RED SOX INSIDER

Tomase: Appreciating how Curry changed the NBA, one three at a time

RED SOX INSIDER
USA TODAY Sports

Steph Curry earned it.

The greatest pure shooter in NBA history took a victory lap and a half after breaking Ray Allen's career 3-point record this week in New York. He splashed his 2,974th triple to a massive Madison Square Garden ovation, halting the game. He blew kisses and pounded his chest. He sobbed. He hugged his mom. He embraced long-time teammate Draymond Green. He saluted Allen, who sat courtside, as well as broadcaster and former record holder Reggie Miller.

If it seemed like overkill, it wasn't. If it seemed out of place for a three-time champ and established all-time great, think a little harder. If it seemed showy and too me-me-me for your tastes, wrong again. And here's why.

Steph Curry redefined the NBA. Like Wilt Chamberlain dominating the paint, or Michael Jordan soaring above the rim, or Bird and Magic elevating the art of selflessness, we must recognize a clear line of demarcation in league history: pre-Steph and post.

The pre-Steph NBA included some rough days, from Jordan's retirement to the Malice at the Palace to the maligned spectacle of The Decision. Sure, the late Kobe Bryant transcended the sport (albeit while experiencing significant legal troubles of his own), but the defining champions of that era were probably the workmanlike Spurs and their blandly efficient center, Tim Duncan.

 

That NBA had an image problem. The Pistons-Pacers brawl in 2004 stained the league, especially coming only a few years after Latrell Sprewell had made headlines by choking coach P.J. Carlesimo. A series of mostly minor run-ins with the police earned Portland's early-2000s squads the nickname of Jail Blazers.

It's now easy to recognize the pernicious racial stereotypes driving much of the criticism, from the disparagement of cornrows, to the proclivity of commentators to label players thugs, to the way some fans and media felt threatened by stars like LeBron James and Kevin Garnett taking ownership of their futures and building super-teams.

However misguided the perception, it was the league's reality. Players like James and Dwyane Wade, and teams like the 2007 champion Celtics, had already begun changing the narrative. And then in walked Steph. He wouldn't just change the game, but turbocharge it.

It didn't happen immediately. He arrived from Davidson as the No. 7 overall pick and a bit of a curiosity. Everyone knew him as Dell's kid, and boy was he skinny. Originally listed at 6-3 but probably closer to 6-1, he emerged as the league's most inventive shooter since Pete Maravich. He boasted unlimited range and the ability to dribble through traffic like a strawberry in a pot of fondue, and after the dour 2000s, he played with infectious enthusiasm.

Everything about his game exudes sheer joy, from the double-dribbling routine before each game, to the shots he makes from the seats during warmups, to the inventive finishes at the rim after he bounces through defenders like a Plinko board, to raucous celebrations when his teammates score, to postgame press conferences with his adorable daughters.

Curry's early Warriors teams toiled in purgatory. He debuted for gruff Don Nelson, an '80s relic approaching his 70th birthday in the midst of going out with a 26-win whimper. The Warriors didn't even reach .500 until Curry's fourth season (he had missed most of his third to injury), but reinforcements like Klay Thompson, Green, Andre Iguodala, and eventually Kevin Durant transformed the Dubs into a powerhouse.

They transformed the game, too, with Curry leading the way. Plenty of teams shot 3's before he came along, but no one weaponized them like this slithery, shimmying everyman who allowed a generation of kids to scope out parts of the floor around logos and hashmarks that had always represented flyover country and say, "I can make 'em from here, too."

We're on our way to half of all shots being from 3-point territory, and that doesn't happen without Curry. His most famous make might be a pull-up from two steps inside halfcourt vs. the Thunder in 2016, which earned an incredulous double-bang from ESPN's Mike Breen and might've convinced OKC's Durant to seek golder pastures.

Curry made every space on the floor inside halfcourt a potential bucket, and he didn't need to heave. Watching a shooter maintain his form from 38 feet is at first disorienting and then exhilarating. There are so many copycats now -- from Atlanta's Trae Young to Portland's Dame Lillard to Dallas's Luka Doncic -- that we've recalibrated our fundamental beliefs about the game. Good shots are now wherever you can make them.

 

None of that happens without Curry, an unstoppable bomber who made the NBA fun again. Everything about his game exudes sheer joy, from the double-dribbling routine before each game, to the shots he makes from the seats during warmups, to the inventive finishes at the rim after he bounces through defenders like a Plinko board, to raucous celebrations when his teammates score, to postgame press conferences with his adorable daughters. Those of us who watched Larry Bird every night for 13 years and would give anything to have those days back envy kids in the Bay Area who've grown up with Curry, because it's an absolute gift.

Making his story even better, we're talking about a guy without meaningful Div. I scholarship offers who arrived in the NBA one pick after Jonny freaking Flynn. Don't think for a second those doubts don't fuel him to this day.

So yeah, when it came time to celebrate on Tuesday, Curry had earned it. His ability to rain perfection has redefined the game and cemented his legacy. John Updike once wrote that, "Gods don't answer letters," while describing Ted Williams, but they do answer prayers, and Curry was exactly the right player to join James as the face of the NBA.

He makes his annual visit to Boston on Friday night, and here's hoping the fans greet him with a deafening ovation. If you love this game, he deserves your thanks.