What once was a relatable vicarious thrill for any of us — a ball, a basket, a flick of the wrist from a wisp in a singlet — has progressed into a phenomenon far beyond everyday parameters. The Steph Curry Experience is now a sensory explosion, a cultural epoch, an all-ages rave that must be seen if you’re alive on this planet in 2016.
Unless, of course, you don’t care about the unprecedented and the impossible, which means you’re not alive.
It’s premature to debate where Curry’s ongoing singular season rates among the greatest in basketball history, if for no other reason than he still has 3 1/2 months of potential miracles left. But to hear some very smart people discussing what only recently would have sounded preposterous — Curry vs. the best of Michael Jordan, Curry vs. the best of Wilt Chamberlain — is yet another cue to breathe in, breathe out and absorb the mind-blowing magnitude of what this little devil is accomplishing. Jordan leaped toward the heavens in his Jumpmans; Chamberlain already was up there at 7 feet 1. Curry, blessed with neither height nor hops, states his case in the all-time pantheon by redefining the ease of the layup and slam dunk … and extending it to 25 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet, nearly to halfcourt.
No one in this or any previous life, in real time or video gamery, ever has shot a basketball so well, or with such blinding efficiency and seemingly boundless range. They say he’s revolutionizing the sport, but he’s also disinfecting it, shaming and taking advantage of all the dunking wannabes from a generation that never learned to shoot or pass or develop a handle. All anyone needs to know about Curry and the new NBA school is that he’s making 68 percent of his shots from 28 feet to halfcourt — and that the man he supplanted as Most Valuable Player, champion and merchandising powerhouse, LeBron James, is shooting a career-worst 27.6 percent from beyond the 3-point line, which starts 22 feet from the basket.
This, too: Curry is enjoying one of the most analytically airtight seasons ever, endearing himself to my algorithmic pals by needing only 19.9 shots and 33.8 minutes to average 30.4 points. In 1990-91, when he and the Chicago Bulls won their first of six championships, Jordan needed 22.4 shots and 37.8 minutes to average 31.5 points. Many of those came on layups and dunks created by transition fastbreaks. Curry’s assault, to the contrary, often starts when opponents double-team him beyond the 3-point stripe, which allows him to dish off to Draymond Green and ignite a passing barrage. Or when a feisty defender gets too far up into his grill, prompting Curry to shake loose for whatever shot he wants.
“He tricked us so many times,” Orlando coach Scott Skiles said after Curry’s 51-point show Thursday night. “He runs. He stops. He relaxes, causes you to relax, and then he’s gone. That happened at least a dozen times.”
Like Warriors coach Steve Kerr, I was fortunate to watch Jordan’s domination. It was an angry, full-frontal assault every night. By comparison, this is a joyful romp, and while everyone knows what’s coming each possession, no one can stop Curry and the Warriors, who were 52-5 heading into Saturday night’s game at Oklahoma City and clearly want to break the all-time-best record of 72-10 established 20 years ago by those Bulls. While the Warriors still need five more titles to match the Jordan dynasty, they suitably can aim for the most dominant single season in NBA history, which would amplify Curry’s case as the most dominant player in a season.
“I was fortunate to play with Michael Jordan, and just about every night I was awestruck. I would say that Steph is on that level now,” Kerr said. “You see it night after night. It’s awesome, but it becomes routine because he does it so often.
“And he’s doing things that nobody’s ever done before.”
Because he is a human being and not a cyborg, Curry has been celebrating these nightly conquests with more dancing, shimmying, air-punching and, yes, laughing. He laughed in Orlando after his 45-footer beat the third-quarter buzzer, a night after nailing a mere 40-foot buzzer-beater in Miami, and critics are starting to emerge, saying Curry is disrespectful, Green is too mouthy and the party crew on the bench is too sophomoric. “Listen, nobody celebrates more than the Warriors,” ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy said, out of nowhere, on a recent telecast.
What would they like Curry to do? Grimly jog downcourt? There is a difference between mocking an opponent and rejoicing, and Curry, for the record, is a man of faith who loves to win and make shots but doesn’t have a drop of schadenfreude in his DNA.
“There’s no disrespect intended. We’re finding joy in winning,” Curry said.
And the Orlando buzzer-beater? “I was laughing, sure. That really isn’t supposed to happen,” he said. “I made a bunch of 3s in the third quarter and then finished with that one. It was really funny to me, it just banked off the glass.”
Isn’t it refreshing to enjoy the ultimate overachiever — who had to change the mechanics of his shot as a frail teenager and was ignored by legendary coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams in his native North Carolina — as he conquers the world? Curry no longer faces hostile crowds. He is impossible to hate, with fans in enemy arenas wearing his No. 30 jersey and not caring if he beats their team.
“We have a lot of support. Every arena we set foot in, it’s a pretty electric atmosphere. That’s what you live for, really,” Curry said. “To have that every single night, to get going in that kind of competitive environment with fan support, it’s pretty fun.”
Said Kerr: “I think Steph has the respect of his opponents. I think they understand that he’s not trying to show anybody up. He’s celebrating his own success and our team’s success.”
There may come a day when an enraged, frustrated and/or dirty opponent — Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Matthew Dellavedova — takes down Curry and injures him. That may be the only way to stop him. “Twenty years ago, Charles Oakley would have taken him out,” Kerr said.
“We would have just mauled them,” Charles Barkley said on ESPN Radio. “You’re not gonna let guys come off those picks.”
But the game is much different now, more ballet than brawling. Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas blame poor perimeter defense and inept coaching, but what Curry is doing might defy all strategy. “The defense is at a disadvantage, like all these cornerbacks in the NFL are really at a disadvantage,” Barkley said. “And a guy like Curry, who is amazing, you can’t put your hands on him, you can’t hand-check him.”
It’s an era designed for Stephen Curry, shooting fiend, who has seized favorable rules and conditions to become the hottest entertainer going. Every night, wherever he is, the celebrities are sitting courtside. Kevin Durant is so mesmerized, he’s dropping more hints that he’d like to join the party. Stephmania has reached the sobering point that his streak — he has made a 3-pointer in 128 straight games, 149 including the playoffs — is an afterthought.
“I don’t know that the record is that significant because it’s so simple for him,” Kerr said. “His 3-point shot is like a 2-point shot. It’s what he does. It’s to the point where we expect a half-court shot. It’s a rhythm shot.”
Not long ago, Dwyane Wade was teaming with James to rule the NBA. Now, the game has passed him by. “What the guy has been able to do is different than we’ve seen,” Wade said. “It’s rare to see a guy who dominates a game that far on the perimeter. Jordan dominated the game from 15 feet and in, Kobe (Bryant) as well. Shaquille (O’Neal) dominated from about 7 and in. You’ve seen a lot of guys dominate in different ways. We haven’t seen a guy dominate the way he’s dominated from about 38, 40 and in.
“If you’re a basketball fan, you’re a Steph Curry fan. There’s no reason to dislike anything about Steph Curry.”
And in a country where no one really likes anyone, including most of the people running for president, isn’t that his biggest miracle?
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.