Stephen Curry has been here before.
The Golden State Warriors' guard has been the whirling dervish of shot making, the human embodiment of a rainmaker from beyond the arc. He's already enjoyed the spotlight that comes with being the most thrilling basketball player on the planet.
And it wasn't that long ago.
Let's go back to the 2008 NCAA tournament. Curry, the nation's fourth-leading scorer at 25.1 points per game, was leading the 10th-seeded Davidson Wildcats to their opening-round matchup versus the seventh-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs.
A good player in a conference that no one pays any attention to, Curry was known colloquially as Son of Dell—his famous father who played 16 years in the Association. Stephen looked like little more than a beanpole, an unimposing force who looked like he was fed the same diet of a feral cat.
His Wildcats, having gone 26-6 in the regular season, with an undefeated 20-0 in-conference record, weren't on many Cinderella lists. Perhaps they could get past a not-so-great Gonzaga team, but second-seeded Georgetown awaited in the Round of 32.
Curry's team was playing two games if they were lucky.
And then something semi-miraculous happened—Curry became college basketball's best individual player. He dropped 40 points on Gonzaga's head, making 14-of-22 shots and 8-of-10 from beyond the arc in Davidson's 82-76 win. He added 30 more in a 74-70 upset over Georgetown, 33 over Bo Ryan's vaunted Wisconsin defense en route to advancing to the Elite Eight.
Davidson's run ended against the eventual national champion Kansas, but not without another 25 points from Curry. The Jayhawks endlessly double-teamed him, harassing him with Mario Chalmers and a rotation of big men—a scheme designed 100 percent to get the ball out of his hands. Curry's teammates failed to make open shots, and Davidson fell by two points.
But in the face of defeat, Steph Curry became America's favorite two-week muse.
Fast-forward to a half-decade later. Curry is in a different league, on a different team, but seems to have recaptured that mystifying attraction.
As the Warriors head back to Oracle Arena knotted up 1-1 with the San Antonio Spurs, the 25-year-old Curry is undoubtedly at his professional peak.
Through the first eight playoff games of his career, Curry is averaging 26.5 points and dishing 8.9 assists per game. He's shooting 43.1 percent from three-point range while attempting a bonkers nine attempts per night from beyond the arc. Curry's run is not only captivating the nation's attention again—it's unprecedented in league history.
On a nightly basis, Curry is taking J.R. Smith shots with elite-level results. His presence on the floor alone is electrifying—the Patient Zero for the 24/7 heat check.
Strangely, it feels almost like Davidson all over again. Curry still looks like his diet consists entirely of Ramen Noodles. His team, an underdog, is still playing one a Georgetown-like monolith in the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili Spurs.
Of course, it's a bit different than 2008. Sixth-seeded NBA playoff teams are far more talented than 10th-seeded Division I basketball programs, and the Warriors caught a big break in seeding. The Denver Nuggets, their first-round opponent, played a trap-heavy, aggressive style of defense that was the best possible matchup for Golden State.
And perhaps the biggest thing that's evolved since that fateful March in 2008 is Curry's game itself.
At Davidson, Curry played more of your traditional 2-guard role. Jason Richards handled the point guard role in that magical 2007-08 season, dishing out an NCAA-high 8.1 assists per game—a high percentage of which went to Curry.
This version of Curry is infinitely more lethal. As Golden State’s primary ball-handler, Curry for the most part isn’t getting his shots via your standard up-screen—especially in this postseason. According to Synergy Sports data, Curry has taken only 15 percent of his shots from a spot-up capacity this postseason. And as Zach Lowe of Grantland pointed out, only 11 of Curry’s shots all postseason have come from off-ball screens.
He’s creating off the dribble—whether to create a three-point opportunity or drive to the cup—and it’s been utterly flummoxing to opposing defenses.
Most of these sets involve pick-and-roll plays with Andrew Bogut. The seven-footer has done a fantastic job of getting Curry that initial separation, which has allowed for a ton of pull-up jumpers from above the break. The Warriors have done a fantastic job taking advantage of the propensity of Spurs big men—particularly Tim Duncan—to drop back on pick-and-rolls.
After Game 2, in which Curry had a rather pedestrian (for him) 22 points, Duncan was clear that containing the Warriors guard was top priority.
"Steph Curry," Duncan said (per ESPN’s J.A. Adande). "We've got to do a better job with him."
What’s clear is that the Spurs—and any team for that matter—are going to have a difficult time corralling Curry. When San Antonio’s big men have flashed up prevent a Curry three-pointer, he’s used his foot speed to get into the paint for a layup or a kick-out to an open shooter.
Arguably the only thing that's stopped Curry during these playoffs is Warriors coach Mark Jackson. He played the superstar guard 57 minutes and 56 seconds in Game 1 of the San Antonio series, a contest in which the Warriors blew a 16-point fourth quarter lead and lost in double overtime.
Gassed by the extensive minutes, suddenly guarding Curry wasn’t so hard for San Antonio. Popovich was able to switch Kawhi Leonard onto Curry for almost the entire fourth quarter, and the Spurs forward bothered him with his length. Curry was unable to use his quickness advantage to get around Leonard because the tank was on empty, and Golden State’s offense subsequently folded.
It took Jackson one game to adjust. Curry played in 44 minutes during Game 2 (and Klay Thompson an insane 47), but the star guard got some rest at critical moments. There is always the temptation to ride the hot hand, especially in the playoffs. But Jackson ruling Curry's minutes with a Tom Thibodeau iron fist won't work.
Assuming Jackson doesn’t want to send Curry to the infirmary with the Chicago Bulls, it’s hard to put a limit on this Warriors team. They certainly wouldn’t beat the Miami Heat in a seven-game series, but a conference title? That seems plausible.
Russell Westbrook's disheartening injury opened the Western Conference wide. The Thunder look dazed, with coach Scott Brooks unable thus far to make adjustments to his offensive scheme. While Kevin Durant has been the MVP of these playoffs so far—sorry, Steph—Oklahoma City's secondary characters haven’t been able to pick up the slack.
The Memphis Grizzlies, boasting two of the league's most skilled big men, look like a solid matchup. They could throw Tony Allen or Mike Conley, both elite perimeter defenders, on Curry and Marc Gasol is the league’s best defender among seven-footers.
That being said, it’s possible we’re getting ahead of ourselves. These Warriors are still extremely inexperienced in the postseason, and Pop has a reputation as the league’s best coach for a reason. Perhaps a film session and a couple adjustments will shut down Curry, and we’ll be talking about San Antonio wrapping it up in five on Saturday morning.
But maybe that’s what Curry wants. After all, he’s spent the past five years thriving when people told him he wasn’t good enough.
Will Curry lead the Warriors to the NBA Finals? Who knows. I just know I don’t want to miss a minute of it unfolding.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: Follow @tylerconway22
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