Stephen Curry christened the new season like a 34-year-old player showing evidence of his basketball mortality. He missed six of his first seven shots from the field. He missed his first five attempts from 3-point land.
Curry starts to float back to earth on Ring Night? Jordan Poole begins his takeover as the Golden State Warriors’ leading man? The core fades gently into the background as the new generation rises to the fore?
Not so fast.
As the Warriors showed off the jewelry from their latest NBA championship Tuesday night — and opened the season with a 123-109 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers — Curry offered another snapshot of his adaptability.
He drove to the basket, cleverly drew fouls and found other ways to fill the stat sheet. Then he eventually rediscovered his outside shooting touch — he’s still Steph Curry — on his way to 33 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
Consider this a preview of the next phase of Curry’s career. His shooting numbers dropped last season, and it’s fair to assume they won’t return to his peak. That’s just reality, even for the most prolific 3-point shooter in the game’s history.
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So those creative forays into the lane Tuesday night, maneuvering around Anthony Davis or driving baseline and flipping crafty reverse layups off the glass, are becoming a regular part of Curry’s arsenal. He’s also more adept at drawing contact and hurriedly throwing up a shot — selling fouls, to put it bluntly — than he was even a few years ago.
And he’s clearly not as spindly as age-24 Steph, or even age 29.
“I think he’s physically stronger the last couple of years than he was earlier, when I first coached him,” said head coach Steve Kerr, who took over the Warriors in 2014. “Get to the rim, draw more contact, get to the line, finish better. He’s improved in all those areas.”
Also do not dismiss the power of perpetual movement. Curry and Klay Thompson are masters at moving without the ball, a lost art in the era of screen-and-roll over and over and over.
That’s not the way the Warriors play. That’s not the way Curry plays. As a kid, he became mesmerized by the way Reggie Miller ran and ran and ran, and now that’s a central tenet of Curry’s game.
This showed Tuesday night. The Lakers had to shadow him, even if his shots weren’t falling — he’s still Steph Curry — and the constant motion ultimately led to open space near the rim.
“I’m going to shoot a lot of 3s, everybody knows that,” Curry said. “… But I try not to stop moving offensively, so you’re always a threat. I got three easy layups on back cuts in the first half, just because I kept moving.”
Curry’s patience and productivity serve as an instructive road map for Poole. No moping when the ball doesn’t ripple through the net. Find other ways to contribute.
Keep shooting, yes, but not random shots.
“Just be aggressive at all times,” Poole said. “The shots you normally take, the shots you practice — take those whether you make five or miss five. … Never lose confidence, keep hooping and they’ll eventually fall.”
Fair or not, Curry’s performance this season inevitably will unfold in the context of age. He turns 35 in March, and NBA history is littered with examples of players — and especially guards — whose production sagged in their mid-30s.
On the flip side, LeBron James is bearing down on 38 (in December) and still acts like he’s in the thick of his prime. James had 31 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists Tuesday night, a tidy bookend to Curry’s performance.
And a cogent reminder not to dismiss the game’s dominant figures of the past 15 to 20 years.
“Pretty amazing,” Kerr said. “Two guys who are so committed to the game, to their health, to their skill set. It’s remarkable, and they both make it look so easy. This didn’t happen a whole lot 20 or 30 years ago.
“We’re smarter now, players have more knowledge at their fingertips and we provide more resources to help them. So it seems like you have more players playing at a high level at an age where it used to be the end of the line.”
Curry — who finished 10-for-22 from the field, 4-for-13 from distance and 9-for-9 from the line — didn’t make a 3-point shot until the 5:27 mark of the third quarter. He and Andrew Wiggins were too close together on a budding fast break, so Curry shrewdly peeled off and sprinted to the 3-point line in front of the Warriors’ bench.
Wiggins lobbed a pass to him, and Curry quickly let fly. Boom. He was back in his familiar realm, and his team’s lead had reached 20 points.
Even now, after another championship and another crazy-busy offseason and another ring night, he’s still Steph Curry. And that’s exactly what the Warriors need as they chase another title.