Stephen Curry missed 38 of the first 56 3-pointers he attempted this season. His Golden State Warriors were punchless without the injured Klay Thompson alongside him in their famed Splash Brothers backcourt, losing by 26, 39 and 25 points within the first five games.
There was little at the time to suggest that Curry would soon be crashing the race for the N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player Award and inspiring his coach, Steve Kerr, to say that “this is the best” version yet of his star guard.
Curry has stopped short of saying he agrees. The likely explanation: He is as audacious as ever with his shot selection, confidence, celebratory shimmies and ambition. So he keeps expecting more and resisting limits, even as his 33rd birthday nears next month.
“I am playing well,” Curry said in a phone interview — but insisted that he can still get better.
“I know that’s kind of crazy to say,” he added.
Such talk is not crazy to the Warriors. Shaun Livingston, a former teammate who has moved into the team’s front office, said Curry was noticeably stronger absorbing contact after working on his body in the off-season. Curry cited an improved ability to read defenses as an even bigger development in his game.
After a broken hand and the N.B.A.’s pandemic-imposed hiatus limited him to five games last season, Curry has rebounded emphatically. He busted out of his early 3-point-shooting struggles with a career-high 62 points against Portland on Jan. 3, passed the Hall of Famer Reggie Miller for second place in career 3-pointers made on Jan. 23 and hung 57 points on the Dallas Mavericks two weeks after that.
Curry is averaging 30 points, 6 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game while shooting 49.2 percent from the floor and 42.5 percent from 3-point range. They are the most robust figures he has produced since 2015-16, when he was named the league M.V.P. for the second successive season. The offensive surge has him on pace to join Michael Jordan on a very short list of players to average 30 points per game at age 32 or older.
Team officials have grown accustomed to seeing him hush skeptic after skeptic since his arrival from Davidson College as the No. 7 overall pick in the 2009 draft. They understand that Curry, who became the sort of revolutionary franchise cornerstone no one envisioned back then, may have to stay at a supernova level to get his 16-13 team back to the playoffs. They have also learned by now that there is little point in trying to curb his aspirations or quirks — even when that means having to watch Curry scroll through potentially toxic social media criticism on his phone at halftime.
Andrew Bogut, the recently retired former Warriors big man, revealed last month on his new “Rogue Bogues” podcast that Curry was prone to check his Twitter mentions “if he had a bad half.” Asked to verify the story, Curry laughed and said it had indeed become “a really bad habit.”
Bogut last played alongside Curry for the final month of the 2018-19 regular season and the playoffs, which were marred by the serious injuries to Kevin Durant (Achilles’ tendon) and Thompson (knee) and halted the Warriors’ remarkable run of three championships in five consecutive trips to the N.B.A. finals. Asked how regularly he still takes a peek at halftime, Curry said: “Probably more often than you think.”
As such, before that 62-point eruption against the Trail Blazers, Curry was keenly aware of mounting social media criticism doubting his ability to carry an injury-hit team and claims that a poor season for the Warriors could damage his legacy.
“I saw all of it,” he said of the critical tweets. “It was hilarious.”
Ill-advised as the doomscrolling seems, given the potential adverse effects on his mental health, Curry said he is more focused on “the comedy I get from it” than trying to “keep the receipts” from fans and the media who don’t believe in him.
“It started by accident to be honest,” he said, the day before being named an All-Star starter for the seventh time. “I had this ritual with my wife where, at halftime, she’d send me some encouragement or kick me in the butt a little bit if I was playing bad. And, obviously, with how iPhones are constructed, that Twitter button is just right there. It’s easy to get wrapped up in it for a minute or two. To this day, I don’t know how Bogut caught on, because it wasn’t like I was reading the tweets out loud.”
After two games with at least 10 3-pointers earlier this month, Curry missed 15 of his first 18 3-pointers against the Miami Heat on Wednesday — only to drain two clutch 3-pointers in overtime in the come-from-behind victory. It was the kind of performance that sets social media ablaze, with critics calling for his two M.V.P. trophies to be repossessed and supporters responding by “just asking” why he lives in so many people’s heads rent-free. (Translation: Why talk about him so much if he’s not as potent as advertised?)
“I don’t think he plays the game with spite or trying to prove people wrong,” said Bruce Fraser, a Warriors assistant coach, who works as closely with Curry as anyone in the organization. “I think he just wants to be great. I saw him chasing greatness last summer when no one was watching. The main piece to his success is the time that he’s put into it and his push last summer.”
Eight-plus months off, as part of one of the eight teams that did not qualify to finish last season in the N.B.A. bubble at Walt Disney World, led to the most productive off-season of Curry’s career. It was the ideal tonic after the Warriors played well into June for five straight springs. Curry was in the gym constantly, with his longtime personal trainer Brandon Payne as well as Fraser, adding muscle to play through contract and evade clutching and grabbing off the ball, and to gird himself to head inside when defenses played him too tight outside. Defenses hound Curry so closely on the perimeter that he is driving the ball more than he has since 2015-16; nearly 30 percent of the shots Curry has taken this season come within 10 feet of the basket.
“I’ve always been a late bloomer,” Curry said of the strength boost, “so it’s not a surprise.”
When Curry was misfiring early this season, Fraser refused to worry. He was sure Curry was ready for the challenge of leading a mostly new team apart from the title-tested Draymond Green. Fraser was the one, after all, flinging the passes at a post-practice shooting session on Dec. 26 when Curry made 105 consecutive 3-pointers — 103 of them on camera.
The purity of Curry’s stroke told Fraser that the real issue was how Curry was adjusting to an array of new defensive coverages. With Durant now on the Nets, Thompson unavailable and scant dependable shooting elsewhere in the lineup, Curry needed to get used to opposing teams locking in on him like never before.
“At the beginning of the season, it was really hard for him,” Fraser said. “Box-and-ones, double teams, traps, triple teams. In transition, I’ve seen times when Steph’s been coming down the floor and there are four guys around him.”
Fraser’s recap hit upon one of Curry’s favorite subjects. At this stage of his career, Curry seems to enjoy talking about the nuances of reading the game as much as his actual shotmaking.
“My patience is a lot better now, if I had to pick one thing,” Curry said. “How I see the game when I’m on and off the ball, seeing what the defense is giving you and knowing that I’ll find a way to get some space. I’m enjoying this run for sure.”
The intensity and variety of the coverages “keeps me sharp,” Curry said.
The benefit and wisdom of keeping an open ear to the latest critical chatter is much harder to see — So how much of a prime do you have left, Steph? — but that may be one more green light Curry has earned.
“If you occupy spaces that people never thought you could, there’s always going to be attempts to try to explain it away,” Curry said. “That kind of comes with the territory. I like to have fun with it, though.”