Stephen Curry won Finals MVP honors for the first time in his career thanks in large part to a performance that ranks as his best at this stage of the season. He averaged a series-high 31.2 points per game, putting the Golden State Warriors in a familiar spot: NBA champions for the fourth time in the past eight years.
Curry was clearly the single most valuable player in these Finals, even after an uncharacteristic off night in Game 5. He was the leading scorer in the series by a wide margin and his unprecedented ability to create offense off the dribble is the single biggest reason why Golden State won the series against the Boston Celtics, who had the best defense in the NBA in the regular season.
Curry is the greatest shooter in league history in part because he has developed an ability to create his own jump-shooting opportunities from distances that were rarely utilized before he showed up. He can generate shooting space against any defensive coverage in the world, and thanks to his lightning-fast release and pinpoint accuracy, he can knock down those self-created shots at elite rates.
The Curry formula is an offensive hack that has not only changed professional basketball forever, but it has also given the Warriors their most important advantage of these Finals: simple actions that lead to low-maintenance buckets from long distances.
In the quest for the 2022 NBA championship, it was less about numbers and more about this simple fact: Thanks to Curry, the Warriors had a reliable offensive scorer; the Celtics did not.
TWENTY YEARS AGO, the NBA Finals were all about dumping it down to Shaquille O’Neal and letting him go to work. Between 2000 and 2002, the Los Angeles Lakers won three consecutive titles because O’Neal owned the restricted area and opposing defenses had no answers.
Over the past decade, Curry has turned basketball inside out, and he’s able to generate efficiency numbers that rival O’Neal’s, only he does it from much farther away. And in 2022, it’s the Celtics who have no answers.
In these Finals, an average possession was worth 1.09 points; an average paint shot was worth even less, 1.05 points. Even after his dreadful shooting in Game 5, Curry’s jump shot in this series averaged 1.35 points per attempt. His average shot distance on those jumpers: 25.3 feet.
And yes, while Curry missed all nine 3-pointers he attempted in Game 5 — the first time in his postseason career he failed to make a 3-pointer — it wasn’t a case of Ime Udoka’s defense doing anything different or better than the previous four games. According to Second Spectrum’s shot quality model, Curry’s jumpers were close to the same quality in Game 5 as they’d been for the rest of the series; he just missed shots, making just 1 of 12 jumpers on the night. Those same shots fell in Game 6, to the tune of 6-for-11 shooting from 3.
Even with that dreadful performance factored in, Curry still logged one of the most efficient jump-shooting performances we have ever seen at this stage of the season.
In the player tracking era, there have been 131 instances of a single player attempting at least 70 jump shots in a playoff series. Of that immense group, Curry’s 1.35 points per possession on jumpers ranks third.
Even after his 0-for-9 night on Monday, Curry made 31 3-pointers in this series. It’s the third time in his career he has made at least 25; all other players in NBA history have combined for one such series (Danny Green, who had 27 for the Spurs in 2013). Curry fell just one 3-pointer shy of his own record for most in a Finals, set in 2016 — a series that went one game longer than this one.
SUCCESS FOR NBA superstars comes down to one simple thing: blending volume and efficiency at elite rates. While Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum produced with volume in these Finals, averaging a combined 45.0 points per game, they were far off Curry’s efficiency numbers. Brown shot 43.1% from the field and 34% from beyond the arc. And while Tatum shot 45.5% from 3s, his unfathomably bad 24-for-76 mark inside the arc dragged his overall shooting percentage down to 36.7%.
Meanwhile, Curry, even with Game 5 factored in, averaged 31.2 points per game while shooting 53.0% on 2s and 43.7% on 3s.
Curry and trainer Brandon Payne have developed a unique grammar to codify Curry’s perimeter-scoring moves. The pair has spent over a decade together choreographing, formalizing and drilling various perimeter moves to ensure the greatest shooter in the world can self-create his own jumpers. Curry’s unassisted bag now includes step-backs, side-steps, shooting over screens, pull-ups, floaters and driving layups.
As the Warriors have handed the keys to their point guard and asked him to go get buckets against this ferocious Celtics defense, all that hard work has paid off.
When Steve Kerr took over Golden State’s coaching duties in 2014, he installed an innovative motion offense that relied less on pick-and-roll actions and more on the hyperactive movement of both players and the ball itself. And for the past eight years, Curry’s star has risen thanks in part to sets that have reduced his on-ball playmaking burden and emphasized ball-sharing and perimeter shot creation. But in this series, Kerr’s has gone in the opposite direction. His biggest tactical adjustment has been to lean more into traditional pick actions — especially ones that feature his MVP.
During the regular season, Curry averaged 34.5 pick actions per 100 possessions; in this series that number was 48.2 per 100. It’s Curry’s ability to turn those old-school actions into buckets that fueled his Finals MVP campaign.
Tatum and Marcus Smart totaled 212 plays as pick-and-roll ball handlers this series. Curry stood at 216 on his own. Many of his biggest moments in these Finals started with Warriors such as Kevon Looney, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green setting old-school ball screens for him above the top of the arc.
In the third quarter of Game 4, when Tatum and Derrick White tried to fight over screens at the top of the arc, they weren’t able to recover fast enough to prevent huge 3-point shots that changed that game and potentially this whole series. When Al Horford has dropped in coverage, Curry has eagerly dribbled straight into juicy looks from downtown.
No matter what the Celtics tried defensively against these pick actions, Curry adapted and roasted this elite Boston defense by making the right plays. When the Celtics have switched, Curry toasted them to the tune of 1.32 points per possession. When they tried to fight over screens, the efficiency was slightly lower, but still a ridiculous 1.18 points per possession.
These numbers are stunning, particularly when you consider the fleet of defenders he’s doing this against. There are no bad defenders in Boston’s rotation. They ranked first in defensive efficiency this season. Smart won Defensive Player of the Year and has been Curry’s primary defender throughout the series. It hasn’t mattered. Nobody in green has been able to effectively contain the most dangerous jump shot pro basketball has ever seen.
During the regular season, the Celtics had the best defense in the league in part because they held opposing jump-shooters to just 0.97 points per shot. In the first round, they held Kevin Durant to 0.83 points per shot on his jumpers. But despite a nightmare in Game 5, Curry made 40 of his 82 jump shots, including 31 of his 71 3-point attempts. He scored 12.2 points per game on unassisted jumpers; Brown ranked second in the series at 4.8.
Curry’s unassisted scoring moves are like the post moves of the modern NBA. They provide easy offense at reliable frequencies, and he used them to punish the best perimeter defense in the league.