By John Krolik
Special to The Examiner
One thing I very much enjoy is magic. Close-up magic, card magic, stage magic, doesn’t matter. I can watch it all day and consistently be bewildered, impressed, and delighted. I feel many of those emotions when I watch Stephen Curry play basketball, which is another thing I quite enjoy.
The relationship between a professional magician using deception to fool a crowd trying to figure out the secret of his magic trick and an athlete, particularly a basketball player, using deception to gain an advantage over his defender is well-established.
Still, I wanted to really find a way to explain how the principles professional magicians use help explain what makes players like Steph Curry, who often leaves defenders baffled and audiences in awe, so effective.
My Rosetta Stone in this endeavor was an article published by Teller, the silent member of Penn and Teller who is likely the best magician of his generation, in a March 2012 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. In his article, Teller outlines seven key principles magicians use when they want to “alter perceptions” — let’s go through them and see how Steph employs them on the court.
Rule #1: Exploit pattern recognition
This is how Curry gets many of his shots at the rim. Defenses are so used to Curry sprinting out to the three-point line and getting a deep shot off at the first possible opportunity, they’re generally completely flabbergasted when he uses the threat of his three-point prowess to get to the rim.
What’s startling is how little effort Steph needs to use to exploit the defense’s fear of his three-point prowess. When most shooters use the threat of their pull-up shot to set up a drive to the basket, they have to pull off a complicated hesitation move where they step back, look up towards the rim, and put the hand without the ball in it up towards where the shooting pocket will be, all while keeping a live dribble, before putting the ball back down the millisecond before their off-hand touches the ball and they drive forward.
Steph needs none of this. If he slows down even the slightest bit when he has a live dribble beyond the three-point line, either in the half-court or in transition, it’s enough to put the fear of the three-point shot into his defender’s head and send them into panic mode, diving straight at Curry, who can then calmly go right past them for a layup or a pass to a newly-open teammate. When he catches the ball with a live dribble, it only takes the slightest movement of Steph’s head to send his defender flying through the air, attempting to block a shot that isn’t coming as Steph decides what to do with his newfound space on the court.
Curry is also an aficionado of the backdoor cut, which is not exactly a new concept (offenses built around the backdoor cut have been around since at least 1938), but is again a concept Curry puts a twist on by needing so little energy from his teammates to set it up.
Curry is so active without the ball and so dangerous from beyond the arc that he can set up backdoor opportunities for himself without needing any kind of play drawn up or screen set. In a game against the Grizzlies earlier this season, Draymond Green had the ball in a three-on-three transition situation. Curry ran beyond the arc for what could have been an open corner three, and his defender immediately began sprinting in that direction, only to find himself in no-man’s land when Steph simply ran behind his back for an easy layup.
What makes Steph such an effective exploiter of pattern recognition is his ability to send the defense into panic mode whenever he gives the slightest indication he might be looking to fire up a three, and find weaknesses in a panicking defense.
Rule #2: Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth
It would be easy to say “Steph works incredibly hard on his ball-handling and shooting” (after all, his pregame ball-handling drills have become the stuff of legend), but I’m going to refine this to Steph’s ability to finish at the basket and long-range shooting.
Curry is often the smallest player on the floor, and has dunked a grand total of twice since the 2017 season. But he’s consistently one of the best players in the league at finishing at the basket.
So how is Steph able to finish as well as the best wings and guards in the league despite being almost entirely floor-bound? By working harder on different finishes around the basket than anyone would expect. Steph can pick the ball up off the dribble one-handed and go straight into his signature scoop layup, saving him the time it a traditional two-handed gather would allow a shot-blocker to get into place. He’s as comfortable using his left hand around the rim as his right, giving him twice as many angles to put the ball in the hoop from. And he’s a master of using odd angles and high bounces off the glass to get the ball over and around would-be shot blockers and through the net. For most players, a layup is simply a layup, but Steph is so effective at the basket because he’s spent more time than most other players would think to do mastering all the ways to get the ball through the hoop from just under it.
Finally, Steph will regularly take shots from 30-40 feet away from the hoop. Before he came into the league, those shots would have resulted in a one-way ticket to the bench and a very pointed conversation with his coach about shot selection. Now he’ll fire up a long-range missile even if the shot clock isn’t a factor. If you’re Steph Curry, having to shoot from 10 feet beyond the three-point line to get a decent look at the basket is, somehow, as much trouble as it’s worth.
Rule #3: It’s hard to think critically while you’re laughing
Steph rarely uses humor in his assault on defenses, but if you change the wording of Rule #3 to, “It’s hard to focus when you’re distracted,” it makes a lot more sense. Thousands of screaming fans, trying to listen to a coach’s instructions, and accounting for where all of your teammates and Steph’s teammates are on the floor at any given time will certainly serve as a distraction. Curry exploits that.
Rule #4: Keep the trickery outside the frame
This roughly translates to “make your defender look one place while the real action happens somewhere else.” We’re going to use the same play for both this rule and rule #5. In the first quarter of a game between the Warriors and the Grizzlies, Steph came down the court, crossed the ball over from his right to his left, immediately went to a left-to-right dribble behind his back, and then, in one motion, went back from right to left, gathered the ball on a step-back, and drained the three over the helpless defender.
Steph wasn’t trying to get around his defender with those crossover dribbles — he was putting him in a position where he wouldn’t be able to do anything about the impending step-back, which he was setting up all along. The defender, of course, didn’t know that, since Steph had been forcing him to pay attention to the ball moving back and forth.
Rule #5: To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks
Rule #6: Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself
Rule #7: If given a choice, you will believe you acted freely
I’m combining the last two rules because they get at the same central point. Steph’s goal is to make his defender “commit” — to decide he knows what Steph’s about to do with the ball and conduct themselves accordingly, often in a manner that makes it impossible to defend anything other than what the defender has decided Steph is going to do. Steph forces these decisions with his ability to instantly drain a basket from anywhere on the court, and uses his ball-handling and basketball IQ to, more often than not, make the decision he forced be the wrong one.
So next time you watch Steph torment a defense, remember that you’re not watching a great athletic performance — you’re watching magic at work.
John Krolik is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.