In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with the NBA’s future still so uncertain, we look again to the past, polishing up our Dunk History series — with a twist. If you are in need of a momentary distraction from the state of an increasingly isolated world, remember with us some of the most electrifying baskets and improbable buckets in the game’s history, from buzzer-beaters to circus shots. This is Sunk History.
[Dunk History, collected: Our series on the most scintillating slams of yesteryear]
“That sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. … Less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
— Hunter S. Thomspon, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”
The 52-5 Golden State Warriors were knocking on the door of inevitability, 21 victories short of cracking the regular season record of 72 wins set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.
The ball reached the magical fingertips of Stephen Curry, en route to shooting his way to a second consecutive MVP season, tied with five seconds left in overtime.
A dribbling cannonball in the center of a frenzy, Curry crouched up the floor, crossing the halfcourt line.
Mike Breen, announcing the game for ESPN, started saying, “They do have a timeou ...”
Curry cut him off, squaring up and letting go of a 3-pointer 38.4 feet from the rim, an act so beyond the pale that one of the world’s best announcers, with an intimate understanding of the game’s cadences, jumbled his words as a result.
“They decide not to use it,” rushed Breen, before setting the stage — that’s how long the ball was in the air. “Curry,” he announced. “Way downtown!” The future of the league hung in the air.
Here’s the problem with the peak: You have to hit the ground first to find out when it was.
You couldn’t have known the crest of Curry’s shot against the Oklahoma City Thunder, at approximately the one-second mark on a night more than four years ago, would be the apex of the Curry moment.
It was before a summer of 3-1 memes, before we realized the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors’ dominance would merely be the fodder for another man’s story — a hurdle whose size was only relevant to illustrating LeBron James’ ability to leap over it — months before Curry sprained his ankle and then his MCL in the playoffs.
A shocked Andre Roberson, Curry’s 6-foot-7 defender, lunged out but he was three feet away. Change accumulated, shot by shot. On Feb. 27, 2016, the sport tilted on its axis. Curry’s deep three fell, expanding the context the NBA operates in to this day.
“Bang!” screamed Breen. “BANG!”
Some announcers and players are a perfect match. Steph Curry is Mike Breen’s muse, the Mona Lisa to his Leonardo da Vinci, the Secretariat to his Chic Anderson. With under two minutes left in overtime, Curry made his 11th three and Breen exclaimed, “The Curry eruption continues,” as though he was referring not only to the game but the season. Curry made 10 threes the game before, becoming the first player in NBA history to hit double-digit threes in consecutive games. With a third of the season remaining, Curry also broke his own all-time record for 3-pointers made in a season.
Breen’s voice became a conduit for the excitement every Curry move elicited. Curry was pure electricity and risk, pouring energy into everyone in his presence. The second “bang” sounded like an involuntary echo, like excess energy was leaving Breen’s body, as natural and necessary as Curry shimmying off the floor. What choice did either have after that shot?
After the game, we speculated, delving into a hypothetical Curry already rendered into a certainty: Was it a bad shot? Of course it was. That was the point. Curry was out of his range, but his range was expanding every game. He was building on his own perfection to answer the question of how many bad shots could he eventually turn into good shots, slowly wiring the NBA in his own image, aspiring to a transcendence that no amount of money or accolades could buy. Trae Young, Luka Doncic, James Harden and Damian Lillard have picked up Curry’s range, but they operate in the world he made. But a deep shot would never again feel like it did in that moment, when Curry was charting new territory simply for the sake of his own edification.
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