STEPHEN KURRY knows exactly how far to go. Now on the verge of overtaking Reggie Miller for second place on the NBA’s three-point list – he’s nine points away from a Pacers collapse – Curry only needs to eclipse 422 points from Ray Allen to become the all-time top three-point shooter.
To get there, Curry, a two-time MVP, still has about 275 miles of hardwood to go, relying on a part of his game that has received little attention. It’s a unique talent that has been crucial to Curry’s career, three Golden State NBA titles and even the Warriors’ current revival: his exhaustive and acrobatic work off the court.
It took Miller 18 seasons to reach 2560 3s. Curry will accomplish this in just over 11 minutes, thanks in part to his ability to run about 2.5 miles per game to get into the opener. In anticipation of Curry’s ascent, and to better understand how he did it, we analyzed, frame-by-frame, the scoring order of Game 4 of the 2019 Western Conference Finals – the last time Curry and the Warriors reached the pinnacle of their historic performance.
It starts with failure.
The yellow numbers on the Moda Center clock flashed at 1:10 minutes from the end of the first quarter when Portland cornerback Zach Collins got into a furious drive. He floats gently over the edge before falling into the outstretched arms of Golden State’s Kevon Looney. The Warriors’ center passes it to Sean Livingston, who dribbles it and then passes it to Curry, who takes the first step of this 226-foot journey, according to Second Spectrum Tracking. There’s probably no one who knows Stephen Curry’s tendencies better than his younger brother Seth. They played one-on-one for hours at home in Charlotte, with games ending when one of them was crying or bleeding, according to Stephen. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBA/Getty Images …
Curry approaches with the bullet in the middle and immediately falls victim to his own attraction. Over the past eight seasons, Curry has almost single-handedly changed the geometry of the half-court offense. His range and accuracy allowed him to arm an area beyond the 3-point line, which was mostly wasteland. Curry’s shooting has been so exceptional for so long – he’s led the league in 3s five times and ranks first among active players with a shooting percentage of .435 – that even basketball historians have to refer to other sports for a meaningful comparison.
Curry has the same effect as Lawrence Taylor, says David Thorpe, analyst at TrueHoop.com and executive director of the Clearwater Vocational Training Center in Clearwater, Florida. You always had to be in charge of the LT [New York Giants Hall of Fame lineman], and that made people paranoid and teams mentally exhausted, and you could use that fear to free other defenders because people were so afraid to leave the LT alone. Curry has the same effect. Everyone had to be careful that LT didn’t break your quarterback’s leg in half. With Curry, everyone has to be careful not to break your neck with his shot.
As Curry trots toward the Moda Center logo, still about 37 yards from the basket, five pairs of eyes are on him. Portland’s three defenders, including his younger brother Seth, are across the arc, ready to step in. After more than a decade in the league, Steph has a few spots available, even at 35 feet. For most excursions, especially with Klay Thompson still injured and Kevin Durant long gone, it’s a challenge Curry is looking forward to at the end of his career: If he wants the space to be filmed, he must create it for himself with his feet and mind.
Steph tests you for more than just shooting, says P.J. Carlesimo, NBA veteran coach and ESPN analyst. He’s one of the best in the league at moving without the ball. He doesn’t draw that much attention, but with his speed and conditioning, Steph will lead you to your death. It’s pretty much the biggest nightmare you can have in this league. I mean, as a defense attorney, you have to think: God, how much effort can you put into keeping a man?
Curry has been quietly working on this part of his game for nearly a decade. During the 2011 NBA lockout, he was at home in Charlotte, joining former Hornets player Gerald Henderson of Accelerate Basketball for a unique workout with coach Brandon Payne, who specializes in neurocognitive performance – no frills, just a state-of-the-art experience.
Payne, 40, has an insane approach to training and developing elite fundamentals, conditioning and judicial recognition. He calls it a penalty kick without the ball. And after one session, Curry found that it was exactly what he needed. That night he called Payne and asked if they could train together. Payne agrees. Okay, I’ll be there tomorrow morning at 7, Curry replied.
They’ve been working together ever since. And they stay so close to that day that in the morning, after big games or tough losses, you’re likely to hear Payne on the phone talking to Curry from his cramped and dingy headquarters in an old steel warehouse in south Charlotte. I have a tough job, says Payne. I have to keep telling the greatest gunman who ever lived: That’s not good enough.
Since Kerry’s pre-game shoot is well known to the general public, most people think her off-season workouts are similar. However, a pre-game viral routine is not a workout. This is a kinetic activation process, similar to playing baseball or practicing for a game of golf. The truth is, Curry rarely takes more than a handful of shots from the same spot during his private offseason workouts with Payne, and never performs traditional draconian conditioning exercises like wind sprints or mowing the lawn. Instead, he brings them together.
During the 2011 NBA lockout, Curry met with coach Brandon Payne, who specializes in developing elite basics, conditioning and cognition on the court. A goal without the ball, according to Payne. He and Curry have been working together ever since. Thanks to accelerated basketball.
For Curry, a typical off-season workout looks like this: With a nice golf-brown color and mostly prototypical, colorful Under Armour sneakers, Curry flies through an almost impossible and complete version of the usual star-shooting exercise. Designed by Payne, it consists of 10 shots – from the corner, back line and wing – with 94-foot sprinters the width of the field in between. And it must be done with an accuracy of at least 80% and in less than 56 seconds, otherwise the exercise will be repeated. It’s essentially the same workout in almost every basketball practice on the floor, sped up to the point of absurdity for Curry, whose year-round conditioning goal is to always be ready to hit the floor for two weeks.
Last season, when Curry held this practice at Stanford, some of the Division I players in attendance begged to join Payne’s final shot – without the ball, they all collapsed from exhaustion or gave up halfway through. That’s exactly what Payne expects, as the drills are specifically designed to test Curry’s remarkable conditioning and unique skill set to prepare him for challenges like the one against Portland.
According to Payne, Steph’s definition of packaging is different than most. A lot of guys are in good shape. Is it possible to be in such good shape that you are tired, your thighs are burning and you can’t breathe after such a long race, while keeping your mechanics perfect and making good decisions? You’re tired, but you’re still able to give your best? Because that’s what really matters.
Back in Portland, Warriors striker Draymond Green hits a midfield shot on Curry’s left outside jumper. Green kept Collins in the back corner of the field on the last possession, but now he wants his 230-pound frame to last less than five seconds because after seven years together he knows Curry’s range is not a weapon unless there is an anchor under the basket to stretch the defense.
Curry continues to dribble to the right wing, looking up (and trying not to stare) at the right side of the field. It’s wide open. The only thing standing between Steph and the simple bucket is little brother Seth. Curry is the first brother in NBA history to compete in the conference finals. But they have found themselves in this position thousands of times, on the street square behind their family home in Charlotte. Steph says these endless one-on-one fighting games went on for hours – until someone cried or started bleeding to death.
Curry learned how to shoot that old wobbly hoop in his childhood home in Charlotte. 12 years into his Hall of Fame career, Curry is one season away from surpassing Ray Allen as the most prolific 3-point shooter in NBA history. Josh Goleman at ESPN.
The Curry family courtyard is framed on three sides by a long driveway and flowerbed, a three-car garage with light brick arches and a row of dark pink crepe berries in the background. The pool is on the right side of the track. And now, back in Portland, as Steph approaches the right wing, Seth, like any annoying younger brother, seems to sense a second before where his older brother is headed: the pool.
Steph suggests simulating a half-legged head to the left and sending the ball behind his back to the right, cutting it off immediately. There’s no blood or tears this time, but in a victory for Little Brothers around the world, a terrified Steph is forced to step back and turn his back on his younger brother to protect the ball and regain his composure.
Without hesitating or looking up, Steph instinctively goes to the middle of the field. It’s not a coincidence. The basic philosophy of the Warriors’ offense – the highest-ranked offense in NBA history two years ago – is to move the ball and five bodies relentlessly, cut and cut down defenses, force them to think and react constantly, and work everything on offense. So the reason for the Curry reduction is simple: In the middle of the field there are the most options. When the ball is in the corner, the other players are at least two passes away from the threat, but when Curry attacks in midfield, he activates everyone on the floor.
More from David Fleming on the double MVP Stephen Curry.
I have to know exactly how the defense wants to play us and what they want to take away from us, Curry said. I’ve always played aggressively, but that never meant I took every shot. It’s about being and creating a threat to others, whether I have the ball in my hands or not.
For five consecutive seasons, Curry was the primary player and recipient of one of the most prolific offenses in NBA history. Golden State has been on top three times between 2014 and 2019. (The Warriors were No. 2 in 2015 and No. 3 in 2018.) During this time, the Warriors reached five NBA Finals and won three championships, averaging 64 wins per season. And this play, as it unfolds, is a perfect time capsule of that era. At full speed, the elements articulating their scheme are almost impossible to follow, let alone understand. But by isolating Curry here against Portland – and watching it in slow motion, oh, several hundred times – we can understand for a moment the mystery of one of the greatest offenses in basketball history and the 2,552 3-point Curries it produced.
At first glance, Curry’s constant moves may seem crazy or selfishly random, but they make perfect sense in the broader context of Golden State’s offense. Instead of organizing one or two sets or isolating each possession, Warriors often organize a series of five or six small games based on their read and reaction to the defense and, most importantly, to themselves.
We play in chaos, and in the past it was organized chaos: Everyone knows where to be, and it’s like second nature, Curry says. It’s about getting to know each other from a pattern. Normally we take these measurements automatically, but we have to use chemistry to do so. You have to see the picture as it unfolds to know where to be and where the ball should go.
It is both brilliant and incredibly complex – the Warriors’ offensive, a level of movement, anticipation and exploration almost impossible to defend. But as every subsequent Golden State team discovers with this offense, it’s also minutely slow to develop because it can’t be memorized, trained or taught. You have to feel it. It must be instinctive. And as the warriors of 2020-21 learn, this process takes years.
After leading the offense for three of the last six seasons, Curry and the Warriors have a hard lesson to learn: Organized chaos is hard to convey. With 14 games, Golden State is ranked 23rd in the NBA in 2020-21. Noah Graham/NBA/Getty Images
Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s offensive concept is an extension of the philosophy he learned from his mentor Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. Spurs’ goal has long been to create a good shot and then, by reading and reacting to what the defense is doing, turn that good chance into a great one.
Similarly, Warriors want to fly through looks and options at a dizzying pace and under pressure, constantly improving until the best option presents itself. The trigger for the Warriors, when they know the first domino has fallen and it’s time to shoot, is when confusion and pressure leads to multiple defenders locking onto a player or area.
That means someone else has to be very open.
So, Curry’s run to center doesn’t create a domino. That makes three.
It’s like it has an attraction of its own. As Curry approached the free throw circle, a trio of Portland defenders instinctively rushed him, allowing the unguarded Livingston to play on the left side of the key. As difficult as it may seem, this is where the basics of routine and movement come into play: As Curry approaches and Livingston is in the top corner of the key, a Portland actor can protect both. By going to the basket and threatening to score, Livingston both forced the defense to pick and choose and increased its chances of scoring from good to higher (90.9% chances of scoring per second spectrum, to be exact).
In this case, however, the Warriors’ offense worked too well. Livingston’s path to the basket is so loose and he’s so far down the track that the passing angle has changed from a manageable 45 degrees to a problematic 15 degrees. In anticipation of the big change in appearance, Curry still has his legs and struts a bit toward the magic Johnson’s needle walk. Rodney Hood Blazers jumps. But when the pass bounces off his hands, an anxious Curry, whose momentum carries him to the left corner of the court, can swing his right hand and send the ball back to himself. Curry’s attention and agility can sometimes seem so easy that it’s easy to forget the grueling, multi-faceted neurocognitive training – exercises like dribbling a basketball with your left hand while juggling a tennis ball with your right – that are required to make these kinds of games seem routine.
The constant movement of the Warriors is meant to create confusion and pressure. The greater the pressure, the more likely it is that a group of defenders will be in the same area. Results? Open perimeter rider from one of the best in the world. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
When Curry gets up, he’s almost trapped by a six-foot canopy. But on the other hand, Curry is counting on his uniqueness to resolve the situation.
Defenders are taught to place the keys on the keeper’s upper body, but instinct and habit often draw the eye to the face, allowing Curry to sell the eye shot by looking at the rim in a split second. But what really sells is Curry’s interest in a career as a .654 pistol shooter. This implied threat is one of the biggest secrets to Curry’s success. Defenders can never relax, Thorpe says, because with Steph, anything is possible.
Using the sideline and baseline as a trap, Hood wants to position himself so that Curry can’t return to midfield where all the opportunities are. But looking at the basket and hinting that he might throw a 3, Curry throws Hood off balance and extends him to make a save from the corner.
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While Green is still anchored under the basket, Curry slides the ball to Looney, who is a few yards to the left at the top of the arc. Junior Curry foolishly continued on the back line, but after sending the ball into free space, he dropped the offense again and signaled the start of the next mini-game, looking to improve. Defenders also tend to relax, slow down and exhale when Curry passes the ball. It’s another part of human nature that Curry uses to create space by switching: It accelerates to maximum speed when it passes the button. According to the second spectrum, Curry has an average speed of 6.57 miles per hour on this possession. It seems he nearly doubled that speed and lured his counterpart, who happens to be his brother, into the wall, waiting for him on his right elbow to free Steph for an open 3 at his favorite spot on the right flank.
It’s about putting guys on the ground to succeed, Curry says. We have strikers who can create awareness, so we need to move the ball, play a simple pass and generally create a good shot. That’s how I see the wound: Everyone has to be aggressive, you can’t have players on the field just moving, or moving the ball to make the ball move. Whether you’re shooting, attacking or playing, you should always be a threat.
When Curry accelerates, rookie Jacob Evans is in perfect position to pin a Seth Curry behind. All Evans has to do is figure out what’s going on and stick with it. Tormented by injuries, Evans is always faced with the complexity of Golden State’s offense, especially on this play where he fails to anticipate Curry’s pin-in and Evans leaves the post. Evans looked like a poor uncle, desperate to be two steps behind him as he danced in line at a wedding reception, and he couldn’t make up his mind. It may have gone unnoticed, but as soon as he realized his mistake, Evans crossed his arms in front of his chest and let go of his elbow for a moment as the Curry brothers walked by.
To make matters worse, this mistake allows Damian Lillard of Portland to move to Steph. At this point, Evans can only hope that Kerr will feel sorry for him when he watches the feature films, as Warriors tend to brutally (kindly) mock each other for mental failures during matches.
Not even curry is safe. Just days after he was named the 2014-15 NBA MVP after a particularly uninspired defensive performance in the Finals, Warriors coaches made the film play with clips of Riley Curry yawning and feigning boredom at a press conference. The guys on the team were laughing so hard they fell out of their seats. But Steph got the message. И… Eventually. all the young Warriors players, too.
Not only do Draymond and I have to perform every night, but for lack of a better semester, we have to teach, Curry says. We must teach all the young people. They are eager to learn, perform, and seize every opportunity, but there is a process to doing so. Knowing what the expectations have been over the last five or six years and then asking people who have never held these positions will [always] be a challenge…. to find that balance and go a little bit to understand that break.
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When Kerry’s horizontal cut on the wing fails, Green calls for the ball in the short corner to stop the attack for the third time with a post-op split. Even though the clock is ticking, the choices here are exactly what Kerr likes: infinite. Looney can shoot the basket. Curry can cut into the corner, go out the back door, or go back to the wing for 3. Green can make a fake pass and go down the back line, or he can turn the field over with a long pass through the defense. Instead, the Greens choose another option: He dribbles to the top of the box and throws a high ball for Evans.
Even at this late hour, Warriors can handle 500 without having to duplicate what they do, Thorpe said. How do we stop it?
When the ball changes hands at the top of the key, Curry does something in the right corner that he hasn’t done throughout the possession. He’s motionless. Curry’s second wind is due to his ability to quickly lower his heart rate during short breaks, even in the middle of a game. That’s why he’s training his body. When he’s out of breath at the end of most workouts, Curry lies on his back and his trainer Payne puts sandbags under his ribcage to overload him and keep the Curry membrane working.
With conditioning and breathing techniques like this, Curry can often get your heart rate below 80 during a single 90-second stop. But here, if he has flat feet, straightens his back and has his arms folded to the side as if to signal, I’m done, I give up, it’s basically a bait and switch. And it works. Because at this stage, after Curry’s chase all over the field, most defenders are asking for a break. Do you ever stop? They often whisper in Curry. It’s the best compliment he can get from an opponent, Curry says, even better than praise for his shot. You exhaust me. Stop for a second.
Tension now leaves Lillard’s body as Curry relaxes. First, Lillard looked Curry through the fingers and his left arm extended to block the baseline. But the second Curry gets up, Lillard’s head turns and his gaze instinctively goes to the ball as Evans begins to push the right side of the key. Lillard misses the shot to Curry’s body, which rolls like a spring. The famous curry baking mechanisms are a marvel of pure kinetic efficiency. But so is his footwork… which is often neglected.
Once Steph passes the ball, the action really picks up the way we play. And that’s the hard part for guys to understand.
Steve Kerr, Warrior Coach
So, instead of stuttering lazily to the basket with his right foot, Curry does a full step with his left foot first (like a big stuttering step flying second). With this economical footwork, the Curry reaches its maximum speed in just two steps. He then readied the basic swimmer’s movement by forcing Lillard’s left arm across his body with his right hand and rotating his torso 45 degrees so that his back was now facing Curry. After creating nearly three yards of space where there was less than a split second ago, Curry speeds up the baseline and anticipates an established and widespread backdoor move from Evans.
He never comes. For the second time, Curry’s movement without the ball created a scoring opportunity with less than 10 seconds to play – the second Spectrum frequency was over 70% – and his teammates were unable to capitalize. A lot of guys quit right away or came out in frustration, Payne says. He had already gone through the entire field and done all the work to open up – twice – and his teammates missed him. But he goes on. That’s what makes it so special. His spirit is indestructible. He’s not going. He’s not gonna stop.
As Curry drives through the unprotected paint, Evans sends the ball back to the green at the top of the key. As soon as he passes under the net, Curry is already on his way to the next opportunity. Again, what happens is not a play, but another semi-planned pattern of movement, almost always toward an open space on the field, that Curry and his teammates must constantly and immediately read and react to. When Curry improvises, he follows good-humored instincts rather than strict rules. It uses intentional movement to detect and target the open spaces on the field that will cause the most pressure on the defense. And most importantly: He trusts his teammates to see the same thing.
Evans, a rookie, missed his elbow assignment and is back on the baseline. And now, as Curry plays the left wing under the basket, Looney, also a relative newcomer, sees Curry’s target half a second too late. With this offense, half a second might as well have lasted an eternity. Mooney is around the corner late, but not far enough away, turning a potential elevator screen into a ghost shot at Lillard.
Steph is so unique. There’s no one like him in the NBA, Kerr said. No one can play the ball at this level and cause this kind of chaos. I think most of the players coming in are not used to second half ball possession. They are used to having the model in the beginning. But maybe when Steph passes the ball, that’s when the action really starts. And that’s the hard part for guys to understand.
This time, before making the next cut, Kerry looks into the eyes of Livingston, the man who came to Golden State with Kerr in 2014. Seeing how far Lillard was behind Curry and knowing that the Blazers would likely change defenders to fill the gap with the flanker, Livingston instinctively elbowed and defended, impeding the defense and forcing an already exhausted Lillard to chase Curry to the perimeter.
Turning a good shot into a good shot has long been the Warriors’ goal on offense. Draymond Green, who is often his playmaker, knows Curry so well that he often moves to what he hopes will be Curry’s final destination, not his current position. Garrett Ellwood/NBA/Getty Images
The key is now wide open and Mr. Green is anticipating what will happen next. But instead of shooting, he passes the bullet to the wing. It’s another critical but almost imperceptible nuance of the Warriors’ offense when it clicks: When the pass leaves Green’s hands, the wing is actually empty, and for a split second it looks like he threw the ball right into the lap of a fan on the field while sipping a drink. The fan cocktail is perfectly safe. Green relies on his innate sense of Curry’s end zone – developed over hundreds of games and thousands of practices combined – and throws the ball exactly where it magically appears for exactly 0.6 seconds into the future.
If Green doesn’t make it, all of Curry’s work will have been in vain. If Green waits for Curry to stop and indicate his intention to shoot before the ball comes to him, a half-second of head art is cancelled and, more importantly, all the space Curry has tirelessly fought for in the last 20 seconds is erased.
Focused shots that target the defense and put him in decision-making situations will always be a big part of Steph’s game, Payne said. He will always move like that no matter who is on the floor next to him. The question is this: Does the ball go back where it belongs? Here’s the question.
Anticipation – the ability to think and play a second or two into the future, and the innate knowledge of what a teammate will do before he does – is really what separates great players and great offenses from good ones. If Thompson were healthy and able to join Green and Curry this season, the Warriors would go to the court in 2020-21 with their synergy and telepathy virtually intact. Instead, Curry will spend a lot of time at the beginning of the season teaching young players like James Wiseman, Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre the intricacies of Golden State and how the system improves each player’s individual skills.
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Training young players is a talent Curry has developed in his SC30 selection camps. To prepare Curry for this new and expanded role as a mentor and instructor, Payne surrounded him with many young NBA players during off-season workouts. (Having played just five games in the past 18 months, Curry has also increased the intensity of his training sessions this fall to simulate playing conditions.) Meanwhile, Kerr said the Warriors have focused most of their early training this pre-season on defense so they can track the offense in the early games.
Training camps used to be all about getting in shape, Curry says. Now we have to do that and figure out who needs to be where, which sets will be our bread and butter, defensive chemistry and communication – all the things that make a great team.
Without Thompson, Golden State’s latest version could have had a more caustic and athletic look, with more driving, cutting and basketball finishing. But the ultimate goal remains the same: to restore chemistry and pace and return to the unmistakable, relentless and dizzying offensive flow we last saw in Portland almost two years ago.
As Curry puts his right foot behind the arc, the ball perfectly hits the center of his chest. With Lillard in hand, Curry can always, somehow, look across the court to control shooting time.
Lillard now has to choose his poison as he hunts curry. If he manages to control the ball, the shot will likely be intercepted before the ball lands; if he tries to get away from the Curry line, he risks a three-point error; and if he tries to shoot for him, once it leaves his feet, he’s completely at Curry’s mercy.
Curry turns toward the basket and his eyes fix on the ledge as Lillard flies toward him. At the same time, he takes an uncomfortably wide stance with his right foot close to the three-point line and his left foot practically off the court. Like everything else that happens in the last 21 seconds, it’s intentional. Curry uses his right foot as a matador’s cape and forces Lillard to swim wide. Then he swings his leg back to form the basis of a perfectly stacked and straight shot – knees balanced on legs, shoulders and torso bent over hips, wrist balanced on elbow, chest aligned with basket – this is the basis of the perfect Curry form.
With a run of 225.94 feet, 12 changes of direction, a triple team and four errors, Curry accomplished what he is best known for. And even after 10 years and nearly 2,500 3, it’s still amazing how his brain, driving and shooting technique are able to accomplish in a single motion what most shooters have to do in several deliberate steps. Therefore, kinetic efficiency is why Curry’s output is still nearly 30% faster than most other NBA players. This is reminiscent of the Navy SEAL motto: Slow is soft, soft is fast.
Out of bounds, Lillard throws himself over Curry’s head to try and block a shot from behind. He misses by a fraction of a second and…
So many Warriors games end like this: with Curry’s arms up in triumph. Championships won and records broken – a decade of exhausting and relentless training made it seem like his opponents would do anything to stop him. Steve Dykes/Getty Images
… When Curry’s elbows are in front of his eye, the bullet starts from the tip of Curry’s index and middle fingers and moves toward the edge, forming a characteristic raised Vitruvian arch.
In a gesture similar to an oath, the Baseline Referee raises his right hand to signal 3.
As the ball moves toward the basket, Curry, who says he knows he’ll take the ball in his hand if it’s a good shot, throws both hands behind his back, palms up, chest out, like a superhero about to fly. Then he turns around and sends his best wishes. I’m a Baad man, shining in the warrior’s seat, already rising in anticipation.
The back of the net floats almost imperceptibly, like a ghost.
It ends with a rustle.