When Stephen Curry pulled his mouthpiece out in the third quarter of the Warriors' 126-85 beatdown of the Houston Rockets in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals and yelled, "This is my f--king house," into the Oracle Arena crowd, it was not a declaration, but a reminder. Curry still has that MVP gear in him.
His going supernova had seemed almost commonplace in the pre-Kevin Durant days. By flying to the Hamptons and courting KD to the Bay in the summer of 2016, though, the two-time MVP was effectively trading his individual glory for a better shot at a Warriors dynasty. Moments like Sunday—when Curry scored 18 points in the third quarter and almost single-handedly laid a 65-win team to rest—might be less frequent with Durant around, but the Warriors are better for it.
That was Curry's sacrifice, the ultimate demonstration of the team's "Strength In Numbers" decree.
But the Curry we saw again Sunday has been lurking beneath the surface all season long. To unleash that unanimous MVP, there's no need for a time machine. Durant just needs to sit back for a bit and watch the Steph show.
That's the dirty little secret behind the Warriors' success over the last two seasons. Durant lifts the Warriors to another level, but with him removed from the equation, Curry reverts to the explosive offensive force who keeps opposing coaches from sleeping.
With Durant on the floor this regular season, Curry scored 26.2 points per 36 minutes, per NBA.com. Solid numbers, to be sure. But with Durant on the bench, Curry scored a whopping 40.5 points per 36 minutes. Yes, without KD on the floor this season, Curry scored 455 points in 404 minutes of action. And the Warriors’ net rating actually improved during these solo Steph missions (although the competition was often against second units).
Keep in mind, the only qualified player in NBA history to average more points than minutes played was Wilt Chamberlain during his epic 1961-62 season, when he averaged 50.4 points per game on 48.5 minutes. It's an almost unprecedented feat of dominance, but Curry without Durant this year scored a Chamberlain-esque 53.9 points per 48 minutes.
Now you might be thinking to yourself, Wow, a star player scores more points without having to share the ball with another star player. More breaking news at 11!
But turn the tables and look what happens to Durant without Curry. Per NBA.com, Durant's scoring rate jumped from 26.1 points with Steph on the floor to 29.6 points without him this season, a modest bump of plus-3.5.
Put differently, Curry turned into a Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson as the primary scorer on the floor, while KD became a slightly better KD in the same situation.
And it's not just Durant who pales in comparison. Curry's plus-14.3 surge when an All-Star teammate goes to the bench is unique. No other 2017-18 All-Star saw a double-figure jump when he played solo. Kyle Lowry's scoring rate with or without DeMar DeRozan was unchanged. LeBron James scored only 0.8 points more without Kevin Love. Russell Westbrook's rate jumped from 23.8 points with Paul George to 30.3 without his fellow All-Star (plus-6.5).
Looking at all 26 All-Star teammate combos, I found that the average uptick was 3.9 points per 36 minutes when playing without an All-Star teammate. Curry nearly quadrupled that rate.
Take a look at the 12 biggest differences, per data from NBA.com...
- Stephen Curry w/o Kevin Durant: + 14.3 points/36 mins
- Chris Paul w/o James Harden: + 10.9
- DeMar DeRozan w/o Kyle Lowry: + 9.9
- Stephen Curry w/o Klay Thompson: + 8.9
- DeMarcus Cousins w/o Anthony Davis: + 8.6
- John Wall w/o Bradley Beal: + 7.4
- Paul George w/o Russell Westbrook: + 6.6
- Russell Westbrook w/o Paul George: + 6.5
- Klay Thompson w/o Kevin Durant: + 6.4
- Kevin Durant w/o Klay Thompson: + 6
- Kevin Love w/o LeBron James: + 5.2
- Anthony Davis w/o DeMarcus Cousins: + 4.6
So, what's different? Personnel is a big factor. Andre Iguodala is often the stand-in for Durant in those lineups, and he's generally more of a facilitator than a scorer.
In these surroundings, Curry goes to work—consciously or subconsciously. Curry's usage rate skyrockets from 27.0 percent of team possessions to 37.9 percent with Durant off the floor, not unlike Westbrook's 45.8 usage rate during his MVP season without Durant in 2016-17, per NBA.com. Curry's true shooting percentage, however, is 68.8 percent without Durant, far better than Westbrook's 51.1 percent in 2016-17. A big reason for that is Curry's doubling down on free throws and three-pointers. With Durant out of the picture, Curry's free-throw attempts almost double and he fires up three-pointers about 40 percent more of the time. He is pure, unfiltered Curry.
"I guarantee you that Stephen has no idea about this," a source close to Curry said. "That's just not who he is."
The first two games of the Western Conference Finals were filled with talk of what was ailing Curry and why his three-point stroke had left him. A subtle tweak in Steve Kerr's rotation may have nudged Curry in the right direction in Game 3.
Usually, Kerr likes to sit Curry with Durant to open the second quarter. On Sunday, Kerr sat Curry with 2:46 left in the first quarter and then brought him back in to open the second with Durant looking on from the bench. Curry didn't score in that stint, but the move wasn't without its benefits.
During the Big 3 era in Miami, Erik Spoelstra would find moments to make Chris Bosh the lead weapon on the floor without LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. The point of "Bosh Time" wasn't necessarily for Bosh to score, but for him to feel like he was a No. 1 option again, keep him engaged and productive when his high-scoring teammates were back in the rotation with him. Similarly, Kerr's lineup juggling to play Curry and sit Durant at the start of the second quarter may not have been about immediate production, but about breaking Curry out of the shooting slump he found himself in to start the series.
Kerr hinted at the issue a year ago. "First couple of months, he was definitely trying to adapt to KD and probably deferring to him a little bit, and then I think we all kind of realized that after a couple months, KD didn't need any deferring or anything else. Steph could just be himself and then KD could just play off of him," Kerr told reporters. "... Steph needs to be more ball-dominant. ... I think we can help him. I can certainly put him in a better position to get going, which I will."
The last time Curry started both the game and the second quarter like he did on Sunday was way back on Nov. 24, when the Warriors beat the Bulls by 49 points at Oracle. Curry dropped 26 points in the second quarter alone, and he busted out a seated shimmy while flexing his arms after converting an and-1. (Worth noting: Durant missed that game with a sore ankle.)
There's no denying that Curry benefits from his partnership with Durant. It was Durant who averaged 35.2 points and earned Finals MVP in a quick dispatch of the Cleveland Cavaliers last year. KD also buys Curry some breathing room. After his MCL sprain, Curry could take his time getting back to the floor while Durant torched the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans in his absence.
The benefits work both ways. When Durant sprained his MCL in March of 2017, the Warriors uncorked a 13-game winning streak without him. During that run, Curry averaged 27.5 points on 50.2 percent shooting from the floor and 47.8 percent from deep. When Durant came back in April, the transition was seamless. The Warriors went 16-1 in the playoffs to deliver Durant his first championship ring—over LeBron James, no less.
While it is easy now to say that adding Durant has been worth it to Curry, it hasn't come without some level of sacrifice. KD's arrival likely meant that Curry would wave goodbye to his MVPs and stature atop the game. Yet he also knew his blessing would be paramount to Durant leaving Oklahoma City, so he left his basketball camp midweek in the summer of 2016 to join the Warriors' recruiting trip with Iguodala, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson as well as owner Joe Lacob and general manager Bob Myers.
According to KNBR, Durant's agent Rich Kleiman immediately got down to business when they all sat around with Durant and his father.
"Why do you guys want Kevin?" Kleiman asked. "And I want to hear from the players."
Kleiman then looked right at Curry, who stood to lose the most in Durant's arrival.
To which Curry replied to the room, "I'm here," essentially noting that his presence at the meeting illustrated how important he felt adding Durant was to the overall benefit of the team.
And while Curry's presence may not be as pronounced as it was on that summer day in 2016, that guy still is "here," even if it takes a little sifting of the Warriors' otherworldly numbers to find him.
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.