offense -- the highest-rated offense in NBA history just two years ago -- is to relentlessly move the ball and all five bodies, to slice and dice defenses by constantly forcing them to think, react and choose all while operating within a tempest. So the reason for Curry's cut is simple: the middle of the court has the most options. When the ball is in a corner, the other players are at least two passes away from being a threat, but when Curry attacks the middle of the court, it activates everyone on the floor.
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"I have to feel out exactly how the defense wants to play us and what they want to take away," Curry says. "I've always played aggressive, but that's never meant taking every shot. It's about being a threat and creating for others if I have the ball in my hands or not."
For five straight seasons Curry was the centerpiece -- and beneficiary -- of one of the most prolific offenses in NBA history. Between 2014 and 2019 Golden State's offense ranked No. 1 three times. (The Warriors finished No. 2 in 2015 and No. 3 in 2018.) During that stretch the Warriors made five NBA Finals and won three championships while averaging 64 wins a season. And this play, as it unfolds, represents a perfect time capsule of that era. At full speed, the elements that formulate their scheme are nearly impossible to follow, let alone comprehend. But by isolating Curry here against Portland -- and rewatching him in slow motion, oh, a few hundred times -- it's possible to capture, for a fleeting moment, the secrets behind one of the greatest offenses in hoops history and the 2,657 Curry 3-pointers it has spawned.
For starters, Curry's constant movements might seem frenetic, or selfishly random even, but they make perfect sense within the greater context of Golden State's offense. Instead of running one or two set plays or isolations each possession, the Warriors often churn through a series of five or six "smaller" plays based on how they read and react to the defense and, especially, each other.
"We play chaotic, and in years past it's been organized chaos: Everyone knows where to be, and it's all kind of second nature," Curry says. "It's about knowing each other's patterns. Usually we just automatically make those reads, but to do that, it's about chemistry. You gotta see the picture as it unfolds to know where to be and where the ball should go."
This is both the genius -- and the exasperating complexity -- of the Warriors' offense, a level of movement, anticipation and recognition that is nearly impossible to defend. But as every subsequent Golden State team discovers with this offense, it's also painstakingly slow to develop because it can't be memorized, drilled or taught. It has to be felt. It has to be instinctual. And as the 2020-21 Warriors are learning, the process takes years.
The framework of Warriors coach Steve Kerr's offense is an extension of the philosophy he gleaned from his mentor Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. The Spurs' goal has long been to create a good shot and then, by reading and reacting to what the defense does, turn that good opportunity into a great one.
Similarly, the Warriors want to fly through looks and opportunities at a dizzying, pressurized pace and continually upgrade until the absolute best option presents itself. The trigger for the Warriors, when they know the first domino has fallen and it's time to shoot, is when the confusion and pressure cause multiple defenders to end up on one player or in one area.
That means someone else has to be wide open.
In that regard, Curry's drive to the middle doesn't get one domino to fall. It gets three.
It's as if he has his own gravitational pull. When Curry arrives at the free throw circle, a trio of Portland defenders instinctively converge on him, allowing an unguarded Livingston to leak down the left side of the key. As complicated as it might seem, this is where the basic principles of spacing and movement reveal themselves: As Curry approaches, if Livingston stands still at the top corner of the key, a single Portland player can defend them both. By cutting to the basket, by making himself a threat to score, Livingston has both forced the defense to choose and elevated the scoring opportunity from good to beyond great (a 90.9% scoring probability, to be exact, per Second Spectrum).
In this case, though, the Warriors' offense has actually worked too well. Livingston's path to the basket is so unencumbered, and he's so far down the lane, that the pass angle has gone from a manageable 45 degrees to a problematic 15. Still, anticipating a wide-open dunk, Curry leaves his feet, showboating, just a bit, the sideways Magic Johnson thread-the-needle pass. The Blazers' Rodney Hood pounces. But when the pass bounces off his hands, an alert Curry, his momentum carrying him toward the left corner of the court, is able to reach out with his right hand and tip the ball back to himself. Curry's awareness and agility can seem so effortless at times that it's easy to forget the grueling multifaceted neurocognitive training -- drills like dribbling a basketball with his left hand while juggling a tennis ball with his right -- required to make these kinds of plays look routine.
By the time Curry collects himself, he's nearly pinned in the corner by the looming 6-foot-8 Hood. But here, again, Curry leans on his singularity to solve the situation.
Defenders are taught to key on a guard's torso, but instinct and habit often draw their eye to the face, which allows Curry, with a split-second glance at the rim, to sell "shot" with his eyes. What really sells it, though, is Curry's .654 career shooting percentage from this spot. That implied threat is one of the biggest secrets to Curry's success. "Defenders can never relax," Thorpe says, "because everything is a potential shot with Steph."
Using the sideline and baseline as a trap, Hood wants to position himself in a way that prevents Curry from getting back to the middle of the court, where all the options are. But merely by raising his eyes to the basket and hinting he might launch a 3, Curry gets Hood off-balance and overcommitted enough to create an escape route out of the corner.
With Green still anchoring under the basket, Curry pushes the ball to Looney, who is standing a few feet beyond the top left side of the arc. A younger Curry might have foolishly continued down the baseline, but by sending the ball to the open space, he has reset the offense, again, and signaled the start of the next "mini" play in search of something better. Defenders also tend to relax, slow down and take a moment to exhale right after Curry passes the ball. It's another bit of human nature that Curry exploits to create space by changing speeds: accelerating at top speed while crossing the key. According to Second Spectrum, Curry averages 6.57 miles per hour on this possession. He appears to nearly double that velocity while luring his opponent, who just happens to be his own brother, into a brick wall pin-in pick that should be waiting for him at the right elbow to free up Steph for an open 3 at his favorite spot on the right wing.
"It's about putting guys in position on the floor to be successful," Curry says. "We have the threats that can draw some attention, then we have to move the ball, make a simple pass and usually create a good shot. This is the way I see the offense: Everybody has to be aggressive; we can't have guys out on the court just moving to move or just moving the ball to move it. Whether it's to shoot or attack or to make a simple play -- you always have to be a threat."
When Curry accelerates, Warriors rookie Jacob Evans is in the perfect position to pin the trailing Seth Curry. All Evans has to do is recognize what's happening and stand still. Forced into the lineup by injuries, Evans, however, is struggling with the complexities of the Golden State offense, particularly on this play, when, after failing to anticipate Curry's pin-in cut, Evans wanders out of position. Looking like that poor uncle hopelessly two moves behind during the wedding reception line dance, Evans fails to set the pick. It might have gone unnoticed, but once he realizes his mistake, Evans folds his arms across his chest and lunges awkwardly toward the elbow a second too late as the Curry brothers fly by.
What's worse, this mistake allows Portland's Damian Lillard to switch onto Steph. At this point all Evans can hope for is that Kerr will spare him during the game-film review when the Warriors tend to savage each other (good-naturedly) for mental lapses during games.
Even Curry isn't safe. Just days after he was named 2014-15 NBA MVP, after a particularly uninspired defensive stand in the Finals, Warriors coaches spliced the game film with clips of Riley Curry yawning and feigning boredom during a news conference. Teammates were laughing so hard they fell out of their seats. But Steph got the message. And -- eventually -- all the Warriors' young players will too.
"Not only do Draymond and I have to perform every night but, for lack of a better term, we also have to teach," Curry says. "We have to teach all the young guys. They are hungry to learn and perform and take advantage of all the opportunities, but there's a process to it. To know what the expectations have been over the last five to six years and then to ask that of guys who just haven't been in those positions before, that's [always] gonna be the challenge ... to find that balance and to put some miles on those minds in order to figure this offense out."
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As Curry's horizontal cut to the wing goes awry, Green calls for the ball down in the short corner to reset the offense for the third time with a post-option split. Even with the clock ticking down, the choices here are just the way Kerr likes them: endless. Looney can cut to the basket. Curry can cut to the corner, go back door or pop back out to the wing for a 3. Green can fake a pass and drive the baseline, or he can flip the court with a long pass over the defense. Instead, Green chooses yet another option, dribbling to the top of the key and setting a high ball screen for Evans.
"Even this late, the Warriors can still run 500 plays and never duplicate what they do," Thorpe says. "How do you stop that?"
As the ball changes hands at the top of the key, Curry, in the right corner, does something counterintuitive, something he hasn't done the entire possession. He stands still. Curry's second wind comes from his ability to rapidly lower his heart rate during short breaks, even in the middle of games. It's something he trains his body to do. Once he's out of breath at the end of most workouts, Curry lies on his back, and Payne, his trainer, places sandbag weights below his rib cage in order to overload, and train, Curry's diaphragm.
Through conditioning and breathing techniques like this, Curry can often coax his heart rate below 80 during one 90-second timeout. But here, when he goes flat-footed, straightens his back and flops his hands at his side as if to signal, I'm done, I give up, it's mostly a decoy. And it works. Because at this point, after chasing Curry nonstop all over the court, most defenders are begging for even a hint at a break. Do you ever stop? They often whisper to Curry. It's the best compliment he can get from an opponent, Curry says, even better than praise for his shooting. You're wearing me out. Stand still for a f---ing second.
Now, as Curry relaxes, the tension leaves Lillard's body. Initially, Lillard had his eyes locked on Curry and his left arm extended to block the baseline. But the second Curry stands up, Lillard's head turns and his eyes instinctively drift to the ball as Evans begins to drive down the right side of the key. Lillard doesn't see Curry's body coil like a spring. Curry's famous shooting mechanics are a marvel of clean kinetic efficiency. But so is his footwork -- which often goes overlooked.
"As soon as Steph gives up the ball, that's when the action really starts the way we play. And that's the tricky part for guys to figure out." Warriors coach Steve Kerr
So instead of a lazy stutter-step toward the basket with his right foot, Curry reengages by, first, taking a full step across his body with his left foot (like a major leaguer stealing second). Such economic footwork allows Curry to reach top speed in just two steps. He then accentuates the swim move down the baseline by using his right hand to violently swing Lillard's left arm across his body, rotating his torso 45 degrees so that his back is now turned to Curry. After creating almost 3 feet of space where a split second ago there was none, Curry accelerates down the baseline anticipating a well-earned and wide-open backdoor pass from Evans.
It never comes. For the second time in less than 10 seconds, Curry's movement without the ball has created a scoring opportunity that Second Spectrum rates as above 70% -- and his teammates have failed to capitalize on it. "A lot of guys would stop right there or let up out of frustration," Payne says. "He's already run all over the court and done the work to get open -- twice -- and his teammates missed him. But he keeps going. That's what makes him so special. He's mentally unbreakable. He won't quit. He won't stop."
As Curry travels through the paint unguarded, Evans sends the ball back to Green at the top of the key. The moment he passes under the net, though, Curry is already on to the next opportunity. Again, what unfolds is not a set play but another semi-planned pattern of movement, almost always in the direction of open space on the court, that Curry and his teammates must constantly, instantaneously, read and react to. When Curry improvises, he's following not strict rules but well-honed instincts. He's using purposeful movement to sense and target open spaces on the court that will create the most stress on the defense. And most importantly: He's trusting his teammates to see the same thing.
Evans, the rookie, missed his cue on the elbow and again on the baseline. And now, as Curry cuts from under the basket to the left wing, Looney, another relative newcomer, is a half-second late recognizing Curry's destination. In this offense, a half-second might as well be an eon, though. Looney slides out late from the corner but not nearly far enough, essentially turning a potential elevator screen into a ghost pick on Lillard.
"Steph is so unique. There's nobody like him in the NBA," Kerr says. "Nobody who can play on and off the ball at that level and who creates that kind of havoc. And so I think with most players who come in, they're not used to the second half of the possession. They're sort of used to whatever the pattern is in the beginning. But as soon as maybe Steph gives up the ball, that's when the action really starts the way we play. And that's the tricky part for guys to figure out."
Before making his next cut, this time Curry makes eye contact with Livingston, someone who arrived in Golden State in 2014 along with Kerr. Seeing how far Lillard is behind Curry and knowing the Blazers are likely to switch defenders to close the gap on a shooter at the wing, Livingston instinctually steps to the elbow and screens his own man, preventing the defensive switch and forcing an already exhausted Lillard to chase Curry all the way out to the perimeter.
Now wide open at the top of the key, Green anticipates what's unfolding. But instead of taking a shot, he delivers the ball to the wing. This is yet another critical, but almost imperceptible, nuance of the Warriors' offense when it's clicking: When the pass leaves Green's hands, the wing is actually empty and, for a split second, it looks as if he has thrown the ball away right into the lap of a courtside fan sipping a beverage. The fan's cocktail is perfectly safe, though. Green trusts his innate sense of Curry's final destination -- developed over hundreds of games and thousands of practices together -- and delivers the ball to the exact spot Curry will magically materialize in exactly 0.6 seconds in the future.
If Green doesn't do it this way, all of Curry's work will have been for naught. If Green waits for Curry to stop and signal his intention to shoot before passing him the ball, it will negate the half-second head start and -- more importantly -- erase all the space Curry has battled relentlessly during the past 20 seconds to create.
"Purposeful movement that stresses a defense by putting it into decision-making situations is always going to be a big part of Steph's game," Payne says. "He's always going to move like this no matter who's on the floor with him. The question is: Will the ball get back to him where it needs to? That's the question."
Anticipation -- the ability to think and play a second or two in the future, and to know innately what a teammate is going to do before he does it -- is really what separates great players and great offenses from just the merely good ones. Had Thompson been healthy and able to join Green and Curry this season, the 2020-21 Warriors would have taken the court with their synergy and telepathy pretty much intact. Instead, Curry will spend a lot of his time early in the season tutoring younger players such as James Wiseman, Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre in the nuance of the Golden State offense and how the system amplifies each player's individual skill set.
Teaching younger players is a talent Curry developed through his SC30 Select Camps. To further prep Curry for this new, expanded role as a mentor and instructor, Payne surrounded him with lots of younger NBA players during their offseason training. (After playing just five games in the past 18 months, Curry also cranked up the intensity of his workouts this fall to simulate gamelike conditions.) Meanwhile, Kerr says the Warriors focused the "vast majority" of their initial practices this preseason on defense so they can compete in early games while beta testing the offense on the fly.
"Training camp before was just about getting in shape," Curry says. "Now we gotta do that and figure out who needs to be where, what sets are going to be our bread and butter, defensive chemistry and communication -- everything that makes a team great."
Without Thompson, the latest version of the Golden State offense might well have a bouncier, more athletic look, with more driving and slashing and finishes at the basket. But the ultimate goal remains the same: to rebuild the chemistry and rhythm and get back to the signature, relentless, dizzying offensive flow that was last on display nearly two years ago in Portland.
Just as Curry plants his right foot beyond the arc, the ball arrives perfectly into the middle of his chest. With Lillard bearing down on him, Curry somehow still has the wherewithal to glance all the way to the other end of the court to check the shot clock.
Lillard must now pick his poison as he races after Curry. If he closes on the ball under control, the shot will likely be gone before he arrives; if he tries to run Curry off his line, he risks a three-shot foul; and if he tries a "blow by," once he leaves his feet he's totally at Curry's mercy.
Curry rotates toward the basket and, as Lillard flies toward him, his eyes lock in on the rim. At the same time, he takes what looks like an awkwardly wide stance, with his right foot near the 3-point line and his left foot practically out of bounds. Like everything else during the last 21 seconds, it's intentional. Curry uses his right leg like a matador's cape, forcing Lillard to sail by wide. Then he swings that leg back to form the base of a perfectly stacked vertical shooting coil -- knees balanced over feet, shoulders and torso stacked over hips, wrist poised over elbow, chest aligned with the basket -- that is the foundation of Curry's perfect form.
After running 225.94 feet, changing directions 12 times, facing a triple-team and fighting through four miscues, Curry gets to perform what he's best known for. And even after 10 years and nearly 2,700 3s, it's still stunning the way his brain, his drive and his shooting mechanics are able to accomplish in one fluid movement what most shooters must do in several, deliberate steps. That kinetic efficiency is why Curry's release is still almost 30% faster than that of most other NBA players. It's reminiscent of the Navy SEAL motto: Slow is smooth; smooth is fast.
Out of bounds, Lillard lunges back over the top of Curry's head to try to block the shot from behind. He misses by a fraction of a second and ...
... when Curry's shooting elbow passes in front of his eye, the ball floats off the tip of Curry's index and middle fingers while launching in a signature, elevated Vitruvian arc toward the rim.
In a gesture that looks like he's taking an oath, the ref on the baseline raises his right arm to signal 3.
As the ball travels toward the hoop, Curry, who says he knows if a shot's good the second it leaves his hand, drops both arms behind his back, palms up, chest out, like a superhero about to lift off from earth. Then he turns and sends his best "I'm a baaaad man" glare at the Warriors bench, which is already spilling out of its seats in anticipation.
The back of the net flutters almost imperceptibly, like an apparition.
It ends with a swish.