Watching Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
For Jake Leland
When Nina Simone first sings the title of “Feeling Good,” her voice has been alone for thirty-nine seconds. The solitary singer: there’s always something fiat lux about it. Resolute, the individual moves through the void. You know the accompaniment is coming, but the voice, all by itself, makes you care about it: form turns into feeling. This is how the artist passes on her exuberance. You’re affected by her immediate present, implicated in her future, and interested in her past. This is how the strut between you two starts: “and I’m feeling good.”
The instruments come to life right after Simone sings those words, as though her voice has just confirmed that the coast is clear—a new dawn, a new day, a new life—the brass begins with those gravel-and-booze notes down low, the piano like morning birdsong, light and constant, up top. The world is being made, and you feel good enough to sing as if you yourself were making it. And maybe you are: the experience heats up, the experience becomes porous, and you don’t know anymore where you end and it begins. Is she feeling good? Am I feeling good? Am I being told to feel good? We’re feeling good.
And this is where we are with the Golden State Warriors—feeling good. They’re 23–0, the best start to a season in NBA history; they’re seven wins away from the longest streak the league has ever seen; they’re the reigning champions. We’ve seen phenomena like this before—the 1969–1970 Knicks, the 1971–1972 Lakers, the 1995–1996 Bulls, the 2012–2013 Miami Heat—but these were teams that engaged in different ways, using templates that were widely understood to bring success: a stifling defense, a dominant big man, a stockpiling of superstar players. Those Bulls and Heat, in particular, were when-the-going-gets-tough-the-tough-crushes-your-soul teams. The Bulls were an aging, bitter collection of legends who cut through the league like Sherman cut through the South; the Heat of a few years ago wasted their time trying to figure out if they wanted to be the heroes or the villains of the league.
But the Warriors—they play like, well, like they’re feeling good. There’s a refreshing absence of internal struggle, a looseness that pundits would condemn as unpreparedness if the Warriors hadn’t just won a championship. When you watch this team play, you’re watching something that’s broken from its tether. It makes no sense. Yes, the high pick-and-roll pace-and-space elements from Mike D’Antoni’s offense are there. But the Warriors play elite defense; D’Antoni’s teams played little defense at all. And where D’Antoni’s offense put the point guard at the center of its universe, the Warriors run something like a dark-matter offense: Curry may be the main ball handler, but anyone can initiate the attack. The center of the universe is wherever the ball is. They run inverted stuff, like ball screens for their center set by their MVP point guard. And while it’s in vogue to deploy a deep shooting power forward, the “stretch four”, the Warriors have abandoned that notion in favor of a playmaking four. They keep Draymond Green constantly moving, constantly altering his responsibilities in the offense—instead of merely stretching defenses, the Warriors implode them. The rest of the league has yet to catch on; they still extol the stretch four like priests extolling Ptolemy. You see the gob-smacked faces of the Warriors’ opponents, of those opponents’ coaches and fans. They haven’t seen this before. They don’t know what to do.
When you watch Steph Curry play these days, it’s pretty obvious that he’s feeling good. If you played basketball growing up, you learn the importance of follow-through when you shoot: forming the gooseneck, waving good-bye to the ball, reaching into the far off hoop like it’s a cookie jar—think Michael Jordan’s last shot as a Bull. Curry’s way, and I mean way, past that. He’s to the point where he’s putting the ball up like he’s getting rid of a bomb. He sometimes looks like he’s just throwing the ball up. Then there are the finger rolls, scoop shots and teardrops with either hand. He’s rising up from twenty-five feet out and skedaddling back to the other end of the court as soon as the ball leaves his hand. And I wasn’t trying to dig into the word-crate when I wrote skedaddle: it’s the only word that captures what he does as soon as the ball leaves his hand. You can’t give him any space at all to shoot, but if you don’t give him any space to shoot he’ll absolutely embarrass you off the bounce … no matter who you are. He’s given up on simply blowing past defenders who crowd him—he likes to lead them quick around the court in small figure eights, giving them the impression that they’re sticking with him until the rug gets pulled out from under them. The guy is beyond on fire. He’s gone full on Super Saiyan.
The NBA is league of peacocking strutters with their signature celebrations for when a shot goes in. Curry is no stranger to celebration, but his looks unintended, as if some other body has taken over his own, which is exactly what happens when you’re feeling good on the court. You become muscle memory from head to toe. It barely lasts. You feel like you can’t miss, and this is where the infamous “heat check” comes in. You can’t miss. So you start taking shots you know should miss. You test the limits of being hot, of feeling good. Twenty-five feet out. Thirty feet out. Without looking at the rim. Quick-firing after dribbling between the legs four times. The heat check. The search for the end of the streak. No one really wants to be hot forever.
Steph Curry, at the moment, is on an endless heat check. Somewhere within the euphoria of his feats is a trace of sadness. He’s in a strange quantum all his own, where time and space barely obtain. Any shooter can tell you, things aren’t supposed to be this way. Not for the pros. Jimmer Fredette played like Steph Curry in college just a few years ago and he isn’t even in the NBA. Plenty of players have been Steph Curry in a high school game or messing around at Rucker Park. But shooters always get found out, always emerge as types: the spot shooter who waits for an opening, the gunner who comes off the bench for an offensive spark, the pick-and-roll point guard who knows just when to let his deadly shot fly, the blacktop legend who just couldn’t break through. These limits define the game—and shooters, especially, are supposed to be bound by the ruthlessness of space-time. But Curry has decided to ignore it all. It’s not that he’s breaking the system, it’s that he’s a broken system. You can see it in how he loosens his neck and shoulders constantly, how he chews on his mouth guard, the mellow glaze in his gaze during a stoppage of play. It’s as though he’s missing something. You know how he feels. You don’t know how he feels. I know how you feel.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the Daily’s basketball columnist. His second book of poems, Heaven, was published earlier this year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship.