Stephen Curry stepped to the foul line and looked at the rim. It was early in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference finals and the Golden State Warriors were trailing the Portland Trail Blazers 101-92 on the road. Curry, one of the greatest shooters ever, was readying himself for the first of three critical free throws. The Warriors needed all three if they wanted to really make it a game.
Instead, Curry’s first free throw clanked off the back iron. The Portland crowd erupted in gleeful cheer. Curry began to laugh, with his mouthpiece jutting out of his mouth.
Curry missing a late-game free throw is the rarest of occurrences. On the ABC broadcast, announcer Mike Breen told the audience just how rare: It was Curry’s first missed free throw in the fourth quarter and overtime of a postseason game since Game 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals, ending a streak of 81 consecutive made free throws in that situation. That’s right, 2015.
But if you ask him, Curry’s laugh was a front. The two-time MVP was genuinely mad at himself.
“Yes, because I knew about that streak,” Curry told NBCSports.com after a recent Warriors practice. “The perfectionist in me takes over. You hear something like the streak and you want to keep it going for as long as I can. I just don’t like missing free throws in general.”
Undeterred, Curry stepped up to the line and swished the next two free throws, both with a grin on his face. He may not have known it at the time, but that final free throw had made him a blistering 94-of-100 at the line this postseason.
History is within reach. Ahead of the 2019 NBA Finals, Curry is making a run at the best free throw postseason run ever. The only person in NBA history to shoot better on at least 100 free throws in a postseason is Dirk Nowitzki in 2011 when he made 175 of 186 (94.1 percent). Curry is at 94 percent.
To understand how obsessive Curry is at the free-throw line, you have to first realize that making them isn’t good enough. Curry needs to swish them. This is the game within the game. To see that, you have to go back to one particular free throw two days before.
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Curry’s chase for perfection at the free throw line begins with almost unflinching repetition. Every NBA player has a free-throw routine, but Curry takes it a step further.
First, the quirky mouthpiece. Curry clenches it in his jaw a certain way so that it juts out of the left side of mouth and points to the sky. Not the right side of his mouth, always the left. Not at a 45-degree angle, almost always pointing vertical.
Once that’s in place, there is the approach. Curry catches the ball from the referee and steps to the line, with the ball on his left hip. He looks down and taps just behind the nail of the line with his right toe (every gym has a nail on the free-throw line that marks the center of the hoop) and then sets up his feet so the nail is in the middle of his stance. His right foot is a couple inches in front of his left. His right arm dangles limp for a moment.
Then he gathers the ball, dribbles once and shoots it, holding his follow through with his right hand, all in one fluid motion. Every single time.
There’s a post-shot routine as well. If it’s his first attempt, he daps up his teammates, make or miss. If it’s his second, and he makes it, he taps his chest with his right hand and points to the sky as he retreats back on defense.
Everything is consistent. Except for when things go wrong.
Like early in the third quarter of Game 3 against Portland after Curry got fouled and made his first free throw. Except this time, Curry appeared to get mad. As he reached out his hands to high-five his teammates, he shook his head side-to-side as he stared at the rim. Then, a detour: He walked toward the rim and pointed at it like the rim had committed some sort of crime. Something went wrong.
It turns out Curry was mad because the ball grazed the back of the rim as it swished through the net. It wasn’t a clean swish. Curry was getting mad at an inanimate object for being slightly in the way.
This bothers Curry because of the post-practice drill he started years ago. After every practice or workout, when he’s physically and mentally fatigued, Curry forces himself to make 10 free throws in a row -- but with a catch: At least five of them have to be swishes. If he makes 10 in a row, but four were swishes, he has to start from scratch. He can’t go see his kids. He can’t sit down. He can’t get on with his day until he swishes five out of 10 makes in a row.
That’s why he got mad at the imperfect make in Portland.
“That’s part of my routine when I practice,” Curry said. “I have to make five swishes out of 10 to end every workout. It’s like you set a bar for how you want to see the ball to go through the basket every time. Even ones that go in but don’t feel right, as a shooter, it doesn’t feel good.”
Curry’s long-time skills trainer Brandon Payne, founder of Accelerate Basketball training outside Charlotte, said Curry is so good that Payne will change the game to what he calls “Sixty,” as in swish 60 percent of 10 straight makes.
“If it’s a day when he’s shot the ball exceptionally well, then I’ll change it to 70,” Payne says.
On some occasions, Curry will challenge his coach, Steve Kerr, to a free-throw-shooting competition where makes count for one and swishes count for two points. The idea is to challenge Curry but also to simulate the pressure-cooker environment of the playoffs. It’s forcing Curry’s brain to focus on the smallest of details -- not if the ball goes through the rim, but how it goes through the rim. That requires laser-like concentration that comes in handy during high-pressure moments.
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It’s hard to be surprised by anything Curry does anymore. A season with 400 made 3s, five runs to the Finals and three championships will do that. But if you’re interested in watching the mastery of the basketball shot, this run of free throws is the purest distillation of that.
Curry’s playoff percentage of 94 percent hints at a perfected craft, but this fact hammers it home: Curry swished 84 of his 100 attempts this postseason. Eighty-four percent. Curry’s father, Dell Curry, was one of the greatest shooters ever and he made 84 percent of his free-throws for his career.
Even more remarkable is how dead-eye straight his free throws are. His free throw bounced off the right or left side of the rim just once in 100 postseason attempts. The other 21 bounces were either at the front of the rim, the back rim or the backboard. In fact, he needed the backboard just three times on 100 shots, all of which led to makes.
At this level of precision, work ethic isn’t enough. Superstars need an obsessive attention to detail. For the better part of the last decade, Payne has charted thousands of Curry’s shots using various ball-tracking gadgets and cutting-edge software. One of them, the Noah machine, uses a camera built into the wall to track shot trajectory -- software that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade used in its early stages back in 2012 when it was installed at the Miami Heat practice court.
Curry and Payne have also leaned on RSPCT, a shot-tracking company that uses a small camera behind the backboard to detect where the ball enters the rim. That same company, just this month, partnered with player-tracking program Kinexon, which is used by about a third of the NBA. RSPCT recently publicized that Kawhi Leonard’s series-ending shot against the Philadelphia 76ers had just a three percent chance of rattling in, given its arc angle and landing spot.
Payne considers shot-tracking technology an essential part of his training with Curry and other athletes across all levels of the sport. The tools help take the guesswork out of training. Payne declined to make Curry’s private workout data public, but he said it has helped finetune Curry’s workouts, especially when it comes to fatigue.
“Extremely useful,” Payne said. “If you don’t have tracking data, it’s hard to see when the point of diminishing returns hits. The analytics provide the info to make those determinations. For some players it’s 100 shots. For others it might be 700.”
The insights are vast. When do athletes fatigue? Do they shoot shorter on the left side versus the right side? How does fatigue manifest itself in the shot?
Shot tracking is big business. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment Ventures (which owns the Philadelphia 76ers), former 76ers president Sam Hinkie and Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash have invested in HomeCourt, an iPhone app that uses AI technology to help basketball players improve their shot and dribbling mechanics with instant video review. Curry is one of the many NBA players who have used the HomeCourt app to track his makes and misses while he’s practicing on the road without a Noah or RSPCT tracker installed in the gym.
Toronto Raptors guard Jeremy Lin is one of the key investors in HomeCourt’s $4 million funding round last year. The 30-year-old told NBCSports.com that the machine learning technology built into the iPhone app didn’t just track his makes and misses simply by setting his phone on a bleacher gym; it has helped him identify shot imbalances, brought on by a prior injury, that went undetected by the naked eye.
On jumpers on the right side of the floor, Lin found his shot percentages were way down. The Shot Science analytics detected that his hips swung at an abnormal rate and he landed with excess force on his left side, potentially a red flag for weakness in his right knee and ankle. His leg angles and vertical were also off, helping him identify areas of improvement and training.
“Once you get all that data, you can do so much with it,” said Lin. “I couldn’t even begin to fathom what I’d do with that information if I had access to this back in the day.”
According to HomeCourt, it has tracked over 20 million shots and over 17 million dribbles across the world in over 160 countries. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are two teams that have paid subscriptions to the shot-tracking technology and its suite of analytics. In the future, teams may not need to fly all over the world to find the next Stephen Curry with a perfect jump shot. They may just have to open up an app.
For Curry, all the grueling training sessions and his obsessive attention to detail have led to this moment. With three titles, two MVPs and a scoring title to his name, the only trophy that seems to be missing on his shelf is an NBA Finals MVP.
Staying on this incredible free-throw run could go a long way to adding that elusive honor. With Kevin Durant sidelined with a calf injury, Curry has shouldered more of the scoring load in his absence. Against the Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, Curry averaged 36.5 points per game, thanks in part to a greater emphasis and proficiency at the line.
In the five full games that Durant has missed this postseason, Curry has averaged 8.6 free-throw attempts per game, up from his previous average of 5.2 attempts per game. With a 94-percent conversion rate, that’s no small thing. It has become one of his go-to weapons.
Curry’s free-throw trips may be the difference between a Warriors series win and a series loss. In Curry’s playoff career, the Warriors are 11-1 when Curry takes double-digit free throws, winning 10 straight. When he takes one or zero free throws, the Warriors are a more pedestrian 10-7 in playoff games. At this level of the postseason, the margins are incredibly slim and the luck of a bounce could decide the champion.
“You’re always searching for perfection,” Curry said, “even though it’s probably unattainable.”
But last Finals, Curry did make all fourteen of his free throws in the four-game sweep. This time, fourteen may not be enough to get past these Toronto Raptors. Just like a rimmed-in free throw, perfection isn’t enough when you’re Stephen Curry.
Ahead of his fifth NBA Finals, Stephen Curry is chasing history. Inside Curry's incredible run at the free throw line, his chase for perfection and the emerging world of shot analytics.