Warriors vs. Grizzlies: How Stephen Curry’s 3-point struggles have served to reinforce his greatness

Stephen Curry has scorched a trailblazing path through the NBA history book, establishing himself as the greatest 3-point shooter to ever play both for his shot creation and the consistency of his results. Nobody has ever had to make tougher 3s, and over the years, the percentages at which Curry has converted these looks has been astounding. But that’s not happening anymore. 

As always, it must be established that any talk of Curry’s shooting “struggles” is relative to his own preposterously high standards, but with that caveat, the 38 percent Curry shot from 3 this regular season was by far the work mark of his career. It hasn’t improved in the playoffs. 

Through nine postseason games, Curry is shooting a hair under 36 percent from deep. He’s at 31 percent for the Memphis series, and 27 percent over his last three outings. When Golden State racked up the second-highest true-shooting percentage for a single game in playoff history in Game 3, connecting on 53 percent of their triples as a team, Curry made just 2 of 8 from deep. 

But he still led the Warriors with 30 points that night. He backed that up with 32, including 18 in the fourth quarter, in Game 4 despite shooting just 4 of 14 from 3. Curry now has five 30-point games during this postseason. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ja Morant have matched that number. That Curry is doing this despite, by his standards, struggling mightily to find his distance shooting form is the latest testament to his still-evolving greatness. 

So how’s he doing it? The old fashioned way: inside the arc and at the free-throw line, where the greatest scorers from eras gone by made their living. Entering play on Wednesday, Curry is averaging 7.6 free-throw attempts per game in the playoffs, the highest mark of his postseason career and a 62-percent uptick on his regular-season free-throw frequency. Curry is forcing the action downhill, as the threat of his 3-point shot, whether he’s making them at a consistent clip or not, is always going to create paths for penetration. 

When he’s not being fouled on these forays, he’s just flat out getting buckets. Take a look at Curry’s 2-point percentage in so far in the playoffs, by far another career high. 

Curry is doing the bulk of his damage just outside the restricted area, with over 20 percent of his shot attempts coming between three and 10 feet, which is by far a career high in that area and double the frequency he posted in 2018-19, his last postseason. 

Curry is connecting on these 3-10 footers, whether they be floaters, short jumpers or even the occasional fallaway, at a staggering 67-percent clip, which represents a 17-percent improvement on his next-best postseason (2015-16, when he shot 50 percent from the 3-10 foot zone). 

Early in the season, Curry was chasing 3-pointers all over the court. Whether because he was hunting the all-time 3-point record — which he eventually, and inevitably, broke — or because he sought what he perceived to be a more efficient shot diet at 33 years old, and it came at the expense of some of the rhythm mid-range shots that used to sustain or re-spark him amid colder streaks. 

Just six percent of Curry’s attempts came from the analytical death zone (between 16 feet and the 3-point line) in the regular season, but he has ticked that number up to nine percent in the playoffs, and he’s sinking these long mid-range shots at a another ridiculous 56.3 percent, also a career postseason high. 

That’s how Curry, despite his relative 3-point struggles, has wound up with an elite 61.4 true-shooting percentage so far in these playoffs. That number bests what he put up in his MVP postseasons of 2014-15 and 2015-16. 

Indeed, there are myriad ways one can go about defining greatness, but for me, being able to be great when you don’t have your best stuff is what stands out. It’s easy for Curry to get 30 and lead the Warriors to victories when he’s throwing shots in from the concourse. It’s like a pitcher throwing 100 mph. 

But to watch Curry stay the course without his best fastball, to watch him keep grinding, keep forcing his way into the paint, keep drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line, just keep playing with an even keel despite what you know has to be immense frustration bubbling underneath, has been so impressive. 

If you ever thought Curry was just a shooter, you were always wrong. But this postseason is proving it tenfold. He’s a scorer. He’s a playmaker. Yes, he’s a defender. This guy can beat you a different way every night, and at 33 years old without a consistent 3-point shot to rely upon, he’s still finding the same success he’s always found by tapping into this deep basketball toolbox more than ever. 

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