As Steph turns 34, it's risky and foolish to start writing him off

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SAN FRANCISCO – If the basketball world has learned anything from Stephen Curry’s 13 NBA seasons beyond his wizardry that is fostering a generation of imitators, it is that he collects and keeps receipts. They stay in his head, warming his blood, stoking his desire. They inspire him more than any coach, teammate, opponent, personal trainer or nine-figure contract.

For without doubters, naysayers and haters, Curry wouldn’t have a Warriors career with eight All-Star Game appearances, three championship rings and two MVP awards. Probably wouldn’t be in the league.

And now that Curry is entering the dark side of his prime – he turns 34 on Monday – with shooting percentages considerably below his career norm, keyboard bullies are lining up to cite or celebrate his decline.

He’s washed. He doesn’t shoot enough. He always was overrated. And Curry’s personal favorite: He’s gotten too muscular.

“That’s a good one,” he said last month while appearing with Grant Liffmann on NBC Sports Bay Area’s Dubs Talk podcast. “‘I need to get out of the weight room.’ ‘I’m too swole (sic).’ That’s like a backhanded compliment. I don’t even know how to take that. It’s like, Thank you? I don’t know how to approach that one. 

“I’m really working on my body, making sure I can withstand the physicality. At this stage of my career, that’s a big piece of me being efficient. It has nothing to do with my shooting.”

This is a man who has spent most of his life hearing that he was too skinny to prosper at the college level, much less the NBA.

Receipts.

When Curry scored eight points in a national TV game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, it wasn’t because he was jacking up bricks or forgot how to shoot. It was because Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer, like most coaches, drew up an “anybody but Steph” game plan.

“We’re no different, we’re going to throw the kitchen sink and everything we got at him,” Budenholzer said 90 minutes before tipoff. “He's seen it all. It won't be anything new or different. But our ability to stay focused, to stay disciplined, to have multiple efforts, it takes an incredible effort to guard a player like Steph Curry.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich installed this plan eight years ago, with Miami’s Erik Spoelstra quickly adopting the idea. Tyronn Lue followed by it during his time in Cleveland, where the Cavaliers and Warriors met three times during the NBA Finals in his tenure. He still does now with the Clippers.

None of these three coaches -- all widely considered among the top five in the NBA -- is ready to abandon this approach. Even with age creeping up on Curry, the smart move is to commit to containing him.

“We’ll just hope that that effort, and the discipline, and attention to detail is high level on our end,” Budenholzer said. “Or else he’ll make you pay.”

Curry’s presence made the Bucks pay. He became the ultimate diversion for teammates Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins. They combined for 89 points and the Warriors rolled to a 122-113 victory.

Thompson, pointing out that he benefitted from defensive platoons directed toward Curry, said he appreciates the gravitational pull of his longtime teammate. Poole cited Curry’s presence as allowing the Golden State’s offense to play four-on-three.

“Steph was perfectly patient in recognizing what the defense was doing and just getting the ball out of his hands,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “And with Jordan having that kind of space given what the defense was doing with Steph getting that extra playmaker out there early opened up the floor and both Jordan and Klay got going.

“If they're going to commit two to Steph, and those guys are going, it's going to be tough to defend.”

Curry’s game was an exhibition of his tremendous clout, an illustration of how his impact goes beyond his numbers. With eight points, on only seven shots, and eight assists, he was the most important Warrior on the floor.

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There have been only four point guards to lead the NBA in scoring over the past 50 years. The first, Nate Archibald, was a part-time player at 34 and retired at 35. The second, Allen Iverson, was in steep decline at 33 and out of the league at 35. The third, Russell Westbrook, is 33 and having the worst season of his career.

Isiah Thomas never led the league in scoring but belongs among the top five point guards of all time. He was out of the NBA at 33. 

Curry knows of yesteryear, and he also hears the commentary in 2022. Ja is better. Luka is better. Kyrie is better. Trae Young is gaining. Steph Curry is getting old.

Be careful buying into this line of thought.

Anticipating ageism, Curry reached out to Tom Brady last summer. They talked about staying productive while prolonging a career. Curry built a career on achieving what others said he could not. Counting him out now is risky. Maybe even foolish.

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