If basketball wasn’t a sport, this John Mayer solo over Eric Clapton’s “Promises” could be Stephen Curry right now, dancing on the canvas laid out by his predecessors, pushing an old form to new limits.
The man on the synthesizer at the 4:31 mark would be Draymond Green, recognizing the magic of the moment and doing his part to help land the plane, sneaking in a moment to look around in amused disbelief. To confirm that everyone else in the arena is seeing and feeling what he’s seeing and feeling: an artist who is always in his bag discovering that it goes deeper, venturing into his own unknowns, inventing a new world with every stroke. This is why people congregate, in hopes of being imbued with magic by osmosis.
This is what it was like to watch Curry in the 2015-16 season, when the Golden State Warriors broke the record books with 73 wins and he won a unanimous MVP. Curry is on a similar tear right now, averaging 38.7 points and shooting 47% on 14.3 3-point attempts in the month of April.
But it doesn’t feel like a dance. Dancing is a choice. Curry is in a battle. It’s a battle because basketball is a sport, and unlike 2015-16, winning is no longer an afterthought. The Warriors are the ninth seed in the West despite Curry’s greatness, and their playoff fate will likely be determined by the play-in tournament.
Some things feel the same. Others, as with any nostalgic experience, remind you just how different it is. But this is good: comparing and contrasting experiences can allow us to appreciate both more, to find new revelations in old joys.
For some fans, the outcome doesn’t matter:
i have never cared less about contention. picasso didnt get a ring the year he made guernica
— Raea🦋 (@raealikerayuh) April 21, 2021
Picasso, like Curry, was lucky enough to be appreciated in his own time. For Curry, this stretch has been an encore of sorts. But it doesn’t carry the weightlessness of the 2015-16 season, when losses felt as material as Curry missing an open shot: proof of nothing but the primacy of probabilities. It was a sports moment fueled, ironically, by the inevitability of the result: We gathered because we knew what was coming, and we wanted to capture the beauty for a fleeting moment. But now, the possibility of losing — and of those losses mattering — makes the 2020-21 Curry experience tenser. Endings can be anti-climactic; gratification is more often denied.
His body of work this season is still, as The Athletic’s Marcus Thompson declared, art. Something that can’t be defined by MVPs or ordinary classifications that we give out every year. It’s just a different form.
In some ways, it’s the same. The first deep three is still like the first sip of coffee in the morning. He still makes you want to close your eyes and just listen to the music. He still makes you feel like you’re somewhere else.
In other ways, it’s better. When Curry is hot, the excitement builds through the night. He transports us to a new plane, where he fights the battle that implores us to watch, whether we realize it or not. It’s the fight between perfection and regression.
The most exciting three is always the next one, because the astounding thing is not that it happens once. Andre Miller scored 52 points once. The astounding thing is that it keeps happening, the same way, over and over again.
Regression always wins in the end, but Curry stays in the ring longer than anyone else. In January, I wrote about how Curry’s trainer, Brandon Payne, and Warriors assistant Bruce Fraser, help him maintain a perfect shot in the face of inevitable atrophy:
“The enemies of Curry’s jumper, in no particular order: defenders lunging into his chest, pulling at his wrists — one of which was broken last year — the bruises and scratches we blithely refer to as the blanket wear-and-tear of the regular season, a test of will in which one fights not only 29 other teams but the fatigue triggered by multiple plane rides to different time zones, a jagged sleep pattern and the bad habits it gives rise to. Then there is the fact that like the rest of us, every second Curry is alive is another second that he’s aging. If Curry gets out of bed with a perfect shot, by the time he’s arrived at the arena, it’s atrophied slightly, as has the rest of his body.”
Curry has never faced more enemies in his basketball career. He’s never been older. The schedule has never been more crunched. He’s never had less help from his teammates, which means it’s never been easier to force him to drive. On this road trip, after he drilled 11 threes against the Thunder, he landed in Cleveland and found a Cavaliers team that was determined to force him to drive to the hoop all game on a back-to-back. He did, scoring 33 points, and the Warriors won.
On Wednesday, the final game of the road trip, the Wizards trapped Curry all game. His shot finally stopped falling. He dribbled himself into corners, whipped passes right into the arms of defenders. The Warriors lost. The show never came.
Sometimes I’m frustrated with Curry’s teammates. Replacing Klay Thompson with Kelly Oubre Jr. is like throwing a piece of wood into an electric chain. Other times I’m appreciative. Only a team as offensively challenged could drive Curry to shoot this much. The game has never demanded more from Curry, and we are the beneficiaries.
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