IT’S GAME 5 between the Sacramento Kings and the Golden State Warriors, the series tied, and Stephen Curry is in the midst of creating the kind of dagger moment that has defined his career.
There are just over 30 seconds left in regulation, with the Warriors trying to expand a 119-114 lead to take control of a game they desperately need to win. Curry takes a short pass from Warriors forward Draymond Green and starts dribbling as if he’s playing keep-away on the playground. Kings big man Domantas Sabonis chases him feebly, as Curry dribbles with his left hand down the paint. Former teammate and Kings swingman Harrison Barnes joins the action.
Curry dribbles into the paint and shakes Barnes, who jumps at a left-handed layup attempt that never materializes. As the game clock hits 24, Curry spins back right and turns to the basket, charging through a suddenly open lane to the rim to put up a running floater. Barnes, who has untangled himself from the dribbling exhibition, lunges for the ball, but misses and fouls Curry in the process.
The ball bounces around the rim, then … drops. The Warriors’ reserves explode in celebration with veteran swingman Andre Iguodala skipping from one end of Golden State’s bench to the other. Klay Thompson, standing about 10 feet away on the floor, jumps and raises his arms in the air. Curry lets out a ferocious yell and then flexes his arms by his side and screams as he walks down the floor. The standing Golden 1 Center crowd falls into a stunned silence.
Curry has just closed down another game, dashing a young team’s dreams in the process.
After all the absurd plays and range-expanding shots that have defined his 14-year-NBA journey, Curry has come to a conclusion: The type of confidence required to even attempt these kinds of shots must come from within. It is a mindset, he says, that he’s had throughout his career, one ESPN discussed with him on several occasions.
“You got to have it,” Curry told ESPN. “The security in myself to know I am who I am and how I play is how I play. Whatever comes out of that you kind of live with. It’s not passive; you have to work. I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s a different way of looking at the game, looking at yourself. Almost like an irrational confidence that comes with it just because you are that type of dude.”
To live among the pantheon of greats, irrational confidence is, of course, nearly a requirement. But it is what Curry’s game has legitimized that makes him truly transcendent. As the 35-year-old point guard aims to help his Warriors knock out a hungry, young Kings team, the one thing many in the league agree on is how Curry’s ability to rain down jumpers (15,653 in the regular season, to be exact), not worrying about whatever the final outcome might be (7,434 makes, for those counting), has created a new reality across the basketball world: that legions of players who have grown up idolizing him will have something to shoot for in the years to come.
“It’s way different,” Warriors teammate Draymond Green told ESPN about Curry’s confidence level. “But I think one of the most unique things about Steph is like — we all argue like, ‘Oh, is [Michael] Jordan the GOAT? Does LeBron [James] dethrone him? Whoever your guy is, who you think is the GOAT. Everyone debates it. There’s no debate. [Steph] is the greatest. So that confidence runs different. But I think we all here in this world know, there’s no debate. He’s the greatest — and that’s a special thing.”
IRRATIONAL CONFIDENCE DOESN’T just happen.
“There’s a trust factor in his life,” Bob McKillop, Curry’s coach at Davidson, told ESPN. “And the trust factor is a genuine feeling. He doesn’t just trust blindly, but when he trusts, he trusts. And that includes himself. And I think that was nurtured and cultivated by [parents] Dell and Sonya. And then as he’s gone through — [Warriors coach] Steve Kerr has done a marvelous job at that, [former Golden State coach] Mark Jackson did. His teammates at Davidson were tremendous in the way they trusted him as a freshman to stir our drink — the Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson [of New York Yankees lore] — he was trusted as a freshman, and he earned that trust by the genuine trust that he gave.
“So he gave the gift of trust to people; they gave that gift back to him.”
Curry always understood he had what it took to succeed. From watching his father play in the NBA to setting records with the Wildcats from 2006 to 2009 to being drafted No. 7 overall by Golden State and starting 77 games as a rookie, he always understood he needed the right people around him to bring it out of him.
“A combination of work ethic, a combination of opportunity,” Curry told ESPN. “A vote of approval that you get from your coach and team to say whatever shot you take, the way that you play is going to help us win games. Sometimes when that’s expressed out loud, like Mark Jackson talking about me and Klay [Thompson, as the greatest shooting backcourt of all time], Coach McKillop at Davidson leaving me out there when I had nine turnovers my first two games.
“Little moments like that help; you know you have the ability to do whatever you want to do on the floor, but you haven’t proven it. I’ve had those moments throughout my career. And I’ve tried to acknowledge them as much as possible, because then that leads to these last like four or five years where it feels like it’s all me, but it’s the foundation [of belief].”
It’s a belief both his teammates and his peers across the league admire — and fear.
“Extreme confidence,” Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard told ESPN. “To play the way he plays — to take and make some of the shots that he makes and takes, some of the risky passes at big moments. He’s so free. Whether it’s the beginning of the game or the end of the game, regular-season game, playoff game, Finals, whatever, he’s just so free.
“He can miss 10 shots in a row and then make 10 in a row. I would say that’s the best way to describe how confident he is. Extreme — and just certain. When you know you’ve put a lot of time into something and a lot of work into it, you expect positive results, and you get confidence from that. And I think that’s evident with Steph.”
Thompson, Curry’s teammate of 12 campaigns, offered his take.
“I see the work he puts in every day on his jump shot, on his playmaking, on his body, so nothing he really does surprises me,” Thompson said. “All the shots he takes and makes, I’ve seen in practice. And he’s responsible for why the game is played the way it is.”
That’s why as the final seconds rolled off the clock in Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Finals in Boston, Curry couldn’t help the tears from rolling down his face. In a moment few around the league expected to see again, Curry — who had just poured in 34 points and earned the first Finals MVP of his storied career — led the Warriors to their fourth title, one made sweeter by the fact that they had the worst record in the league just two years prior.
“I think he truly believes that he can do everything,” former Warriors teammate Zaza Pachulia told ESPN. “I don’t believe that confidence comes just like that. You earn the confidence.”
THE KINGS ARE doing everything in their power to shake it. All they need to do is look back 12 days ago to Game 1.
With the ball and down 126-123 with 2.9 seconds left in regulation, everybody inside of a raucous Golden 1 Center in Sacramento knew where the ball was going for the Warriors’ last shot.
Standing just in front of the scorer’s table near center court for the inbounds pass, Mitchell was draped around Curry but switched to a roving Thompson, who circled behind Curry as a potential decoy, leaving open, for the quickest of seconds, the most dangerous shooter in NBA history. Green quickly tossed the ball into Curry, who faked, watched Malik Monk fly by him and took one dribble to his left. Off one leg, Curry launched from beyond the 3 line as the crowd quieted watching the rainbow shot hit its peak.
The sellout crowd of 18,253 vibrated in celebration, with Curry holding his follow-through before giving a disappointed high-five to teammate Jordan Poole.
No matter the outcome, it’s a feeling that Curry relishes: the ability to control the emotions of an entire building full of people.
“When it works, even when it doesn’t, I still feel that buzz,” Curry said. “It’s exhilarating, for sure, just because people love seeing people get dunked on, and all that type of stuff. That was never part of my game, so I had to figure out what that was for me.
“And those daggers, or whatever opportunity it is to hit a shot, big moments of a game or huge runs or whatever it is, it’s just a different energy about it. Sometimes you do search for it, sometimes unnecessarily, but for the most part, I feel like I’ve figured out a nice balance of taking advantage of those moments as much as possible.”
The one thing that becomes clear when talking to those who see Curry every day, who have seen the shots he has made and missed but most importantly taken, is that there’s a sense of gratitude that they’ve been able to share part of their careers with him. They know that his belief in himself permeates every aspect of the Warriors organization — and that with Curry on the floor, everything actually feels possible.
“I think it gives everybody confidence,” Kerr told ESPN. “From his teammates, his coaches, to Bob and his staff. He’s the face of the franchise. We know that that’s our leader. We know that our leader is not only the greatest shooter of all time, and one of the all-time greatest players, but just an incredibly solid human being who is one part humility and one part bravado. And together, it’s this beautiful combination the way it all comes together.”