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Stephen Curry's essential confidence

The MVP's game is built on an unshakable belief in his abilities.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Warriors are nearly as adept at winning hearts and minds as they are basketball games. There's a sense of wonderment about them that seems too good to be true. It's the same reason why we ask ourselves every day if the Spurs, Thunder or Cavs might yet have a shot at the title. We don't want it to happen, but the skeptic in all of us wants to know that it could happen. The alternative -- €”much like a 70-win team coasting all the way through the Finals -- €”is simply too otherworldly.

If the Warriors' popularity has an Achilles heel, it's Stephen Curry's demeanor. In a close game against the Hawks on Monday, Curry drained yet another impossibly deft three and went into his now-familiar shimmy routine right in front of their bench. He then proceeded to stare them down with that unmistakable gaze of his, where his bright eyes go momentarily blank and his soft features curdle into a death mask. The one that says, "I'm Steph Curry and this is what I do."

There's no suggestion that the clean-cut basketball messiah has tainted his brand. While Cam Newton's bravura sent shockwaves through the NFL, nothing that Curry does is especially notable within the context of the NBA. You need look no further than his teammate Draymond Green for evidence of that. Yet Curry's game is practically inconceivable without a sky-high level of confidence and he wears it on his sleeve. Swagger is an over-used term and one too often ascribed pejoratively (or parodically) to someone like Nick Young. But you can't play basketball like Stephen Curry without the firm belief that, when the ball is in your hands, anything is possible.

You don't get to "feeling it" like Steph Curry does unless you're also in a perpetual state of feeling yourself. Take Curry's trademark shot, the 30-foot three off the dribble. This move should be impossible to execute with any regularity, much less with the precision and accuracy that has made Curry so impossible to guard (and the Warriors so difficult to game-plan against). While there's no, "I can do this!" that accompanies every Steph Curry long bomb, the fact remains that at some point, Curry had to believe, maybe even decide to believe, that it was possible. Every time that shot goes down, it affirms this conviction. And so Steph celebrates.

Granted, a lot of what Curry performs on the court crosses over into taunting. Then again, if we're going to penalize Curry for emphasis and intimidation, then sportsmanship and competition find themselves at odds with each other. Drawing attention to big plays is as much about sending a message to the other team as it is glorifying individual heroics. When the Warriors depend so heavily on psyching out opponents, Curry's showboating is just another healthy reminder that teams have no answer for him or his squad. There's a reason why there's no such thing as a sore winner. Stephen Curry is scary as hell. And he has every right to make sure the whole world knows it.

There remains, however, the nagging issue of ego. It's naïve to think that Curry takes no special joy in drubbing opponents. But there's a lot of middle ground between being a nihilistic asshole and a humble sap. In fact, throughout all of the interrogation of Curry's attitude, there's been little suggestion that he's lacking humility. If anything, the dissonance between this part of his personality and these fleeting on-court moments is what makes them so salient. Except the dirty little secret is that a certain amount of swagger isn't just natural, it's fun and it also provides top-notch entertainment value. Anyone moralizing around Curry is taking up arms against the culture of the NBA -- €”and against a product that's proven to be quite successful on its own terms.

What makes Steph so galvanic is his playfulness. His Atlanta shimmy wasn't just a cold-hearted gesture of a late-game assassin, it was also a celebration of the moment -- €”for himself, for his team, and for the benefit of former Warrior Kent Bazemore, a close friend who had a prime seat for Curry's moves. Per usual, there was never the slightest intimation that Curry was showing off or defiling the game. If anything, in the same way that his love of the game is infectious, the object here is something larger than his own ego. Curry's religiosity is well-documented and you could use his faith to bracket this entire discussion. The language of conviction, confidence, miracle-making, and even implied superiority can be traced back directly to not Curry, but to his belief in a higher power.

That swagger doesn't come from Steph, it simply flows through him. Granted, it's a stretch to extend this interpretation to staring down opposing benches or clumps of fans. But there's a reason why Curry, like so many players, gestures upward after a big shot. In the NBA, the line between self-aggrandizement and all praise due to the most high can be a fuzzy one. You could even say that, when Curry celebrates, he affirms his faith and understandably, this makes him happy. It's a hard concept for some of us to grasp -- €”that a moment of utter egoism could also be couched in gratitude -- €”but it's hardly a paradox. It's why athletes regularly thank Jesus after a big game. It's why Kanye's The Life of Pablo isn't a staggering mess of an idea.

When Kevin Durant started showing more emotion on the court, it was taken as a sign that Durant had somehow developed a chip on his shoulder (unnecessary -- €”all athletes have one, whether real or imagined) or gotten some much needed edge. Over the years, though, we've become comfortable with the more vocal Durant exactly because it feels so unforced. When we construe a player as having ulterior motives, a celebration feels like excess. But when they play with utter joy, there's nothing more natural. When they're also upstanding dudes like Curry or KD, this perceived liability actually becomes an asset.

If you feel otherwise, either you're collateral damage or you're the one with an attitude problem.

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