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Stephen Curry is better than ever, and the Warriors’ traveling circus is back

Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors are the NBA's biggest attraction through the first quarter of the season. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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LOS ANGELES — The throngs of Stephen Curry devotees who spent years following the Golden State Warriors’ every move have returned.

In recent weeks, Curry, the beloved ringmaster of a traveling circus that reached five straight NBA Finals from 2015 to 2019, has drawn “MVP” chants from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. After leaving the Clippers in the dust with a signature fourth-quarter flurry Sunday, he exited the Staples Center court to a standing ovation and was greeted by hundreds of fans begging for sneakers, grasping for hugs, shouting his name and angling their cellphone cameras in his direction. Many had arrived before noon to ogle his extensive pregame routine. The Warriors, owners of the NBA’s best record and top point differential through the first quarter of the season, are once again feeling the crushing effects of their popularity.

“Nobody is following a s--- team, so you want that [attention], but it has its downsides,” forward Draymond Green said after the Warriors improved to 18-2 and notched their seventh straight win. “Sometimes you want to go to dinner and you have to get through 30, 40 or 50 people to go to dinner. It gets a little challenging at times. You lose some of your life. You lose some of your freedom.”

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As “Currymania” returns to fever pitch and the Warriors trigger flashbacks to their 2014-15 title team and their 24-0 start in 2015-16, Curry himself isn’t chasing the past. In truth, the 33-year-old guard looks better than ever, more disciplined and complete than he was during his two MVP campaigns and more empowered than he was during his three seasons with Kevin Durant. With Golden State racing out of the gate, Curry has averaged 28.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists and has separated himself from Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic as the 2022 MVP front-runner.

The foundation of Curry’s game — his unmatched three-point shooting and well-honed ability to exploit the space he creates for his teammates — remains unchanged. But Curry has made subtle improvements that have helped him shoulder a heavy burden without Klay Thompson, who is nearing a return from two season-ending injuries, and Durant, who departed in free agency in 2019.

Most importantly, Curry has used a diligent weight room program that has helped make him a steadier on-ball defender. Earlier in his career, opponents targeted the 6-foot-2 guard by posting him up or attacking him off the dribble in hopes of drawing careless fouls. In those situations, Curry acknowledged, he once felt the need to gamble for steals or deflections when defending bigger players.

“I’ve gotten stronger so I can handle physicality a little better if guys try to roll you into the post,” he said. “Or when you’re defending a drive, you can take that first hit, you don’t get knocked off balance. That helps. Then you don’t foul unnecessarily because you’re not reacting.”

Golden State has the league’s top-ranked defense, and Green, the early favorite for defensive player of the year honors, said Curry has become “one of the best defenders we have on our team” because he has worked on his lateral quickness, situational intelligence and control.

“The one thing that has been constant forever is his effort,” Green said. “I think he used to reach a lot. He would be in great position and foul. We used to harp on it: ‘Stop reaching. Stop reaching.’ You’ve seen him continue to take steps. It’s beautiful to watch. When he’s giving the type of effort that he’s been giving on that side of the floor, everyone else has to follow.”

Warriors Coach Steve Kerr has seen positive developments in Curry’s conditioning and decision-making when opponents try to limit his impact with double teams, aggressive traps or “top-locking” schemes designed to deny him the ball on the perimeter. To free himself, Curry sometimes weaves through three or four screens and sprints from one corner to the opposite wing and back within a single possession. That activity has added up to a team-high 2.53 miles covered per game for a Warriors team that ranks sixth in pace.

“I think he’s in the best shape of his life,” Steve Kerr said. “I don’t think he’s ever been stronger physically. It shows up at both ends — his ability to run through contact on offense off the ball and his ability to mix it up defensively.”

Armed with years of experience handling extra attention, Curry has internalized the necessary counters and cut down on some of his most frustrating turnovers, which were often the result of unnecessary flash. Despite a rotation full of players who weren’t around during the title years, Golden State ranks second in scoring and first in assists because of Curry’s willingness to set up chains of passes when opponents focus on him.

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“Steph draws two [defenders] all the time because of his offensive brilliance and he does a great job of getting the ball out of his hands,” Kerr said. “Probably one of the most underrated aspects of Steph’s game is his ability to get the ball out of traps.”

While Curry ranks at or near the top of this year’s leader board in scoring, three-pointers, plus-minus, player efficiency rating and win shares, his 2016 unanimous MVP campaign saw him average more points, shoot more efficiently from the outside and post even more impressive advanced statistics. When weighing that version against the current Curry, though, one must consider the degree of difficulty.

In 2016, Curry still enjoyed the element of surprise: Opponents had never seen a shooter like him, just about everyone was caught off guard by Golden State’s up-tempo attack, and many teams were still prioritizing size and rim protection over versatility on defense. In the years since, opponents have systematically modernized their rosters, rejiggered their strategies and tested Curry-stopping schemes. Meanwhile, injuries to Curry and his key teammates over the past two years were a reminder that staying on top is often more difficult than getting to the top.

Yet Curry has been back with a vengeance in November, turning in a 50-point effort against the Atlanta Hawks, 40-point nights against the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers and a 37-point statement against Durant’s Nets, all while pulling closer to Ray Allen’s career record of 2,973 three-pointers. On Sunday, Curry broke the Clippers by hitting three consecutive three-pointers over a 75-second span in the fourth quarter to finish with 33 points, five rebounds, six assists and six steals.

As shot after shot fell, Curry appeared to be in an incensed trance following a no-call that angered him so much that he received a rare technical foul. But his soft smile had returned by the time he headed to the locker room, walking past a couple who said they had endured 30 hours of flights from Asia to watch him chase a fourth title in person.

“I kind of laugh afterward,” Curry said, recalling his uncharacteristic flash of rage. “It’s competition. It’s intensity. It’s desire because I want it so bad.”