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The scoring outbursts have all become a blur. So have the long-distance heaves.
As Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry has produced a highlight reel nearly every time he has stepped on the court this season, however, those around him marveled at something more substantial than how many points he scores or how far he shoots. They have remained in awe on how Curry transformed the Warriors from a lottery contender to a playoff threat with his record-breaking performances, his steady leadership and his determined optimism.
“People doubted how sturdy he is and how capable he is,” Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser told USA TODAY Sports. “But this year is proof that he can help carry a team.”
So much that Curry’s performances this season yield parallels to when he won two NBA regular-season MVP awards. He leads the NBA in scoring (31.8 points), which remains on pace to exceed even the production in his MVP seasons in 2014-15 (23.8) and 2015-16 (30.1). He leads the league in made 3-pointers (328), which marks the fourth time in his career he has made at least 300 3’s in a season. And during an 11-game stretch last month, Curry became the first NBA player to average 40 points while shooting at least 50% from the field, 40% from 3-point range and 90% from the free-throw line.
“It wasn’t ever a narrative that I felt I needed to squash,” Curry told USA TODAY Sports. “But I feel like every situation that you find yourself in, if you’re good enough, you’ll figure it out.”
Curry did not always need to carry the Warriors when they won three NBA championships in five Finals appearances. The Warriors could also rely on another sharpshooter (Klay Thompson), an elite defender (Draymond Green) and a team-first player that could play multiple positions (Andre Iguodala). For two of those NBA title runs, the Warriors also could lean on one of the NBA’s best scorers that won two consecutive Finals MVP’s (Kevin Durant).
The Warriors’ identity then shifted amid a key free agency departure (Durant), a season-ending injury to a star player (Thompson), an off-season trade for cap reasons (Iguodala) and an anticipated retirement to a valued role player (Shaun Livingston). In related news, the Warriors finished last season with a league-worst 15-50 record partly because Curry played in only five games due to a broken left hand.
This season? The Warriors have stayed in the playoff hunt despite experiencing another season-ending injury (Thompson), seeing mixed progress with their No. 2 draft pick (James Wiseman) and fielding an otherwise mostly unproven roster.
The Warriors can mostly thank Curry for ensuring their fortunes do not rely on the lottery ping-pong balls again. Nonetheless, that might not be enough for Curry to earn his third NBA regular-season MVP. Only Michael Jordan (1995-96) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1979-80) won the NBA regular-season MVP award at 33 years old. Only Abdul-Jabbar (1975-76) and Bob Pettit (1955-56) won the award while playing for a team that did not finish with a winning record.
“You could’ve made any rationalization of why I should have won and or shouldn’t have won,” Curry said of his previous MVP seasons. “That happens every year with every guy on that top of the list. But being in that conversation usually means you’re meeting your own expectations, which is first and foremost how you judge the season. The rest of that stuff comes with the territory with how people see things. You realize how hard it is to win that award. So I’m appreciative I got two, and that I continue to be in that conversation.”
Curry has entered that conversation by placing his name multiple times in the NBA record books. Last month, Curry surpassed Jordan and Kobe Bryant for the most 40-point games in a month at 33 years old or older (five). Curry also topped James Harden for the NBA’s record for most 3’s in a calendar month (96). This season, Curry eclipsed Bryant for recording the most 30-point games in a season in at least their 12th NBA year (37). Curry also joined former Lakers stars Elgin Baylor (1962-63) and Jerry West (1961-61) as the only players to average at least 37 points while shooting at least 50% from the field and 90% from the free-throw line in a 22-game span.
“The one thing that makes him an MVP? If you’re going to start a franchise, he’s your first pick. He exudes all of the qualities that you would want from someone to have to build your organization around,” Fraser said. “He is the best shooter in the world. He’s one of the best scorers in our league and of all time. He’s a better defender than people think. With all of our losses this year, he’s managed to sustain only a winning attitude for our team and for himself.”
Patience during a testing season
With Curry entering the MVP conversation, though, that has only highlighted the contrast between Curry’s greatness and the Warriors’ weaknesses.
The Warriors have gone 1-7 this season without Curry. They lost 12 other games even when Curry still scored at least 30 points. And according to Basketball Reference, the Warriors fared much differently when Curry played (114.8 offensive rating on 57.1% shooting) and when he sat (104.2 points on 51.4% shooting).
“We obviously want to win, and the frustration comes when we don’t accomplish that,” Curry said. “We’re fighting for playoff positioning at the bottom of the standings when you’d rather be at the top. But a lot of it is the big picture. Being around this league long enough, you know how hard it is to win and how hard it is to be in championship contention every year.”
It remains unclear if the Warriors can return to championship contention considering questions about Thompson’s health, Wiseman’s potential and limited salary cap flexibility.
“You want to be around long enough where you find yourself in different situations and figure how to adapt, overcome and still play the best basketball that you can and control what you can control,” Curry said. “I don’t plan on being in this situation come next year. You want to fight for home-court advantage and look at bigger things. But we’re rebuilding it back up, and there’s a beauty in that.”
To find beauty in that process, Curry has navigated between offering positive reinforcement and stern messages to his teammates. Warriors coaches and teammates observed that Curry has mostly offered a nurturing approach over raising his voice. But during a blowout loss to the Clippers earlier this season, Curry yelled at Wiseman and Andrew Wiggins on the sideline. Following losses in Atlanta and Minnesota this season, Curry also addressed the team.
“Just reading the moment. There’s nothing choregraphed with that,” Curry said. “It’s not like we’re coming in the locker room yelling every day. But we’re talking about having a certain consistent approach and not taking anything for granted.”
Preparing for MVP-caliber season
Curry refused to take anything for granted entering the 2020-21 season.
With the NBA not including the Warriors in their resumed season in the bubble, Curry used that time to heal his thumb injury, recharge his body from five consecutive Finals runs and enjoy some rare family time. But he also remained aware of the negative implications with not playing in the bubble.
So, Curry worked out extensively last summer with his trainer, Brandon Payne, that he said led to gaining seven pounds of muscle.
“I feel stronger and more durable than I have before,” Curry said. “So we were thoughtful with how we spent that offseason to make sure I would peak at the right time, even though I didn’t know when the season was going to start.”
To prepare for that, Payne said Curry focused on sharpening what he called “little detail things that add up.” Some notable examples included working on his footwork around the rim, completing contact-heavy ball-handling drills and working on his balance during shooting sessions. In between those workouts, Curry also engaged in shooting contests that Payne called “two-in-a-row.”
That drill requires Curry to make two consecutive shots from five different spots on the court, including both corners, both wings and the top of the key. Originally, Curry had 90 seconds to complete the drill. Toward the end of his training sessions, though, Curry finished the drill in as little as 75 seconds. Payne added Curry finished the drill “a couple of times with no misses.”
“B Payne is a genius in coming up with competitive situations that always put me into a competition with myself,” Curry said. “It’s a game within myself so I can avoid making the workouts mundane. With that much of a layoff, it can make you stay locked in with a pressure type situation. You still remember what it feels like to have to make a shot when you need to.”
Just because Curry completed his workouts with joy did not mean he completed those without being serious. Payne observed that Curry adopted “a work smarter; not harder” approach by having efficient and focused workouts, while spacing them out in between family time to avoid burnout.
“I don’t think it’ll ever be fully appreciated how hard this guy has worked,” Payne told USA TODAY Sports. “Never once had I ever had to be the guy that created energy for him in the workouts. He’s as self motivated as anybody I’ve ever been around. He’s as competitive as anybody I’ve been around. People have a misconception that some NBA guys don’t work hard or just have this natural ability. That is just not the case with Steph. This guy is who every NBA player should want to be because he’s worked for it. He’s on top of the world again.”
Curry posted a career-high in points (62). He surpassed Reggie Miller for second place on the NBA’s all-time 3-point list (2,822). And he replaced Wilt Chamberlain as the Warriors’ all-time leading scorer (18,367 points).
That leads some on the Warriors hoping that Curry can surpass Thompson’s record for most 3-pointers in a game or to eclipse his career-high performance.
“We will see, my man,” Curry said. “I say I’m going to gun it for every game. But it’s got to be the perfect situation for that to happen.”
Does Curry at least consider it a goal to win the NBA scoring title while having a slight edge over Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (31.4 points)?
“At this point it is. It wasn’t at the beginning of the year. I might as well try.”
Curry insists he mostly tries to maximize the Warriors’ playoff chances, mindful that any appearance would have big-picture implications beyond the slight possibility of making a surprise run.
“When we have a relatively young team, you need those experiences,” Curry said. “Regular season is one thing and you tell people how different the playoffs is and the different intensity and all of that. But words only go through so much in that respect. You have to actually feel it and experience it.”
One thing at least the Warriors experienced? They have seen Curry carry the team nearly every single game with almost every shot he takes.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Warriors say this season proves that Steph Curry can still carry a team