If you’ve decided to skip this truncated and virus-plagued NBA season, you probably haven’t seen Steph Curry play basketball in a while. He broke his hand just one week into the 2019-2020 season, and the Golden State Warriors lost too many games to be invited to the league’s Walt Disney World COVID bubble. As such, the sport’s greatest shooter was essentially mothballed for more than a full calendar year. Like fondue restaurants, kissing booths, and so many other relics of the before times, it became hard to picture what the Curry Experience would be like when it returned. While I cannot yet speak to the fate of publicly kissing strangers or sharing fondue indoors, I am happy to report that Curry is fully operational once again, and it has been a joy to behold.
Curry is in the midst of a 10-game stretch that can only be described as “diabolical.” Or “incendiary.” Or “silly.” Well, I guess it can be described a whole bunch of ways, so you should probably just refer to the numbers.
As NBC Sports reporter Kerith Burke notes, that 10-pack of obscene offensive performances doesn’t even include his 62-point effort in January against the Portland Trail Blazers. That game not only marked Curry’s career high in points, but it also represented a turning point in this young season. The Warriors had gotten off to a 2–3 start, and Curry was playing like a rusty shooter on a young and inexperienced team. Granted, he was a rusty shooter on a young and inexperienced team, but recall how long it had been since we’d last seen him play. Perhaps this wasn’t temporary, but just how it was going to be from now on?
Naturally, many on Twitter were forgiving of Curry’s slow start. Just kidding! He was called the suckiest suckball player from sucktown that anyone had ever seen suck. Trolling aside, Curry really was struggling, and some of his peers even took notice. “With the injuries that the Warriors have been dealing with and Steph playing with a younger team right now, he’s seeing that it’s tough to get those quality looks,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said in January. “It’s different than what it’s looked like over the last four or five years for him. He’s trying to get quality looks and get a clean look, so he can make a good [shot]. You don’t really have that luxury to take one from that deep just to be taking it like in the past he might have, and I’m the same, getting a lot of attention from defenses.”
Lillard made those comments before the first of two consecutive games against the Warriors. He would look prophetic by evening’s end: Golden State lost by 25 points and Curry had a game-worst plus-minus of -27. But a surprisingly fun wrinkle of the NBA’s COVID-adjusted scheduling this season is the increased number of back-to-back games that a team will play against the same opponent. In a normal year, Curry would have had to wait weeks or months to get his revenge on Portland. In January, he only had to wait 48 hours to remind the world that he still knew how to play basketball.
To his credit, Lillard was more than happy to eat crow afterwards.
Crow-fed or not, Lillard’s original assessment of the challenges Curry would face this season was reasonable and accurate. The 2020-21 Warriors are not the team that dominated the league for a big chunk of the previous decade. Kevin Durant is in Brooklyn and Klay Thompson is recovering from an Achilles injury he sustained during the brief offseason.* Anyone would find the game more difficult if they’re no longer playing next to two of the best shooters in history.
Steph’s new normal was presaged in the summer of 2019, when the Golden State Warriors lost to the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Finals. Both Durant and Thompson suffered catastrophic leg injuries that series, leaving Curry on his own against the Raptors in what would be the deciding sixth game. That’s when Toronto used its infamous box-and-one zone defense against Curry to maximum effect—a strategy that effectively forced the point guard to play one-on-five every time he had the ball. Curry went 6-for-17 from the field that night and scored 21 points. It was an inglorious end to the season, and, for many, the last time they watched him shoot a basketball in anger.
And so it made a certain amount of sense when Curry struggled to find his shot early this year. Opponents didn’t have to contain Durant and Thompson anymore—they just had to gameplan for new Warriors Kelly Oubre and Andrew Wiggins. Curry was a superstar without a superteam, as he was against the Raptors in that Game Six. But, as any scientist worth her NaCl will tell you, repeat experiments don’t always yield the same results. That’s why they wear goggles.
Curry has learned to adapt to his new surroundings and is playing some of the best basketball of his career. Since that 62-point explosion against the Blazers, Curry is shooting 51.6 percent from the field and 46 percent from behind the arc. Both of those marks are better than his career averages, and he’s doing it against teams that know to stack their defenses against him. (It also helps that Draymond Green is back and playing like an ornery Swiss army knife again.)
And those deep shots Lillard said Curry no longer had the “luxury” of being open for? Since that Blazers game, Curry has made 14 of 31 of attempts taken between 30 and 39 feet out. It’s like playing darts against a guy who’s hitting bull’s-eyes from across the street. He may have struggled early on, but what are you supposed to do now that he’s learned how to thread his throws through the open windows of passing cars? There are only so many adjustments one can make.
Curry has managed to live up to our memories of him, even though the situation in which he’s forced to do it has totally changed. This is an experience both new and old. We’re not quite seeing a return to the before-times Steph. It’s more like an astonishing sequel.
Correction, Feb. 17, 2021: This article originally misstated that Klay Thompson is recovering from a knee injury. He’s recovering from an Achilles injury.