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Explain One Play: Improving Stephen Curry ends game with back-to-back threes

Curry, starting to recover some MVP 2.0 form, bombed in two threes that blew open the Warriors-Magic game on Jan. 22, 2017.

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Oklahoma City Thunder v Golden State Warriors
“Riley, if you’re watching, go to bed!”
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Orlando was hanging in there, down 79-70 with the ball with under three minutes left in the third quarter, when they suddenly became a victim of the improving Stephen Curry.

Quick review of Stephen Curry’s slump

Okay, it’s a relative slump. Last column, we discussed how Curry’s current counting stat line (24.6/4.2/6.1/1.8) has only been done 16 times in NBA history, and never on a True Shooting % of 62.5. And he leads the league in hockey assists and guard-screen assists — by a lot.

Let’s compare this year to his MVP 1.0 season using these crass counting stats: Curry 2014-15 had (23.8/4.3/7.7/2.0). If this year followed MVP 1.0, we might be talking about how great it is that Curry’s bumped up his scoring from MVP levels. But what about his assists and other areas of the game? Certainly a comparable season.

So, it’s not a bad year at all.

But, come on, we all know he’s not the same as MVP 2.0. Last year, he fired in about 1.5 more threes per game than anyone in history, and they were all about the greatest heat-check shots you’ve ever seen.

The statistics and the eyeball agreed: Curry had not been hitting his off-the-dribble shots nearly as well. He also hadn’t been as reliable from logo distance. I mean, only for Curry could you even consider the concept of reliability from logo distance, as no one had ever had a green light from outer space, much less ever showed consistency from there.

Curry’s recent improvement

Since the healthy cleanse of the Christmas Cavaliers game, and the reset of the offense to put Curry on the ball in the pick-and-roll, Curry has shot 50-120 (41.7%) from three. This is still a notch below Curry’s standard (44% career). But what is very encouraging is we’ve seen Curry take and make more off-the-dribble threes and more logo threes.

By comparing current data to Danny Leroux’s nice deep dive from five games ago, we can see that in the last five games, Curry has made 11 out of 23 off-the-dribble 3s, for a 48% clip, which is far better than his bad 29% shooting until then, and comparable to his previous seasons (43% in MVP 2.0).

A small sample, but a very promising one.

Back to the game

From 79-70, Kevin Durant pushed the ball in transition to find Ian Clark for a corner three. Then Andre Iguodala chipped in a free-throw. Now at 84-70 with the ball, the Magic are reeling and trying to maintain contact.

Instead, they get an unforced turnover, and Curry twice tries to force-feed Clark. Let’s see how it turns out:

After a great (as usual) outlet pass from Draymond Green, Curry declines a challenged, but makeable, layup to feed Clark in the corner.

One of the most endearing bad basketball traits of the Warriors is their commitment to force-feed any player that gets hot. For a role player like Clark or JaVale McGee, that means basically after they make any basket.

So Clark misses the corner three, McGee creates the offensive rebound in his own awkward hustle way, and then Curry again passes up an open free-throw jumper to force-feed Clark. They know Clark’s been scuffling a bit recently, and you can see Curry wants to get him going. Clark makes a nice drive-and-dish to Curry, who hits the little off-the-dribble side-Steph move.

On the very next play, Elfrid Payton drives — he got to the basket at will today against Curry and Clark. Notice how Green completely concedes Aaron Gordon’s corner three in order to stop Payton’s drive. Gordon is shooting 31.4% from three, so it’s not a bad trade-off. He misses, and the break is on.

The first thing you notice is Curry’s logo shot. Very nice — it’s a 20-point lead and the game is basically over. But also notice how Iguodala dribble-pitched to Curry and then cut by Curry’s defender, forcing a subtle switch on the perimeter. Jeff Green takes a split-second to register that he’s now defending Curry, and that gives Curry more than enough time to wind up for the logo shot.

Other note: JaVale McGee is continually hitting the deck in awkward ways. I’m concerned he’s going to injure someone.

Final thoughts

There were several non-foolish theories about Curry’s slump:

  • Curry takes a half-year to really warm up, if you look at his career. MVP 2.0 was so unusual because Curry started the season heat-check white-hot. This summer Curry didn’t even play ball due to injuries, so he was more behind than usual.
  • Curry was deferring to Kevin Durant and not taking as many crazy shots due to better options.
  • Curry was second-guessing his own aggressive attack because of Durant, the new offense, and also the need to get shots for Klay Thompson and everyone else.
  • Curry’s knee and ankle hadn’t fully healed and that prevented strong lateral moves and messed up Curry’s off-the-dribble timing.

I happen to think all the theories are true. And every single one of these theories points to Curry getting better and stronger as the season goes on (except, possibly, if the knee isn’t healing right).

I don’t think we’ll ever see MVP 2.0 again — that combination of absurd skill plus unlimited green light plus the knowledge Curry had to be superhuman for the W’s to win. But I’d be pretty excited to see MVP 1.3 this season and today was a good first step.

If you want to read more video breakdowns — one for well-nigh every Warriors’ win since 2015 — check out the Explain One Play Mega-Index, searchable and sortable by player, play, team and date.

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