We hit this point every year, where the games seem not to matter very much and all the best teams are just trying to get into the playoffs with their full roster intact. It’s usually a March phenomenon, but we’re time-shifted this go round, with the postseason starting in mid-May rather than late April. We normally spend some of this period yammering about the MVP race, but the limits of our collective imagination, forces that dictate we must always be having the Most Important conversations have rendered than an ongoing debate that kicks off around game 20 and spends itself entirely by All-Star Weekend. Having smoked the whole pack, what we’re left with is the tar-ghostly aftertaste of some really inconsequential basketball, in the midst of a season soaked in ennui. Everybody has to muddle through, and they will. The world will soon feel like a less forbidding place, NBA players will stop making small talk with their hotel room walls, and we’ll all get a little more free.
In the meantime, the only thing worth following is Steph Curry. With Klay Thompson’s Achilles tear, James Wiseman’s up and down and now-kaputt season, Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre’s “help,” and Draymond Green settling firmly into early old age, this is Steph’s Kobe-in-the-wilderness year. He’s carrying a hodge-podge and deathly not-great Warriors squad toward an early playoff defeat, because that is literally the most he can do. If he doesn’t break 30 points on a given night, they’re completely screwed. Last week, he posted 47 and Golden State lost to Boston by five.
His April numbers: 11 games, 38.7 PPG on 52.7 percent shooting, plus 4.7 APG and 6.3 RPG. He’s taking nearly 24 shots a night. This isn’t unprecedented, we’ve seen others like Harden and Durant go on tears like this before, but the volume is jarringly un-Steph. The single thing that has contributed most to our idea of Curry as a generational star is that he puts up big numbers with ridiculous efficiency, and he does it largely without breaking the structure of the offense. Lots of really good players could have won a title alongside Klay and Draymond and Durant, but not many of them—perhaps none of them—could have flourished while still ceding the necessary ground to all those other talents. Steph’s got glue guy traits, which seems almost incongruous with his status as the best shooter who’s ever lived.
Transcendent scorers tend to be selfish—as they should be, since firing away generally helps their teams win. Steph prefers to apply his gifts less heavy-handedly. But this season, with no workable structure to break and no awesome teammates to get in the way of, he’s accepted that he simply needs to get shots up. A staggering number of them are coming from deep—57.6 percent of them, to be exact—he’s setting all kinds of weird records related to three-point marksmanship. That they all count—they’re all coming in genuine efforts to erase deficits and hold onto leads, because the Warriors don’t have much firepower outside of Steph—is the most impressive part. The stakes are low, relatively speaking, but Steph isn’t playing like they are. He’s giving it everything he’s got, as if these April games were playoff contests, and it’s exciting to see how expansive he can get, how much blank space he can fill.
Next year, things will go back to normal. The Warriors might not get back to the title-winning ways, they won’t even be nailed-on contenders to start, but the general assumption is that if Klay returns to some solid approximation of his previous form, they won’t be fighting for their playoff lives in the spring. This cannot be overstated: Juan Toscano-Anderson has been an important player for the 2020-21 Warriors; Kelly Oubre has been starting every game and playing 31 minutes. This is a barely serviceable basketball team, as currently constituted.
In fact, we rarely see squads this bad around older superstars these days. Franchise players who have endured their rookie contracts and restricted free agency don’t have much patience for mediocrity and don’t appreciate having to perform nightly heroics over many months just to nab an eight-seed. (See: the bearded fellow who no longer plays in Houston.) This makes perfect sense. Athletic careers are brief, and what you’ve got to give today might not be there a year or two from now, so you want to make the most of it. (See: the goateed fellow who tore his ACL, then his Achilles.) But that is part of the appeal of what Steph Curry is doing right now, is that it’s strange. It’s strange to see him chucking and it’s strange to see it contributing to an effort that’s utterly doomed. If this doesn’t amount to more than a spectacular diversion, that is coincidentally exactly what this part of the calendar calls for. All that’s available is basketball that doesn’t mean much. Steph is making sure some of it is as bright and dramatic as possible.