It is a common rhetorical trick for observers to commend an athlete by saying something along the lines of, “We’re privileged to have the opportunity to watch _____.” In fact, the opposite is every bit as true; the players are privileged to work in an age in which their work is most appreciated.
Thus, Stephen Curry is now the leading scorer in the history of the Philadelphia/San Francisco/Bakersfield/San Jose/Oakland/Sacramento/Richmond/Phoenix/Eugene/Seattle/Fresno/San Diego Warriors. Fueled by an artificial standard set in roughly half the time by Wilt Chamberlain, Curry’s achievement should be viewed at least partly in that context, as an acknowledgement that both men changed the game around them in different ways that raw numbers really don’t explain very well.
But there is a commonality between two men of two separate eras, and that is like Chamberlain at his prolific best, Curry went out and got what he wanted Monday night against Denver. He needed 19 points to pass Chamberlain’s Warriors’ points record and did so—in nine minutes, and nine shots.
Because Curry is a game-eater, though, he didn’t stop amusing the live audience of ghosts until he’d exhausted his evening on his terms: 53 points in 36 minutes on 24 shots in a ridiculous series of aggressively willful acts that had almost nothing to do with the fact that the Warriors are hanging on to the last play-in spot in the Western Conference by the marrow of their hands.
As Chamberlain chased 100 that night in Hershey against an army of literal hangers-on from the Knicks, so did Curry Monday night against a whirling phalanx of Nuggets defenders, from Nikola Jokic to Facundo Campazzo. The Warriors’ place in the standings was less relevant to Curry than perhaps at any time in his career. First, he chased his place in the lineup, then he chased team relevance, then he chased team excellence. Monday, he chased a relatively unimportant number, and he did it just because he wanted it.
He didn’t need it; it was nice to have, and sure he could have gotten it Wednesday in Oklahoma City or Thursday in Cleveland, two places where he’s scarred the locals in big moments. But having gotten it so quickly, as though his wife was waiting in the car for him to finish work, he hooked himself on his own endorphins and shredded the evening.
It is one more reveal in this stage of Curry’s career. Working relatively alone as the centerpiece of a strange team, Curry has tried to figure out how many shots he should take a night without becoming vintage-Rockets James Harden, while coaxing a mediocre team to the outer reaches of its competence. It is a team that loses to the Wizards and beats the Nuggets three days later. It loses to the Clippers by 26, beats Utah by 12 and loses to the Lakers by 29 all in four days. Their roster shrinks slowly as time goes on, and it is a wonderment they haven’t been passed by New Orleans, Sacramento, or even Oklahoma City by now. Only Curry saves them from their proper fate.
Monday night, though, with nothing to lose but a game in which they had neither center James Wiseman nor off-guard Kelly Oubre, and nobody over 6-foot-9 to deal with Jokic, Curry took care of his needs and did not wait for his teammates to follow along. It all worked, they did follow, and the Warriors won by a closer-than-visual-evidence-suggests 116-107. After thriving in an egalitarian system in which everyone of import figured how to interact as a team, he is winning more national admiration as a solo act, which probably galls him…
…except for those nights when he is a theatre troupe of one. Monday was one of his rare “festivals of me,” when he played nine minutes for posterity and the other 26 for himself. And nobody begrudged him a single moment of it.