Steve Nash never played like this. Of all of the historical comparisons Stephen Curry draws, Nash seems to be the most accurate and persistent. Like Nash, Curry is a whipsmart director with the ball, always knowing where to find the weakness in the defense and the open teammate. Like Nash, Curry is a dead-on shooter. He's creative but controlled, quick but deliberate and loads of fun to watch.
But Steve Nash never played like this. As Bethlehem Shoals discussed Friday in his great piece on the lack of Curry's villainy, Steph takes some crazy shots. Shots that would make Nick Young blush. Shots you'd see J.R. Smith take. Even the shot on which Curry broke Reggie Miller's long-standing record for most threes in a postseason -- a record broken only 12 games in, by the way -- is an absurd 28-foot pull-up. This is a shot only four or five guys in the league can attempt without getting yanked by their coaches.
And Curry sinks it with ease.
This is what makes Curry so special: he plays by a completely different set of rules than even most NBA superstars. There really is no bad play for Curry on offense. If he drives the lane, he can hit tough floaters, finger rolls and acrobatic layups, or he can hit the open teammate. If he pulls up from anywhere, he's got a good chance of sinking the shot. The only flaw in Curry's offensive game is his sometimes high rate of turnovers; even those carry a majestic air of attempted brilliance. Every miscue is committed in the pursuit of sublimity, and as such every miscue is excused. To critique Curry's rare offensive failures would be akin to scolding Michelangelo for dripping a little paint on the floor of the Sistine Chapel.
LeBron James is equally dominant, a fact of which the Hawks have been acutely reminded. But LeBron's hegemony in the East is predicated on physical dominance of a more traditional sort. King James is a titan with the skills of hummingbird; there's literally no man on the planet who has remotely a similar physiological make-up. Add in his historic basketball IQ and willingness to share glory and you have a one-of-a-kind player. Yet he is the prototypical perfect basketball player. If you were designing a basketball player in a lab, you'd get LeBron. On paper and often in practice, he's perfect.
Curry is slight, small and wiry; he's not the best leaper and there are 10 point guards who could beat him in a foot race. Shooting is the equalizer. If you can shoot like Steph, you don't need to beat anyone in a foot race or outjump opponents. If you can legitimately pull up from 30 feet and not immediately give your coach an ulcer, you don't need to be able to withstand punishment in the lane. This is how Curry upsets the prototype of the perfect NBA player: his willingness to fully embrace the gunner lifestyle and ability to succeed in that fashion has thrown out so many attributes we once thought vital in an elite scorer.
Allen Iverson was the quickest man on any court, and as fearless as a cow in a vegan restaurant. LeBron is a physical and mental specimen without compare. Kevin Durant is the longest pure two-guard ever conceived. Russell Westbrook can fly in every sense of that word. James Harden and Carmelo Anthony have bags of tricks that have bags of tricks. Curry is none of that. He's pure sniper, unabashed and unmatched.
All of Shoals' reasons Curry is universally beloved are accurate: he's a traditional babyface in the parlance of pro wrestling, a moral champ who plays up the part at every opportunity. Until now, that is. Game 3 showed a new side of Steph. After a crazy save and corner three in the midst of a 35-point win, Curry gave nearby fans the business.
Our last babyface NBA superstar, Durant, needed an ad campaign and a media feud to prove to us he was not nice. Curry, armed with an MVP, a few lines in the NBA record book and perhaps soon a ring, is getting more demonstrative every night. Curry's confidence is slowly creeping toward cockiness; we can appreciate his phenomenal swag while understanding the typical American sports fan prefers humility in the field of play. Staring down the crowd like that is akin to a bat flip and a strut. Basketball fans aren't baseball fans, but Curry's star is now ensconced in the national sports conversation. He is physically unable to scowl, look tough or otherwise mean-mug a soul. But he's getting cocky, and that's going to change his persona.
Most importantly, though, villains and legends are made in the playoffs. LeBron is reviled in Boston, Chicago and Indiana because of what he's done to those cities' teams in the postseason. MJ is hated in Salt Lake, Seattle, New York and Cleveland because of his triumphs. Kobe is booed in Sacramento, San Antonio, Phoenix and Portland because he won. And long before Durant had detractors nationwide, he was not well-liked among basketball fans in Memphis, L.A. or Texas.
Success breeds hate. For every triumph there is defeat; all celebrations are mirrored with brooding. This is Curry's first deep run into the playoffs. He's using the opportunity to breed lots of haters in Houston. Perhaps Cleveland is next. No man, not even Stephen Curry, is sweet enough to make rivals smile through the level of pain he inflicts.
SB Nation presents: Reporters need to shut up and do their jobs