What we’ve more or less known for several years spanning multiple presidential administrations is that a person, currently in his thirties and born in Ohio, is the most important and influential men’s basketball player of the past twenty years, at least. While it’s contentious to suggest that the state is the birthplace of aviation, as the state itself does, instead of aviators, which is what it is, its place as a basketball haven is beyond question.
The antecedent, however, lies in the heart of the beholder: LeBron James is, by most credible accounts, at least the second- or third-greatest basketball player ever to walk the earth. His performance in the 2015 NBA Finals, nevermind the following year, won many people over following his period of Heat villainy.
Then again, well, the guy who spearheaded the Finals win over him, as well as two more later on, put on a 37-point performance Tuesday night against a former teammate’s would-be superteam when the Golden State Warriors beat the Brooklyn Nets 117-99. That guy, Steph Curry, was (and, the hope goes, always will be) cooking.
In leading the Warriors to an improbable if not necessarily completely unexpected 11-2 record, Steph has returned to his higher form, a place that transcends time and creates space. He’s never not been himself; it’s the doubt of what he can actually do that has repeatedly mesmerized everyone from the time he was drafted.
“Is this sustainable?,” you ask, a second sip of a third beer into watching the 2008 NCAA Tournament game against Kansas, which the Wildcats lost, not even really knowing what you mean because Tracy McGrady is your standard for unsustainable greatness. “Is this sustainable?,” you ask again, a year later, when Davidson loses to St. Mary’s in the NIT.
Maybe Anthony Morrow, another Charlotte native and Golden State draftee, talked you out of shooting-as-the-future. Eventually, though, everyone came back: Curry’s electricity required it. A couple of titles, a pair of MVPs and a very weird marriage with Kevin Durant, the other best scorer of his generation, and the Curry-led Warriors have again become what we once loved so much.
Nobody, perhaps sometimes short of his soon-to-return backcourt mate Klay Thompson, is better off the ball than Steph, and very few are better with it in their hands. Curry has managed to be in the ninety-seventh percentile or better of points per shot attempt in eleven of his thirteen professional years, per Cleaning The Glass. The man knows how to get where he wants to be.
In Tuesday’s win, Steph did all of the familiar tricks: rainbow threes off the dribble; whipped passes either being or leading to assists; toying with defenders while dangling his mouthpiece. The home crowd in Brooklyn, not yet the most enthusiastic for its own home team anyway, rose and cheered whenever Steph had the ball in his hands, particularly when the shot clock dwindled; it seemed, as the lead grew, that Curry felt a need to create tension from anywhere, so he shot 9-14 from three on a night when he only made 12 field goals out of 19 attempts.
The Nets are a team in relative peril; even with two of the greatest offensive players in basketball running the show, a third might help, and that third is, let’s say, predisposed. Even so: Kevin Durant + James Harden is usually enough to get any team by on a given night, and the Warriors weren’t supposed to be this good. That they’ve been this good is a testament to the Warriors’ corporate culture, which, while openly annoying, carries some weight in some regards, and is definitely something the Nets had plenty of before…whatever it is they’re doing now.
What many viewers wanted out of Tuesday night’s game was a Nets-Warriors Finals preview; what they got instead, for the most part, was a reminder of Steph Curry’s individual greatness. Maybe we’re not over Steph having been overlooked in the first few years of his career, and maybe we’re all sick of the Nets being the most miserably constructed band since the Philadelphia 76ers.
But for a few injured showings that I felt were inevitably coming, I’ve never not been excited to watch Steph Curry play. He incorporates his own notes and counter-rhythms into technically perfect sets; he is the Prince of basketball, complete with a vision and an inspiring backing band. In this win over Durant’s and Harden’s Nets, he told us that, yes, he remains as himself. Remember?
 “Relative” carries a lot of weight here, but with reason. That the Nets’ losses are to the Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and the Warriors is not apocalyptic; having said that, the Nets’ collective lethargy in those games is noticeable, and could be detrimental in the long-term.