They are old men -- in basketball years, anyway. But Michael Cooper, Bruce Bowen and Chauncey Billups don't let a few gray hairs or retirement from basketball inhibit them from lapsing back into defensive-stopper mode. All it takes is asking them the most burning question in the NBA right now: How do you stop Stephen Curry?
"How would I stop Steph? Same way I stopped his daddy," needles the 59-year-old Cooper, the spidery 6-foot-5, 170-pound defensive specialist who won five NBA titles as a guard with Magic Johnson's Showtime Lakers.
"Ooooh -- Coop said that? Allll-righty then!" laughs the 44-year-old Bowen, who, as a San Antonio small forward, was voted onto the NBA all-defensive first team five times and won three titles
"Well, you tell Coop Steph is a different player than his daddy was," Bowen adds.
Yes, he is. In fact, when the Golden State Warriors passed through Charlotte last week and put their expected thumping on the Hornets on Dell Curry Night, it was hard to be sure if Michael Jordan's team was honoring Curry's father for his perfectly nice NBA career -- or for producing a sensation like Steph.
Last year's league MVP has been even better this year, and not by a small amount. His scoring is up to 32.2 points per game from 23.8. He's shooting 52.9 percent from the floor after hitting 48.7 percent last year. He's on pace to make more than 400 3-pointers and obliterate the NBA record of 286 he set last year. He's even averaging a career-high 5.0 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game.
"I'm glad I'm on the sofa now instead of covering him," jokes Billups, who played point guard for the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons.
Billups, 39, adds that when he talks to NBA players today, "The biggest gripe that most of the other high-level point guards have now is they have to guard Steph but Steph doesn't have to guard them. The Warriors put Klay Thompson on them, who is bigger and stronger than Steph. And what these other point guards say to me is, 'Man, I'm chasing this dude, he's scoring 30 or 40 on me, and I can't even get him back -- he's not even guarding me!' ... We're some of best point guards out here. So let's give people what they came to see.'"
Given that the Warriors won the NBA title last season and have started this year on a record 23-0 tear, Golden State's defensive strategy is unlikely to change soon, so there's no use crying about that, or anything else, Cooper, Bowen and Billups all say. When it comes to defending Curry, here's what they'd do:
COOPER: "Steph is a great player. But I do think I'd have bothered him with my length and my quickness.
"Being too physical on [a] great player tends to cause you problems, because sometimes they need that little bit of something extra to really get them going. Steph's a little different in that he can handle the physicality. But he really likes to get a little space before he shoots. So knocking him down would've been the first plan of attack with him. Absolutely. The first time he went to the basket, I'd put him down. First time. Because you always try to make your first foul to send a message. After that, anything else I could've done to throw him off, I'd have tried that too.
"I'd probably say some stuff to him, but I call it 'verbal communication,' not s--- talking or trash talking. And sometimes 'verbal communication' does throw a player off. The way I handled Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, George Gervin, guys like that -- I'd talk a little bit till I saw what they had [that night]."
And if they were on fire, you'd move to Plan B?
"Steph is definitely a Plan B, Plan C and Plan D player," Cooper cracks. "I love watching him play and it's a true pleasure to watch that whole team. They understand what being a champion is about. It's not just a name. It's the way you play the game."
BOWEN: "I don't think guys study guys as much today. They just hope Steph has an off night. They don't know what he likes to do with he's dribbling with his right hand, when he's dribbling with his left hand.
"With Steph, I know, for example, that he doesn't like when people hold him. If you watch his games, he throws his hands up like, 'Get your hands off me.' I would keep my hands on him. You can notice things with his body language as well. I know when things aren't going well Steph hangs his head. ... When I see that, that's when I dig in. That's when I'm going old school, man -- deny, deny, deny. Even if it means not helping somewhere else and a guy makes a layup. At least he didn't make a layup.
"I'd approach Steph like I would Kobe [Bryant] back in his prime. To me, it wasn't like you just play for one or two quarters. No. It's a 48-minute test. You can never relax. You have to treat him like he's having one of those moments where he's going for 50 and -- I admit it -- again, I could get selfish sometimes.
"I'd get so zoned in on guarding someone, I might run toward them on a break when someone else was left wide open. But that's just because with guys like Steph, all they need to see is one hoop go in the basket for them. Kobe, Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo [Anthony] -- these guys are all the same. Once it goes in the basket, it clicks with them. Something clicks. They're no longer wondering, they're thinking, 'OK. I got it.' All it takes is making one shot.
"With Steph, quite often it's not the first or secondary screen, it's the third screen or more when he loses someone. Guys tend to relax, he takes off, and he creates the necessary separation he needs. He's so smart. So with him, it's also just staying engaged in the play. He's kinda like Kobe in that way too. I knew Kobe was very competitive, but some other guys I guarded, they would quit. There were other times where other scorers would get the ball and just swing it. And that -- that would be the time when I'd know I've won."
BILLUPS: "The confidence level that Steph is playing with now, obviously you won't totally stop him. If I'm playing against him right now, I think I'd try to pick him up full court, get the ball out of his hands, try to be a little physical. But he's a guy you try to hold to his average. You have to think you're not going let him explode for 40 or 50 on you, and just know that that's a good day.
"Everyone says he's not physically overpowering, but saying 'Oh, just knock him down' -- that was all fine and cool when Coop was a player. Even my prime years, we could do more of that. But now, you try to be physical and the refs are saying 'and one.' Rules are soft now. It's tough to play [defense] that way.
"So what I'd also try to do is run him off the 3-point line, make him make those floaters, those 2-point runners on me. Whatever. Just so it's 2s. Because if you give him a 3-point shot, you might as well count it. I'd rather have Steph Curry beat me 14 points and 14 assists than let him get 40. Because his 40 is just so loud. And it's because of those 3s. For so many players, it's just so demoralizing. You play great D, you're doing this, doing that, doing everything right. And the ball still goes straight through the net.
"And his handle? Unbelievable, man. Unbelievable. Some guys that shoot it that well, they can't get you off them if you pressure because their handle isn't good enough. But you really can't pressure him. His handle is too slippery. And he's deceptive with his handle. He changes pace really, really well; starts and stops, then he might get the ball and just go. He's just so smart."
Billups laughs again and repeats: "I'm glad I'm watching from the sofa."
Cooper, dropping the brashness for a second, admits, "I'm sure I'd get Steph a few times. And he'd get me a few times too."
Bowen acknowledges stopping Curry isn't easy. "But c'mon, I watch all these guys guarding Steph now say, 'Oh, he's hot. ... He's just doing what he does. Nothing I try is going to work anyway,' and so they stop pressuring him. Hell-o! What? No, no, no.
"You're gonna get embarrassed anyway. Might as well at least make it a hard 40, right?"