Play-in diary: The Steph Curry experience

Published May 21, 2021, 6:00 AMMiguel Flores

Watching Steph Curry attempt to take down the defending champions was a marvelous experience, which we tried to capture diary-style.

Steph Curry has been a must-watch one-man show for the last two months. Whether he's breaking a Wilt Chamberlain record or becoming the scoring champion at age 33, Curry has been playing at a historic level, even by his standards.

What is it like to solely focus on Curry in a game where he's for sure going to do something special? No one was there to see Van Gogh while he was painting the Starry Night. No one ever recorded Arwind Santos’ writing process for Bagyo. Today, we get to sit in while an artist creates a masterpiece from scratch.

We zoom in on Curry right in the middle of his monumental hot streak as the Golden State Warriors face the Los Angeles Lakers in the play-in tournament. Please don't disappoint, Steph.

1st Quarter – Simmering Shimmies

It's still a marvel watching just how Steph affects a game while barely touching the ball. In the Warriors' first two possessions of the game, Curry brings the ball up and immediately dishes out to Draymond Green to initiate some off-ball mischief. Curry bobs, weaves, and eventually gets the entire defense to look his way, springing easy open shots for Kent Bazemore and Andrew Wiggins. His first shot attempt – a wild escapade to the rim which he tried to finish with his signature high-angle layup – misses, but even then, he drew enough attention for the Warriors to grab the offensive rebound and find Bazemore for an open corner 3. Warriors up 12-4. Curry's looking frisky, even without taking a shot.

It did look like he'd be held scoreless for the first quarter, whiffing on a routine pull-up 3. But a couple of possessions later, Steph refuses to be stopped. Running a familiar two-man play with Draymond, Steph gets Anthony Davis – the dude who used to play point guard but became a big man when he experienced a near six-inch growth spurt – on the switch and finds a way around him. He meets another Laker giant in Andre Drummond in the paint and lofts a floater over his arms for his first two points. Nothing's going to come easy for our scoring champ today. Luckily, Curry hates easy shots.

It takes a team to stop Steph Curry and the Lakers are hard committing multiple guys to him. Curry gets the ball ripped from him after a double team, is forced to an awkward one-legged Macmac Cardona floater from 20-feet and, in what looked like a display of frustration, heaves a shot from the logo early in a possession. Usually, only he and Damian Lillard reside in that distance. Today, Curry has unwelcome visitors in numerous Laker defenders.

Any other player would be deterred from taking more shots. But Curry knows he’s seen tougher defense. Still 1-for-5 from the field, Curry loops around Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and spins a reverse layup past Kyle Kuzma. And-1. He's 2-for-6, decidedly better than 1-for-5. Curry then finds Mexican-American hero Juan Toscano-Anderson for a corner triple, rounding out his first quarter line of five points, three rebounds, and two assists. The game has been set to the grimy pace the Lakers wanted, but the Warriors are up 28-22.

2nd Quarter – Big Bang Theory

Warriors fans have been accustomed to Steph's second quarter breaks. After playing the entire first quarter, Curry comes in midway through the second quarter, rested and primed to do some damage.

Golden State's bench did pretty well without Curry, maintaining a 35-30 lead against the cold-shooting defending champs. When Curry comes in, the court seems to get bigger as every Warriors gets an extra foot of space, thanks to all the attention Curry draws. His first shot off the bench results in charities, which he uncharacteristically splits. Taking that personally, Curry steps back on Dennis Schröeder and drills a 3 from almost the logo. 

For his next 3, Curry dances around KCP, then in the middle of a foot shuffle, seemingly invites LeBron James to contest his shot. He buries it on top of the 36-year-old.

At this point, Curry improves to 4-for-8 with a twinkle in his eyes. He starts playing H-O-R-S-E on the court. After getting a layup blocked from behind, Curry pulls up from the wing and shoots another 3 from the hip which clanks off the back of the rim – a shot J.R. Smith would be proud of.

As the end of the half approached, the Lakers began swarming Curry more intently. It opened up several open shots for other Warriors which ballooned their lead to double-digits. 

“I'm not allowing Steph Curry to play one-on-one on this possession,” Mark Jackson says as the half winds down – a harbinger for a basketball moment.

Steph, seeing the same defense the Lakers have deployed on him, wiggles past Schröeder, Caruso, Davis, then Caruso again for an impossible step-back 3.

“BANG! At the buzzer,” says Hall of Famer Mike Breen as the buzzer sounds. He'll inevitably scream BANG a few more times before the game ends. Curry has the Warriors up 55-42.

3rd quarter – Steph the Firefighter

The defending champs were bound to make a run. The Lakers' hounding defense forced the Warriors to turn the ball over three consecutive times. 

With his team’s lead dwindling down to one, 57-56, Curry scrapped the whole off-ball movement gig and hoisted a 3-point attempt over Schröeder, getting fouled, and drilling three free throws.
All great players have this power to will their team out of slumps, even if they’re facing a defense specifically designed to stop them. The Lakers had Curry figured out for a handful of possessions, but the guy just never stops coming at you.

Golden State eventually regains control. Coming off a screen, Curry sees Anthony Davis hesitate for a split second and pulls up from the Staples Center logo. Swish. Warriors up 12, 72-60.

Shooters usually shoot better in their homecourt, since they know all the dimensions. Not Curry. Him pulling up from the opposing team's logo is symbolic – every court he steps on is his playground. The Lakers had their largest home crowd since the pandemic started and you could hear the collective groan from the 6,000 fans in attendance when Curry hit that 3. Curry excels at devastating Away crowds. Just ask Oklahoma City.

The Lakers, however, are a different breed. Davis and Wesley Matthews cobbled together a couple of quick buckets to trim the lead, to which Steph responded with a gorgeous juke on KCP for a backdoor layup. Steph starts feeling himself and tries to dribble around Davis and Caruso, but turns the ball over. That's one bad thing he's done after around 13 possessions of brilliance.

With around two minutes left, the Lakers bring back LeBron and make a run. The Lakers keep forcing Curry to pretty much go one-on-four every time down the court. Steph, after maneuvering three Laker defenders, finds a cutting Wiggins, who fumbles the catch. After a LeBron corner 3, Steph responds with a fadeaway triple of his own over the King. The Warriors entered the final period up 79-77, but could have been down way worse, had Curry not caught fire.

At this point, Curry had 26 points on 8-for-16 shooting, a far cry from his 1-for-5 start 17 paragraphs ago.

4th Quarter – The Lockdown

The fourth quarter usually features a long break for Curry. In the regular season, Steve Kerr strictly rested Curry for until the 6:00 minute mark of the final period, only breaking the Steph Curry glass in case of emergency.

Today is a code-red situation. The Lakers quickly pounced on the Warriors with Curry on the bench. After a LeBron layup that put the Lakers up by four, 83-79, the cameras caught an iconic Steph moment – clapping as Steve Kerr calls a timeout, as if accepting the challenge extended by his longtime rival.

For a star who’s built a wholesome, family-friendly image, Curry sure has a penchant for getting in his opponents' heads – from his signature shimmies to turning his back on his shot before it goes in. He low-key has more swag than Swaggy P.

As soon as Curry comes in, the Lakers intently challenge his defense, always involving his man in pick-and-rolls, while continuing their blitzing defense on him on the other end. Curry's first fourth quarter basket is a 3 that comes right after the Lakers forced him to react to a Davis pick-and-roll. The Lakers immediately got Davis on Curry on a switch the following possession, but could not capitalize thanks to timely defense.

It hasn't been mentioned so far, but the Warriors are playing tremendous defense, especially on the Lakers’ two stars. Draymond may have lost his scoring touch, but he's still an elite defender.

The resulting stop allows Curry to stroll all the way to the basket for another high-arching layup, his easiest basket of the game. Another underrated Warrior in Wiggins keeps Golden State in the game, scooping up three easy baskets to tie the game at 91 with less than six minutes left.

At this point in the game, Curry has been attacking the defense with his dribble way more. He gets to the rim for a tough reverse layup then cooks Schröeder with a hesi-cross combo for another easy layup that puts the Warriors up 98-95 with three minutes on the clock.

Curry has 35 points, but it feels like he has 50 with the way he's affected the game. Conventional basketball thinking measures point guards by their efficiency and assists. Curry only has three dimes at this point, but the space he's created for his teammates by simply moving around the court constantly is immeasurable. It's like what Ray Allen or Rip Hamilton did back in the day, coming off screens and tiring out defenders with movement. But Curry inspires such devastation because the Warriors try to find him and use any attention he gets down the court. It's like you have to double-team him off the ball to truly neutralize him.

The game then takes on the vibe of Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. Both teams slow down and settle into a grind towards the finish line. A lot of missed shots and turnovers, including a costly one after Caruso swipes the ball off Curry's leg. Caruso has played pretty good defense on Curry throughout the game. But calling him a Curry stopper at this point would be like calling pineapple juice proper hypertension medication.

The Lakers eventually crawl ahead, 100-98, after another spate of Warrior turnovers and Laker free throws. Curry restores some order, finally breaking a near three-minute scoring drought with two free throws.

What follows sums up the great LeBron-Curry rivalry. With the shot clock winding down, the Lakers find James from way outside the arc. With a swollen eye, LeBron pulls the trigger on a 34-footer and drills it over a rotating Curry. If Curry hitting a 3 from the Staples logo earlier signaled a Warriors takeover, James also swishing a 3 from the same spot represents the Lakers taking back their homecourt.

With under a minute to go, the Warriors go to their championship-winning two-man game with Curry and Draymond. Curry finds some space, but gets blocked by a recovering Davis. Curry does recover possession, but is forced to pass out immediately after his step back doesn't work on Davis. The Warriors find an open Jordan Poole in the corner, but the sophomore misses.

The Warriors crumble after that. After a stop, Curry gets the ball with less than 10 seconds left. Plotting to catch the Lakers off guard, Curry dribbles up the court but runs into a double team, before crossing the halfcourt line. Steve Kerr calls a timeout with 2 seconds left, but the play he draws up gets broken up easily. Lakers win.

Curry finishes with 37 points on 12-for-23 shooting, but we’re left with a familiar thought: Curry probably should have shot the ball more. It would be interesting to see how effective Curry can be if he's allowed maximum freedom ala James Harden with the Rockets. That could be the Warriors' best recourse in a season where they’re missing one of their biggest stars in Klay Thompson. But the Warriors don’t roll that way. For them, it’s egalitarianism or bust.

Perhaps he’ll drop 50 on Saturday with their season on the line. The best thing about Curry is when you expect him to do something special, he never disappoints.