Steph Curry did not need to score 46 points in last night’s regular-season finale against the Memphis Grizzlies in order to win the 2021 NBA scoring title. He had that award cinched up by the time he had scored his second bucket of the game. If this were 2017, and the Warriors were coasting into the playoffs after laying waste to the rest of the league throughout the regular season, Curry probably would have spent most of the rest of the game on the bench, enjoying a job well done and thinking about who he might have to face in the Finals. But these are not those Warriors, and this is not the same Steph Curry who so willingly made room for Kevin Durant. With the scoring title in hand, Curry went on to unleash a career high in both shots (36) and three-point attempts (22) in a 113-101 win, which in turn clinched the Western Conference’s eight seed for the Warriors. Curry and the Warriors will now get to face the Lakers in a play-in game on Wednesday, the results of which are guaranteed to launch four million insufferable takes, regardless of outcome.
I am not going to be some kind of psychopath and insist that people are somehow not paying enough attention to Steph Curry, one of the greatest and most attention-grabbing athletes in the world, but I do think Curry’s 2020–21 season was a special one. Not because of where his season statistics ended up—nobody is shocked to discover that Curry is capable of scoring 31 points per game and shooting 42 percent from three-point range—but because of how they ended up there. Curry took more threes per game than he ever has before, posted a higher usage rate than he ever has before, and took the floor every night as his team’s only shot at winning games.
It’s worth remembering where this season started: with back-to-back humiliating losses to the Nets and Bucks, the totality of which seemed to augur grim days ahead. There were plenty of those, and plenty of blowout losses, but there was also Steph, playing and scoring at age 32 in ways he hadn’t been asked to since his days at Davidson.
If the defining image of the dynastic Warriors teams of the recent past was a panicked defense scrambling to contain a Steph Curry and Draymond Green pick-and-roll while surrounded by shooters and finishers, then this year’s team is defined by something requiring much more craft. Curry and Green kept their two-man game at the top of the key alive, but this year they didn’t have Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, or, hell, even Harrison Barnes around to keep the defense honest and cash in on 4-on-3 situations. And so the pair spent many possessions tightly orbiting around each other, exchanging an improvised series of screens, handoffs, and bounce passes while constantly being harried by two or three defenders. So many Warriors possessions were won or lost in the 10-foot area that Green and Curry occupied together on the perimeter, and it was Curry’s ability to feint and cut and slip his way into open spaces that so often turned those possessions into points.
And of course there were all the other vintage Steph shots that we’ve seen before—the pull-ups splashed from 30 feet, the step-backs following a half-dozen crossovers, and the floaters in the lane. But what I’ll remember most about watching Curry this season is what I remember most about watching him when he was in college: Everyone in the arena knew who the ball was going to, and they all knew there was no way to stop it from ending up in the hoop.