How a single sequence from Stephen Curry changed the fortunes of an entire franchise.
In his youth, when he was no more than a budding sapling with his feet rooted in a pair of Converse sneakers, he dreamt of this moment. He had pictured it a million times in his mind. He had lived it. He ran all through all the scenarios, exploring the myriad of endgames in the same way a computer solves complex multi-variate matrices.
When the moment finally came, his mind and body were ready. Psychology, athleticism, instinct and practice collided with opportunity, and in that fleeting sequence, the hardwood equivalency of a big-bang, a paroxysm of hoops emanated from the fingertips of a savant.
In one fell swoop, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors knocked out the backpeddaling husk of the Toronto Raptors.
Act I: Basketball IQ
Our narrative picks up at the midpoint of the fourth quarter. Curry and his merry band of yellow-clad teammates were stuck 8 points to the Toronto Raptors, but the tension inside Oracle Arena was bubbling to a precipice. Not too long ago the lowly Raptors surmounted an improbable 27-point lead, and the game looked to be well out-of-reach for the Warriors. Somewhere in the suburbs of Chicago, a sleepless Chuck Swirsky put down the remote and rummaged through his fridge for his favorite midnight munch – a salami and cheese sandwich – but he dared not eat. The immortal and partially inhuman Kobe Bryant had taught him better. Rather, the sandwich sat by his table-side like a trophy, a spoil of war waiting to be ransacked.
Demar Derozan stood on the left side of the floor with fourteen seconds left on the shot clock. A nervous bead of sweat blazed down his neck, searing his senses. He knew that his Raptors faced two enemies – the Warriors and the clock. To his right, referee Marat Kogut blew sharply into his whistle, tilting the hourglass in Demar’s mind. He had five seconds to inbound the ball.
Amir Johnson flashed to the wing, but the aging husk of Jermaine O’Neal, fueled only by the necromantic spells of the Warriors training staff, draped himself over the back of Johnson like a cape, limiting Amir to merely tipping the ball back towards the sideline. Alertly, Demar jumps into the fray and seizes control of the ball as Johnson tumbles over. Demar waits patiently for Amir to gather himself, before calling for a pick. Unfortunately, the Warriors are fully prepared and the duo of Thompson and O’Neal conjoin like clockwork to ICE the sideline screen-and-roll, leaving Demar without an avenue to the basket. Alertly, Johnson notices this and rolls down the lane. Out of options, Demar springs up in the air and rifles a two-handed pass to the rolling big.
Curry watched the entire play unfold. He knew that his man Kyle Lowry would not dare leave the corner for a baseline cut, for the Raptors lacked ball-handling like Raptors fans lacked self-respect. He also knew that with his teammates icing the ball-handler, a pass to Lowry over top of the outstretched arms of O’Neal was not feasible. Therefore, he sagged off his man and poached in the lane, laying in the weeds for the opportunity to spring like a trap. As soon as he saw Amir rolling towards the basket, he hedged, knowing that a pass was imminent. When the pass was thrown, Curry pounced and tapped the ball to Draymond Green, who has apparently lost more weight than Curry ever weighed.
In the blink of an eye, the possession changed hands, and Stephen Curry was racing up the floor.
Act II: Playing Quarterback
With the ball nestled safely in his hands, Curry jetted towards the Raptors’ half of the court. The hapless Raptors, running on borrowed time and banking on the tardiness of an impending regression, dutifully backpedaled onto into their own end, eager to play the role of immobile object against the onslaught of unstoppable force. The Oracle, having prophesied a victory, sensed the tides of cruel momentum shifting in their favor. Fans stood up and craned their neck over top of one another hoping to catch a glimpse of their franchise point-god crafting magic.
Rudy Gay, the 17 million dollar enigma, he of the 7-foot wingspan and bound-2-less athleticism picked up Curry while Tyler Hanbrough came barreling down the floor to join him. Curry scaned the court, assessing the play and doing the calculus. His numbers were limited; Lee and O’Neal were slowly trudging up the floor and Green had stopped short of the three-point line. The abacus in the abstract said no, but the equation in Curry’s mind had already been solved. With all the pieces in motion, hawked by assailing eye of SportVU cameras, Curry hoped into the air and with one flick of his left wrist, he lobed a pass across the court to his fellow splash-brother Klay Thompson, who rises up over the exasperated and shocked Demar Derozan and cans his league leading 66th three-pointer of the season to bring the Warriors within five.
Act III: Mindgames
Curry’s sequence served as a wake-up call to every player, coach and manager in the Raptors organization. Rudy Gay knew it. Dwane Casey knew it. Masai Ujiri knew it. The dumbfounded Raptors, stunned by the moment, suddenly found themselves starring into the mirror, and they saw themselves for the first time. They saw the imperfect monstrosity; the flawed go-to-guy, the predictable offensive system, the lack of assets on the roster. Forget lofty championship aspirations – that’s reserved for teams with players like Curry – the Raptors were nothing more than a chided roster of misshapen players, a mishmash of puzzle pieces that when assembled, form a mediocre roster.
If it wasn’t already, change is now imminent. Masai is painting a “FIRE!-sale” sign while Tim Leiweke and Drake are busy concocting excuses to feed the media. Rudy Gay is keeping his bags packed, Kyle Lowry is too. By the laws of economics, their value can be maximized elsewhere, which therefore necessitates a trade. The same goes for veteran bench producers like Hansbrough and Novak, who are known commodities at this point, and are ready to switch allegiances at anytime like mercenaries on a battlefield.
Change is overdue for this Raptors squad. The organization is a stack of Jenga after a dozen rounds; it’s still standing, but remove one more block and the whole thing comes crashing down. Stephen Curry, who once roamed so innocently on the ACC’s court, nipping at the feet of his father, might have just pulled the plug, mercifully putting down this accursed franchise, blazing it down to a pile of ashes from which a Wiggins-shaped phoenix may rise.
Hopefully, that is.