There were signs that this was coming. The storm clouds started gathering in preseason, when Stephen Curry quietly averaged more than a point per minute of play, making 56.5 percent of his field goal attempts and 51.9 percent of his 3-point tries without missing a free throw.
Scores of story lines surrounded the Golden State Warriors heading into the season: a push for a third straight NBA championship and a fourth in five years, the impending free agencies of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, the addition of DeMarcus Cousins, the questions about whether this might be the last hurrah for the best team of its generation. Obscured by it all, there was Curry, secure in both his long-term deal and his place in the NBA firmament, fully healthy, crackling with energy after “one of the best summers I’ve had,” and ready to explode on the league.
And then, in the fifth game of the season, it came: a sky-rending fucking kaboom, followed by a torrential downpour that drowned the visiting Washington Wizards:
You know it always can happen, but it still somehow sneaks up on you. A jab-step to scare Jeff Green creates the space for one 3-pointer. Fifty-two seconds later, a quick handoff in transition from Jonas Jerebko opens the door to another one, a 31-foot bomb. Then a hesitation dribble and a crossover to dust Austin Rivers and get all the way to the cup for a finger roll. And then another audacious pull — this one from 33 feet out in delayed transition, with Green and Kelly Oubre in failed pursuit — and all of a sudden, it’s happening. You’re caught in the storm, and there’s no way out.
Curry dropped 18 points in less than four minutes. At halftime, he had 31, and by the end of the third, he had 51 — a new NBA season high (sorry, Blake) on 15-for-24 shooting, a blistering 11-for-16 mark from long distance, and a perfect 10-for-10 at the line, all in less than 32 minutes of floor time. Curry didn’t take the floor in the fourth as the Warriors finished off their 144–122 annihilation. In the moment, it was upsetting for Steve Kerr not to let Curry get some fourth-quarter tick, given that Steph was three points shy of his career high and two 3s away from tying his own record for most makes in a single game. Although maybe it was a reminder that, if you really want to get a career high, young man, you shouldn’t miss your layups.
Through the first week of the regular season, Curry has, staggeringly, nearly replicated his preseason production, averaging 34.6 points in 34.8 minutes of playing time on 55/52/91 shooting splits. (The 6.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds a night don’t hurt, either.) His 33 3-pointers are more than four entire teams have made thus far. He’s taking and making more shots than he did during his unanimous MVP season in 2015–16 … only this time, he’s doing it with Kevin Durant on the roster.
There is no basketball experience quite like watching Curry go nuclear: the disorienting sense of watching time-honored rules of fundamentals and physics dissipate like wisps of smoke, the helplessness, screw-faces, and utter awe it evokes in other NBA players, the ecstasy it inspires in the stands at Oracle Arena. The NBA is replete with brilliance, but what Curry does is different, special. Now, two seasons after his partnership with Durant bumped him down the MVP ballot, he’s absolutely worth consideration once again.
As a new crop of contenders start building their résumés, Curry burned the Wizards in effigy to stake his claim. It still all starts with him for the Warriors, and lest you stop appreciating it, then, man, check this shit out.
“I think he’s at his physical and emotional peak right now,” Kerr told reporters after the game. “Mental peak.”
He’s reaching that peak as the league’s other stars are seemingly reaching theirs. Giannis Antetokounmpo (a 32–18–10 triple-double Wednesday against Philadelphia) is putting up Wilt numbers at the controls of the most potent offense of his career. Kawhi Leonard (35 points on 65 percent shooting while introducing us to the no-look steal) is showing us just how healthy he is, and how dangerous the Raptors can be. Anthony Davis is averaging 30–13–5 while providing Defensive Player of the Year–caliber paint protection for the rampaging Pelicans. Nikola Jokic is leading Denver into rarefied air in the Mile High City. And Durant, who turned in the most forgotten 30–8–7 in NBA history on Wednesday, is working on a campaign of his own.
There’s a lot of peak to go around in an NBA where players have more freedom to move, launch, experiment, and explode than ever before. The result might be the most fascinating MVP race we’ve seen in years. Wednesday reminded us that we shouldn’t be surprised if the man who changed the game winds up winning it.