In an attempt to better understand the extreme temperatures in the sun and the cores of gas planets like Jupiter and Saturn, astrophysicists created what is called "hot dense matter." To do this, they shot a piece of aluminum the size of a postage stamp with the world’s most powerful x-ray. This x-ray focuses its laser pulses to a point a third of the size of a single blood cell. The result? The aluminum exploded like a volcano and reached 3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit, momentarily making the plasma it created the hottest thing on earth. This idea of hot dense matter has become the only way I’ve been willing to describe Stephen Curry when he has it going.
With Curry, it doesn’t make sense to ignore the urge to supercharge all superlatives with hyperbole; it’s what his game asks of us. He has a lissome frame and moves with a sophistication that transcends precision. He is a ball handler of great imagination and a shooter who inspires reverence. He simultaneously maintains a heart of gold while ripping out the hearts of others. He is everything good about the NBA and has a game that’s perfect for the way we consume basketball today.
What makes Curry so interesting to watch is his kinetics; he nearly validates the laws of basic geometry. We’ve watched him transversally slice through defenders using the most acute angles. The form for each jumper is congruent, his elbow bends at a right angle as he rises for the release — the gooseneck rests at 45 degrees during the follow through. All catch-and-shoot jumpers are his reflexive property, and if the shot drops, whether off the dribble, a pin down or a curl, it’s transitive at worst. Stephen Curry is 9th grade math, and the rest of the NBA is failing to understand it. Miserably.
He’s fun because he’s created new realities out of a season-long sequence of unreal individual moments. The importance of Steph’s season cannot be found when we look at his body of work as a single entity in the way that we could with the memorable seasons from those who preceded him. Every moment in every game is unique unto itself, and this is a quality that is unique unto Curry. His game is a pastiche of no one who came before him, and this is why he’s become appointment television — and when you can’t get to a TV, you can vicariously relive his greatest hits in social media. No player is more Vine-ready than young Curry; singular moments are his essence.
Not enough is said about the joy Curry brings to the game by shooting the basketball. He’s somehow hacked the jump shot and made an incredible shooting display just as exciting as an incredible dunk. He’s not the first unbelievable shooter the NBA has seen, and statistically, he isn’t the best shooter in the league this season. He may be the most unique, though, shooting many more three-pointers off the dribble than any other deep specialist past or present. He has an unusual confidence that allows him to play a subversive brand of basketball — one that allowed for my single favorite play of the season.
Off a dribble-handoff from Shaun Livingston, Steph pulled up from the left wing and let the ball fly. He knew it. Livingston knew it. The crowd knew it. The folks watching on TV knew it. By the time Steph heard the roar of the crowd that he already knew was coming, he was near mid-court, hand in the air, celebrating a 3-pointer that he didn’t even need to watch go in — there were enough eyes in the building to watch the ball ripple through the net for him. To have his back turned to the action he created, and to celebrate by pounding his chest before the rest of the arena dared to join in, is elitism realized in the most perfunctory way possible.
Despite being one of the most entertaining scorers the league has to offer, his altruistic nature is what ostensibly drives these Warriors as a unit — and it's a huge part of his appeal for fans at large. His ability to pass the ball with virtuosity wows crowds and inspires teammates to move the ball themselves. On their way to a league-leading 63 wins as of April 7, the Warriors are also leading the league in team assists, an effort spearheaded by Curry’s 7.7 per contest (8.5 per 36).
On the season, the Warriors have 54 games with at least 25 team assists. They had 33 such games last season. This improved ball movement is partially attributed to improved coaching and improvement from Curry’s teammates, but a lot of it is Curry’s general threat as a basketball player. Earlier in the season, ESPN’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss said, “Steph’s biggest strength against opposing defenses isn’t his ability to shoot the three, but the threat to shoot it.”1 There’s a lot of truth to this. I can’t count the number of times a defender unnecessarily closed out on Steph too hard for fear of the shot, only to get taken out of the play. Defenses rotate, the ball moves, and it ends in an easy, assisted bucket near the rim or behind the perimeter. Steph’s shot has always been a weapon, but the maturity to understand how defenses are playing him and the ever-growing number of opportunities to get his teammates the ball are what have added most to his personal and his team’s successes.
Who knows what the not too distant future holds for Curry and the Warriors? There may or may not be individual awards, there may or may not be the ultimate team success in the postseason, but he’ll always have the moments that defined a season we won’t forget. The slippery 1-2 he gave Chris Paul, the wrap-around dime to Harrison Barnes, and the endless number of heat check three-pointers that inevitably graced the nylon — all of these are a part of a season that will forever remain in NBA lore. And in those games that he was really hot, the ball caught fire, turning every one of those wet jumpers into the steam that would fuel an MVP campaign many feel is his to lose.
In a season full of 3-point lasers, Steph has become hot dense matter.
1. The quote was paraphrased as I could not find the original tweet.
Phillip Barnett featuring Phillip Barnett.