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‘Nice’ is Stephen Curry’s killer instinct

Like Tim Duncan and Bill Russell before him, Steph sets the unselfish culture that allows his team to thrive. But he does it differently.

2018 NBA Finals - Game Three Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

On the eve of Game 7 against the Houston Rockets, his most important game in nearly two years, Stephen Curry and his father Dell tried to squeeze in 18 holes before Steph had to catch a plane to Houston. The two of them alone, genetically gifted with muscle memory that floors sports scientists, could probably rip through the course in two hours.

But before they got started, Steph met a stranger golfing alone on the putting green. That chance meeting led to an invitation of a lifetime for the stranger: come play with us.

The man struggled to keep up with the current and former NBA pros, so Curry only got to play 15 holes before he had to take off. And yet, he didn’t seem to mind.

“That,” Dell remarked after Steph left, “is why I love my son.”

Consider Michael Jordan, a famously competitive hobbyist who would stay up all hours -- even in the playoffs -- to demand rematches after losses and seethe when he couldn’t muster an eventual win, be it in golf, cards or billiards. Sure, Steph likes to win too, but golf is a release valve that helps him keep cool in the face of clanked triples and getting tugged, shadowed, and clobbered all game against a slow whistle.

“I think that’s what makes him special,” Dell told SB Nation. “The game is so fast, if you can compartmentalize, you can figure things out, it helps you slow the game, think about each shot.”

The public, conditioned to expect tortured conflict from superstars, often criticizes Curry’s easygoing, affable nature. But the truth is, being nice is Curry’s killer instinct.

By game time, Curry is both laser-focussed and loose. His famed warm-up routine has been aces, and even his misses are rattling in and out instead of going short or long. Bruce Fraser, a Warriors assistant and Curry’s shooting coach, has become something of a Curry-whisperer after watching the idiosyncrasies of his body language for years.

“I can just see how he’s shooting and moving, his focus, his eyes,” Fraser said. “I can’t describe it. I can just tell.”

When Fraser entered the locker room and joined Kerr and the rest of the coaching staff, they asked, as they often do, what they should expect from Curry that night.

“I told them he had a champion’s spirit at warm-up. You can count on him.”

Curry finished one rebound shy of a triple-double, and the Warriors advanced to the Finals.

San Antonio Spurs v Golden State Warriors - Game Two Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Two years ago, Curry dropped from the the top of the basketball world to the bottom after the 73-9 Warriors blew a 3-1 lead to the Cavaliers. The NBA’s first unanimous MVP, a household name -- with wife Ayesha and daughter Riley following -- was loved and reviled, but not quite respected. Another fantastic individual season would have offered the opportunity for redemption and an avenue into becoming a decades-long cultural and branding icon.

He undercut all that to recruit Durant, pushing the Warriors from perennial greats to a team that turned the championship race into an afterthought. He rejected the commercial largess of Michael Jordan and LeBron James for a move reminiscent of Tim Duncan and Bill Russell, cultural commanders for dynastic outfits.

Curry possesses too much individual bravado to revive their cold asceticism, but he toes the line, setting the tone for teammates who have also sacrificed money, shots, and playing time to play together. “Steph is way more outgoing,” said David West, who also played with Duncan. “He’s a big reason why it is the way it is: Loose, self-accountability, the level of ease the game comes to him.”

Sam Walker, author of The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams, compared Curry to Pele, the legendary Brazilian footballer who never coveted the captaincy of the national team, deferring leadership duties to Carlos Alberto Torres.

“That’s the perfect model,” Walker said. “Ultimately, Steph is the guy who is the most important part of the team, because he allows that structure to work. He makes it possible.”

A “Waaaarrrrrrrrrrrrriors” chant lines the walls of the raucous Oracle Arena in Game 1, and Curry, in possession of a 94-92 lead and Kevin Durant angling to set a pick, has designs on blowing the top off the building.

But Jeff Green shows on Curry, preventing the switch and denies the entry pass when Durant slips into the paint. Before Durant can post up, Curry flings a right-hand rainbow pass way over his 7’5” wingspan and considerable vertical leap. Curry throws his arms up in the air, making a fist. He cocks his grimacing face up toward the lights, his teeth clenched, talking to himself while plodding back on defense.

There, one rebound slips out of Curry’s hands and another one ends in Kevin Love to laying it in to tie the game. Curry shakes his head and slams the ball against the floor twice. He’s embodying the Warriors at their worst: careless, turnover-prone, and failing to summon the requisite effort.

After the game, LeBron’s incredulous stare after J.R. Smith dribbled the clock out with the game tied, and his disbelief when he found out the Cavs had a timeout and coach Tyronn Lue didn’t call one, dominates the conversation. The Cavs looked ashen, and frustration often begets frustration.

But Curry turns the frustration on himself, and churns out cognitive supremacy. The Warriors are now so accustomed to his mannerisms that they’ve become a subliminal language with classic Curry stylings: more slight nudge than blunt instrument. It’s a tool he uses to subtly emanate calm like Duncan, himself a skilled non-verbal communicator whose look and touch conveyed more information than any blustery speech.

“The eyes tell a lot,” said TNT analyst Brent Barry, who played with Duncan for years, and senses a similar depth to Curry’s stare. “There was a look that he could give with so much behind it. They always say the eyes are the jewel of the body, the window of the soul. There’s certain guys who can communicate with a look that I think transcends anything he can say to his teammates.”

Warriors president and COO Rick Welts, watching from the sideline, catches a glimpse of the Curry stare and turns to his companion. ‘He’s gonna take a shot right now.’

In fact, he doesn’t. Curry runs another pick-and-roll with Durant, waiting for him to establish position before throwing an entry pass and fills the lane, allowing Durant to play on an island against J.R Smith. When the double team comes, Curry points Durant to Draymond Green, open at the top of the arc, who drills his first 3-pointer in 10 tries.

But while Green is revving up, Curry points upward and starts twirling his fingers, signalling to Green that he should reset the offense. On the surface, this is an abnormal move for a star who is happy to direct traffic. But we’ve reached the portion of the game where Curry wants to be the one to undo his mistake.

“He gets a little more frenetic with his dribbling and his pace,” Fraser says. “I can see it when he starts to move differently that he’s in attack. Our team can feel that.”

The very next play, Curry rushes up the floor, brushes off Kevon Looney’s shoulder to get a mismatch on his favorite mark: Kevin Love. Curry crouches, opens his dribble to the left and crosses over to the right, sending the slow-footed Love backwards, and drills a three.

It’s hard to know what Curry wants. He trusts his teammates, but he also wants to dominate. He’s happy directing traffic, favoring Durant’s mismatch, but he also wants to turn Love into a highlight reel.

Lucky for the Warriors, Curry’s contradictory elements amount to great balancing act: “His communication style,” Welts told SB Nation, “is powerful yet subdued.” His cockiness induces calm; the shimmy is a celebration and team-wide sedative: Relax. He’s got this. It’s a duality only Curry can pull off that -- above all else -- has made these Warriors great.

Durant’s arrival carried with it the perception that the Warriors’ Silicon Valley stylings and “light years ahead” arrogance allowed them to stack the deck. They did find a cheat code, but not in an algorithm or a spreadsheet. It is Curry’s spirit, his accommodating nature, his regard for the team above all else.

As a result, the Warriors won their third title in four years, and Curry went another championship run without winning Finals MVP.

2018 NBA Finals - Game Three Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The game clock, alongside Cleveland’s championship hopes, has dwindled to its final minute in Game 3. Durant, who has already poured in 40 points, stands at the half-court logo with LeBron James in front of him, and waits for a screen from Curry. Rodney Hood switches onto Durant and he dribbles to the left wing, and waits for another screen from Andre Iguodala. Right as JR is about to switch, Durant pulls up for a 33-foot dagger and nails it.

Durant turns to his left and icily stares at the Quicken Loans Arena crowd, whose hearts he broke from the same spot -- save for a few feet -- last year. Durant, serious, almost business-like, walks into a throng of ecstatic faces on the Warriors bench. Stone-faced, he high-fives Curry, a portrait of pure joy, screaming in Durant’s face.

It’s the same look Curry had in Game 3 against the Rockets, when he put Trevor Ariza in the blender, drove to the rim, scored his 17th point of the third quarter, propped himself up, threw off his mouthpiece and announced to the Oracle Arena crowd, “This is my ****ing house.”


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