SAN FRANCISCO — The question stumped Steph Curry.
Who would he place all of his money on in a game of one-on-one: present-day Steph or the 2016 version, when he was the unanimous NBA MVP?
Speaking to FOX Sports in the hall of the Warriors‘ practice facility last week, Curry laughed and looked up at the ceiling, taking a few seconds to contemplate.
“Damn, that’s a good question,” Curry said. “I mean, it’s pretty even still. Yeah, it’s still even. I might be able to cover more ground back then. But I could probably take my 2016 self to the block. So, it would be a good, even match.”
Curry turned 35 last month and had a brilliant season — 29.4 points, 6.3 assists and 6.1 rebounds per game. But a year after winning another title, the Warriors struggled to finish much above .500 (44-38) and are now facing an entirely new challenge: No defending championship team has ever recovered from a 2-0 deficit in the first round. Four other teams have fallen short, three getting swept. The Warriors face the Sacramento Kings in Game 3 Thursday.
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There’s no denying that he is just as dangerous as he was seven years ago. After Game 1, Kings star De’Aaron Fox weighed in on the challenge of guarding him.
“Did y’all see that clip of JR Smith talking about Delly?” Fox asked, referring to when Smith said on a podcast that Matthew Dellavedova “almost died” while guarding Curry during the 2015 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“”That s— is real.”
Curry has devoted himself to making Father Time as ineffective as possible at slowing him down.
He has gained about 15 pounds of muscle since 2016 to be able to withstand bumps from defenders, compensating for any microscopic losses in speed. He has poured himself into pregame workouts and post-game recovery regimens, trying to gain every possible advantage.
But despite leading the Warriors to six NBA Finals appearances and four championships over the past eight years, he has never been down 2-0 in a series. He’s well aware of the potential ramifications of not being able to dig his team out of the hole.
Simply put: It could be the last dance for the Warriors’ dynasty.
Draymond Green, an integral piece who has been suspended for Game 3 following an altercation with Domantas Sabonis, can become a free agent this summer. Warriors general manager Bob Myers’ contract is up in July. And Klay Thompson has just one year left on his deal, and reportedly expects a max-level contract extension this offseason.
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But for Curry, all the looming contract situations aren’t daunting.
“There’s no extra pressure because of any of that,” Curry said. “Back then, the pressure was as great as it is now. It’s just we were trying to get max contracts and all that stuff and get rewarded that way, but also win at the highest level and keep doing it year after year. So, it’s the same thing now. It’s just the context is a little different with some unknowns that will shake themselves out. But the only way we get here is if it’s about winning. And we’ve been able to maintain that for the most part throughout this whole run.”
Curry is seemingly always unfazed, both on and off the court.
He plays with so much joy, something so rare for an all-time great. The pursuit of being the best is often miserable, fueled by mental bulletin boards of naysayers projecting failure.
But for Curry, it’s different.
He’s driven by his deep love of the game rather than simply wanting to be the best.
He explained the nuance, calling the latter “a selfish pursuit.”
“There might be a subtle difference to being the best because it’s, ‘Look at me’ and being the best because the competition is so much fun and because you enjoy the competition, you don’t want to lose,” Curry said.
“It’s not like I need to walk around and say, ‘I’m the best point guard in the world’ and that really inflates my ego. I don’t need that. It’s the confidence of ‘I can compete with anybody out there’ and I love winning, and to be in that atmosphere you know what it takes to prepare yourself for that.”
That’s why Curry continues to work so hard.
This season, he shot 49.3% from the field and 42.7% shooting from beyond the arc. After Curry’s second 50-point performance this season in which he made eight 3-pointers on 71.4% shooting last month, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said it “ranks up there with some of the greatest individual performances I’ve ever seen from him.”
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Curry’s longtime trainer, Brandon Payne, believes he’s just now starting to play his best basketball. (In fact, he believes 2023 Curry would kick 2016 Curry’s butt in a game of one-on-one.)
“He was a little later at developing physically than some guys,” Payne said. “He’s just hitting that physical peak now in his early-to-mid-30s that a lot of guys hit in their mid-to-late 20s. It just became easier for him to gain that muscle and that strength. He has a grown-man body.”
The intensity of Curry and Payne’s offseason workouts are well-documented. Payne says he’s wowed by Curry every workout. But there’s one thing that happened last offseason that they still talk about.
They were in London, about to catch a train to Paris. Before they had to leave, Payne designed a seemingly impossible sequence that he called “The Perfection Drill” in which he wanted Curry to try to go around the 3-point line and back, making 20 straight shots in both catch-and-shoot and one-dribble pull-up situations, followed by 10 straight made free throws. Oh, and only six of those shots were allowed to touch the rim.
Curry kept falling short. Their train was about to leave. Payne started sweating. He kept suggesting that they wrap up for the day. But Curry refused to quit.
“Finally, he got so hot that I don’t think a single ball touched the rim,” Payne said. “He made 20 consecutive shots going around and coming back, alternating range, and he made all 10 free throws. Maybe one or two of the free throws touched the rim. I can’t tell you the level of difficulty that is. It’s impossible. Since then, he has accomplished it a bunch of times. That’s impossible for 99.9999 percent of the population, even the basketball-playing population. And he can make it look routine.”
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As for how much longer we’ll be able to witness his greatness, Curry isn’t sure.
“I’m not there in terms of putting a limit on it,” he said. “It’s just a matter of gauging how long I can sustain this level and, as your career evolves, what does that mean for you to be productive as time goes on. A fair assumption is I’d love to be playing for at least four more years. Who knows, it could be more.”
As Curry has gotten older, those around him marvel at his approach.
For teammate Jordan Poole, it’s his consistency. For Kerr, it’s his unquenchable thirst to improve. For Green, it’s his desire to win.
“That hasn’t waned one bit,” Green said. “If anything, it’s gotten stronger. So, I think it’s that. A lot of times you see guys lose the love for it, lose the love for the preparation. For him, I’ve watched that get stronger. You start to see guys take shortcuts, like, ‘Man, I don’t feel like doing that today.’ It’s just continued to get stronger and stronger for him, so it’s no surprise that he’s able to play at the level he’s playing at.”
Before games, Curry now devotes an hour every morning to doing activation drills. He’s conscious of how much sleep he gets, when he naps, what food he eats. Then, after he arrives at the arena, he spends an extra hour on top of what he used to do preparing his body for action.
“It’s harder to get ready for games – or I shouldn’t say harder, it takes longer to get ready for games,” Curry said. “… Ten years ago, it didn’t really matter what I did two hours before a game. I could step out there and be fresh and ready to go. It’s a process now. If you skip any of that process, you feel out of sorts, or you don’t feel as primed or as ready for the game.”
Curry also approaches off days much differently than in the past.
“I used to just get a massage and be cool,” Curry said. “Now it’s like you’ve got a whole bunch of gadgets and light therapy and sauna and all the type of stuff that could be anywhere from an hour to three hours … In the playoffs, everything is magnified in terms of doing all that every single day and all day, just to get yourself primed.”
For Curry, the situation he’s in right now is unchartered territory. But at his age, he also has some distinct advantages.
“You see the game a little easier and the game slows down a little bit every year just based on experience and the reps you’ve gone through the last 14 years,” he said.
All eyes are going to be on him as the Warriors return home to Chase Center for Games 3 and 4, where they were 33-8 this season compared to their woeful road record of 11-30.
The pressure is on for Curry to respond, to use his eye-popping heroics to turn things around for his team, to do something that has never been done, especially with Green out.
But for him, when the odds are stacked against him, he has had a history of persevering.
He transformed from being an undersized, scrawny high schooler who wasn’t heavily recruited into arguably the greatest shooter of all-time.
He didn’t panic in 2019 when everyone thought the Warriors were done for after Klay Thompson suffered a torn ACL and Kevin Durant decided to leave the Warriors for the Brooklyn Nets. He didn’t even panic the next two seasons when the Warriors missed the playoffs. Instead, he responded by leading the Warriors to a championship last season.
And he’s not about to panic now.
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He just appreciates the opportunity to compete at the highest level once again. For him, this is the ultimate fun.
“When you’re younger, you feel invincible and the timeline of your career doesn’t really make any sense to you, it’s not on your radar,” Curry said. “Now, you get reminded of your age all the time, you get reminded of how many years you’ve been in the league. And, ‘Oh, you’re doing things that have never been done at this age.’ So, it’s a reminder not to take it for granted because the game will end at some point. Because I genuinely love hooping, that puts more gas in that tank.”
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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