Is Steph Curry Really Back?

Tom Haberstroh@tomhaberstrohContributor IMay 2, 2018

B/R

It took all of 10 seconds to answer the question.

Stephen Curry made his highly anticipated return from a left knee injury with 4:20 left in the first quarter of Tuesday's Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the New Orleans Pelicans. By the time the clock ticked past 4:10, Curry had already unfurled his first three-pointer. As it splashed through the net, the Oracle Arena crowd unleashed a roar that had been bottled up for over a month.

The answer was yes, after a five-week layoff rehabbing his Grade 2 MCL tear, Curry was feeling confident. An immediate catch-and-shoot three from the left wing off a feed from Draymond Green. Was there any doubt?

Actually, yes. Those closest to Curry—the professionals who know him and his body better than anybody—collectively wondered how Curry might look in his return. They didn't need to look under the hood to get a sense of Curry's health; they just needed to see how quickly he'd strike.

Ten seconds in, Curry's long-time personal trainer and Accelerate Basketball owner Brandon Payne got his answer, leaving no doubt how Curry was feeling.

"He's good," Payne texted Bleacher Report from his lower-bowl seat at Oracle Arena moments after Curry's first three.

In the week leading up to the game, Curry and Payne talked about the importance of making the first one to get into the flow early.

"Then it would be all downhill work from there," Payne assured him.


B/R

Curry doesn't want this season to end the same way it did in 2016, the last time he injured his MCL. That one was a milder case, a Grade 1 sprain in his right knee, but the MCL is critical to Curry's game. The MCL stabilizes and supports the knee during lateral movements, which is a central weapon in Curry's arsenal. Damaging it can not only cause pain but also limit mobility when trying to juke an opponent and create space for a jumper.

With a return in sight last week, Curry texted Payne to come out to the Bay Area and help sharpen his rhythm and his mind. And Payne, who has worked with Curry in concert with the Warriors' medical and training staff, which is currently led by Chelsea Lane, since 2011, obliged. Curry would practice with the Warriors during the day, and just after he put his two kids, Riley and Ryan, to bed at home, he would head to a Walnut Creek gym about 20 miles east of the arena. Payne would be waiting with his staff, which had made the trip from Charlotte to facilitate the workouts.

At his workouts, Curry showed his eagerness to return. In the middle of Harlem Globetrotter-like drills, in which Curry would toss a tennis ball back and forth to Payne while dribbling the basketball through his legs, the two-time MVP often shouted out how much time had passed since he'd played a full game.

"Down to the minute," Payne said, laughing.

In his work with Curry over the years, Payne learned how vital Curry's confidence is to his performance. If Curry is bogged down thinking about his knee, he's a step slower and forces actions. The mental preoccupation reveals itself in tangible ways.


When Game 2 rolled around, Payne watched with a special focus on his mind.

"How fluidly is he moving? Is he labored at all in his movement?" Payne said. "It's not like we're looking specifically at foot-tracking. It's how free and fluid you are, because a lot of that is not only do how you feel physically, but it means you're confident mentally."

Curry's decisiveness is a tell that Lachlan Penfold, the Warriors' head of performance during the record-breaking 2015-16 season, was looking for in Tuesday's game.

"How free he is—that flow," said Penfold from Australia, where he's currently based. "That and his willingness to take on people and do some crazy move that he used to."

Curry gave fans glimpses of that throughout the game. He finished with 28 points in just 27 minutes and a team-high plus-26, much to the delight of the Warriors faithful.

But while Tuesday's performance might have excited many, Curry devotees will be quick to remind you that they've seen this movie before; Steph's 2016 playoffs were eerily similar. And Curry fans aren't the only ones: From here on out, the entire NBA will be watching the Baby-Faced Assassin's every move with bated breath.


Stephen Curry is a physical marvel, but not in the traditional athletic sense. His advantage is his machine-like movement. His body moves with such precision, quickness and purpose that it eludes even the world's top biomechanics.

"In terms of sheer athletic ability—the biggest, fastest, strongest—he's not there," says Penfold. "He does have what I call great intramuscular coordination. His timing and coordination is unbelievable. There's a sort of neural wiring, because your brain controls your muscle movements and all that. That's where I think he's got everybody else."

Penfold has over 20 years of experience working with nearly 100 Olympic athletes, but to this day, he hasn't seen anything quite like Curry.

"It's just unbelievable," Penfold says. "That intramuscular coordination is off the charts."

When Penfold was hired by the Warriors in the summer of 2015, Curry's reputation had preceded him—both good and bad. Perhaps the best shooter ever was also plagued with a nagging history of recurring ankle problems. Curry had missed games in each of his six seasons in the NBA because of ankle issues, requiring two corrective surgeries on a ravaged right ankle.

For onlookers, the chronic nature of Curry's injuries combined with his herky-jerky playing style created a palpable sense of dread, a shadow that followed him wherever he went on the hardwood. His lightning-quick movements became both a blessing and a curse.

The basketball world caught a glimpse of Curry's body-movement wizardry with a time-stopping move in late January of 2016. Just before halftime against the San Antonio Spurs, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard was trying to place Curry in a straitjacket. But it was Curry who put Leonard on skates. The sequence generated nearly six million loops on a single Vine video clip posted that night.

Working off the ball, Curry abruptly slammed on the breaks on a fake backdoor cut, causing Leonard to fall nearly to the floor and spin around like he was stumbling away from a game of dizzy bat. Once Curry caught the ball beyond the arc, Leonard instinctively left his feet to contest his shot, but in a blink of an eye, Curry had lunged laterally to the right, almost teleporting 12 feet horizontally, and fired up an off-balance three in the right corner. Leonard surrendered. Splash.

The lateral one-two punch was Curry's finishing move that had shredded defenders all season. It's also a move that requires a healthy MCL.

In the month of February that season, Curry averaged 36.7 points while shooting 53.6 percent from three-point land with his left-right mobility at its absolute apex. With Curry powering the surge, the Warriors won a record-breaking 73 games and entered the postseason with a limitless ceiling. Could they sweep the entire playoffs?

"There was a period of time where he was unstoppable," Penfold says of Curry. "And then he got injured."


It was the second quarter of the first game of the 2016 playoff campaign against Houston, when Curry landed awkwardly on his right ankle and rolled the joint that had been surgically repaired twice. Uh-oh, fans thought when they saw Curry head to the locker room. Those fears were temporarily relieved when Curry gave it a go in the third quarter, but coach Steve Kerr had seen enough limping to know that his star wasn't quite right. So he yanked Curry early in the quarter and sat him the next two games to heal.

Warriors fans still hold their breath watching Curry because of what happened next. Curry returned in Game 4, but just before halftime, Rockets center Donatas Motiejunas fell to the floor after being tripped and smeared a pool of sweat right in front of the three-point line. Curry had his back turned in transition and slid right into it, causing him to nearly do the splits on the floor.

"It was like, oh s--t, here we go again," Penfold recalls.

Curry immediately grabbed his right knee and headed to the locker room, where he wept in frustration. Here we go again.  

Initially, the severity was unknown. But an MRI later revealed that the awkward spill caused a slight tear in Curry's MCL in his right knee, the same leg of his rehabbed ankle. Were the two connected? Did Curry come back too soon? Penfold told B/R they're not related.

"It was just all the planets aligned in the wrong place," Penfold said. "An unlucky incident."

The NBA world wondered if Curry's injury might derail the Warriors' storybook season. But the Warriors settled in and dismantled the Rockets in five games without him. After a two-week layoff, up 2-1 against Portland, Curry came back and eased concerns. He tallied 40 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in his return and celebrated a made three-pointer with an unbridled roar: "I'm here! I'm here! I'm back!"

From there, every step, every move was scrutinized by the basketball world. Is he the same? Is he limited? Would he have the sidestep back? But it wasn't just fans and Curry enthusiasts who were hyperaware to his every move.


By the time the Warriors beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in a grueling seven-game series, the Cleveland Cavaliers had tracked and broken down his movements like forensic scientists. They analyzed his in-game workload data, watched hours of film and came away with a realization that they weren't watching the reigning MVP anymore.

"He just wasn't the same animal," one high-level Cavs staffer admitted later.

The box score didn't scream that Curry wasn't 100 percent after the MCL injury; it whispered it. In 16 games after returning, Curry averaged 26.4 points, 5.4 assists and 5.8 rebounds and shot 40.2 percent on 11.5 three-pointers per game. In the Finals, Curry even set a record with 32 made threes.

"Steph still had his shooting ability, but he didn't have that state of flow where everything's working for you effortlessly," Penfold says. "Other times, it's still going to work, but you've got to work at it."

But the Cavs organization saw that Curry's mileage had piled up in the OKC series. The film also revealed a subtle change in the Warriors' attack by design or by default: They preserved his body by letting him create off the dribble.

"He stopped running off the ball," the Cavs source said. "You could clearly see that there was a gradual erosion to his game."

That was a huge development, because Curry's catch-and-shoots were among the most devastating plays in the sport. In the 2015-16 regular season, 42.8 percent of Curry's three-point attempts came off the pass, and he converted a blistering 47.8 percent of those tries, per NBA.com. After his return from injury, it was a different story. Only 38 percent of his three-pointers were catch-and-shoots, and he made just 37.1 percent of those attempts from deep.

The Cavs began setting screens with Curry's guy, forcing the switch onto James. From there, James would bludgeon his way to the rim. Other times, they'd run Curry through a gauntlet of screens and make him both uncomfortable and ragged.

"With Steph and LeBron, it's a war of attrition," the Cavs source said. "Opponents try to beat them into submission. Just part of the game. If you're going to beat them, you're going to want to grind him in every possible way."

The Warriors could sense it.

"Obviously, the Cavs did target him," Penfold said. "It seemed to me like it was LeBron's personal mission to go out and get him."

Keke Lyles could see it, too. Lyles helped spur Curry's rise as the director of performance for the Warriors from 2012 to 2015, and he was there when Curry suffered his MCL sprain in his left knee in March. Lyles was on the other bench this time, as the Atlanta Hawks' head of performance. (Lyles is the one who helped Curry overcome his ankle issues by focusing on his hips, not his ankles.)

From his vantage point, the Cavs tried to grind him down—both emotionally and physically.

"To be honest, I think that's most of the strategy when you're playing Steph: Wear him down," Lyles said. "Steph has gotten used to it and can play with that. But that's your best bet—to be as physical as possible. But you have to have the right guys to do that to him."

Not only did the Cavs target Steph, but to Lyles, Curry appeared somewhat limited in one respect: the lateral movement.

"Some guys have the side-to-side action, but to do that and shoot? That's Steph," Lyles said. "It's insane; the difficulty to be that balanced is really tough."

Curry had been slowly declining in speed, too. According to SportVU tracking data, he averaged 5.21 mph on offense in the Portland series, or covering about 460 feet per minute. In OKC, that dipped to 5.12 (450 feet). In the Finals, it fell to 4.88 (430 feet).

Curry looked his worst in the closing moments, when he was most worn down. This was apparent at the end of Game 6, when James swatted Curry's layup into the front row and unleashed a menacing snarl that lit Twitter ablaze. On the next possession, a frustrated Curry picked up his sixth foul and, in a fit of rage, threw his mouthguard at a courtside fan, warranting the first ejection of his career.

"When he's not in that state of flow and not making those shots, I think it does start to get you," Penfold said. "There's the mental and emotion thing as well."

When Curry couldn't shake Kevin Love down three points at the end of Game 7, it symbolized his plight. He was fatigued and limited. The sidestep just wasn't there.

"It didn't seem like he trusted it as much," Lyles said. "But it's hard to say whether it was mental or physical or a combination of things."

Things could be different this time around. They already are.


Behind closed doors in a Walnut Creek gym, Payne is putting Curry through an obstacle course. It's Wednesday night before Curry's return and he is breathing hard. The drills are engineered to build up Curry's wind and to simulate game conditions. But Payne is mostly trying to overload Curry's brain little by little to strengthen it as if the mind were a muscle.

"We're trying to create brain excitement," Payne says. "It's really just overloading the process of handling a basketball. Learn how to handle multiple stimuli."

In the offseason, Payne straps strobe-light goggles onto Curry to inhibit his vision and force his brain to adapt to challenging conditions. That way, in the real game with full vision, time seems to slow down. No more thinking, just reacting and assessing like a basketball Terminator.

But this night is just a tune-up; no goggles necessary. Payne flips tennis balls at Curry in the middle of his mind-bending dribbling drills. Ten to 15 reps of that. Then on to the next: a network of FitLight training signals placed on the court that operate like traffic lights. Depending on which color pops up on the light post—purple or yellow—Curry will dribble behind his back either left or right in transition and fire up a three-pointer.

Each day a little more, to see how his mind and body respond.

Payne doesn't take this moment for granted. In 2016, there was no mental tune-up. But with a five-week layoff, Curry wanted to do things differently this time around. Get his knee right, then his mind right. No more thinking about the knee. Automate everything.

When Tuesday's game rolled around, that mental/physical training regimen had paid off. And Curry admitted as much in a postgame interview with TNT's David Aldridge.

"How did you monitor your fatigue as the game went on?" Aldridge asked.

Curry's response was encouraging, especially to the people who had been nursing him back to health.

"I honestly didn't think about it much," he said.

To Payne, watching from his lower-bowl seat, the night was a success. Curry's fluidity and decisiveness mattered to him more than his eye-popping stats.

"I kind of expected tonight," Payne said. "Tomorrow is what I'm not sure about."


Tom Haberstroh has covered the NBA full-time since 2010, joining B/R Mag after seven years with ESPN as an NBA insider and analytics expert. Haberstroh is also a co-founder of Count The Dings podcast network and regularly hosts the Back To Back podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @tomhaberstroh.

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