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Stephen Curry’s mean streak surfaces and propels him to a two-way performance for the ages

Lesson learned: Don’t make Steph angry.

Golden State Warriors v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Clippers caught one heck of a stray bullet.

Stephen Curry was livid. He thought he should’ve gotten a foul on this drive against Terance Mann. Curry had Mann beat, but Mann was lurking close by, preparing to block the shot from behind. The legitimacy of the foul/non-foul is up for interpretation, and both sides of the argument do have their merits.

You be the judge:

A misconception some people hold about Curry is that he plays the game solely with a pure sense of joy and jubilee. Such a demeanor stands contrary to what many people consider as “alpha” traits that traditional superstars in the mold of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant possessed.

Curry rarely snarls or growls at opponents. He elects to smile and laugh, rather than talk trash and exchange barbs with his adversaries. He doesn’t walk with an air of a cool, calm, and collected killer on the court. He wears his exuberance on his sleeves, an infectious trait among his fans and admirers, and an obnoxious characteristic to those whose teams fall victim to several of his legendary flurries.

While joy is the main emotion that fuels his play, it doesn’t hold a complete monopoly over his psyche. Curry’s fuse is longer than most. But like most people, that fuse has an endpoint attached to an explosive — one that combusted against the Clippers, triggered by the perceived slight and injustice Curry received on that non-call.

Once that endpoint was reached, there was no turning back. Since there was no direct way of taking out his anger on the officials — lest he incur another technical foul, which would’ve resulted in an ejection — Curry instead honed in on his immediate adversaries.

It may have also helped that the Warriors started running simple and straightforward ball-screen action for Curry. Double drag screens set Curry loose, and a failure to jump out to crowd his space allowed him to pull up from well within his wheelhouse — which is pretty much anywhere from the half-court line to the rim.

But it was his final pull-up three — where the result belied the difficulty of having to fade to the left, against two defenders closing in — that served as the pièce de résistance. Not only was it the final dagger that secured the fate of the Clippers; it was a stark reminder to anyone who was in the vicinity that underneath Curry’ s Golden-Boy reputation, child-like demeanor, and million-dollar smile was a relentless mean streak that took no prisoners.

Ball-screen action for Curry proved to be effective against the Clippers, mostly because their policy in guarding him around ball screens — as it is for most other teams in the league — is to throw two defenders at him to force the ball out of his hands. Such a policy clearly did not work in the possessions above, due to the element of an additional ball screen making it difficult to hedge or blitz.

But on typical single high ball screens, Curry is used to seeing defenses sell out on him and live with a 4-on-3 backline disadvantage, banking on anyone not named Curry to create shots. This is a dance that Curry and his ball-screen partners have perfected throughout the years, and such a problem is easily solved when the screener involved is capable of quick decision making.

Green is often the one that comes to mind — but Juan Toscano-Anderson is slotting in quite nicely as a short-roll maestro in the making:

The sequences above were born out of doubling Curry off the ball screen. Stashing Otto Porter Jr in the strong-side corner, coupled with Toscano-Anderson’s ability to process things as instantaneously as they develop, produces efficient offense. Both instances force the Clippers to commit a cardinal sin on defense: helping one pass away from the strong-side corner.

While Curry did his usual damage on offense, he added to his rapidly growing portfolio of shrewd defensive plays. Always somewhat downplayed for his perceived lack of defensive chops, the one constant that he has always had was high-energy motor. He can fly around and rotate, as well as anticipate passes made in the half court, combining it with impeccable timing to deflect and/or intercept them.

Half of his 6 steals came on jumping passing lanes and making a turnover-prone Clippers team pay for their indiscretion:

Curry is averaging 1.8 steals per game, the highest it’s been in five seasons. His steal rate of 2.2% places him at the 80th percentile among point guards, per Cleaning The Glass. His 2.7 deflections per game is 12th among 95 guards who average at least 25 minutes per game, per NBA.com/stats.

Curry’s defense has always been overlooked and, to some extent, scoffed at — mainly because of how inherently disadvantaged he is as a defender. His relatively short stature and slight frame runs opposite to the ideal defensive profile. His otherwise nondescript lateral movement doesn’t jump off the page, and athletic guards often get the step on him.

But what Curry lacks in natural gifts, he makes up for with effort, positioning, and timing. Years of being hunted by teams with offensive superstars have sharpened his ability to prevent such mismatches from occurring in the first place.

The Clippers were no different. They tried matching Curry up with Paul George on several occasions, including through ball screens set by Curry’s man in an attempt to isolate him on an island against the bigger Clippers superstar.

Curry had the perfect rebuttal:

Partnered with Toscano-Anderson, Curry prevents the mismatch from happening by hedging and recovering. The second hedge baits George into making a mid-air pass — almost always a recipe for disaster.

But not every attempt to switch was preventable, especially during transition situations, where the mindset as a defender is to pick up the man closest to you. Curry ends up getting cross-matched against George in transition during one possession, and the Clippers unsurprisingly attempt to attack him.

This should’ve been an easy overpower or simple turnaround jumper against a much smaller man, but Curry had other plans:

George tries to move him in the post, but Curry puts up quite a resistance by staying low and pushing against George’s base. When George resorts to using his length to get off a jumper, he soon realizes that it was Curry’s plan all along — Curry anticipates the turnaround and executes a perfect strip of the ball.

Curry’s 33 points against the Clippers on 22 shots, 5-of-9 on twos, 7-of-13 on threes, and 72.1% True Shooting was your typical sublime stat line from a player of his caliber — but the way he went about his business in trying to stamp his superiority over the opposing team was captivating.

If there’s a lesson to be learned by everyone from this two-way performance, it’s that Curry — untypically unselfish and forgiving for a superstar of his caliber, but typical for a man of his character — has an edge to him that takes extra prodding for it to reveal itself.

But once the conditions are ripe, and he feels like he’s gotten the short end of the stick, Curry has no qualms about taking his anger out on whoever gets in his way. His demeanor changes from that of a clean-cut babyface to a vicious heel, wronged long enough to see himself turn into a proverbial villain.

And — literally and figuratively — all it took was a little push.