Often, the NBA playoffs seem to drag on forever, but the longer this postseason lasts, the better — thanks to the standout play of the next generation of point guards.
From the opening tip, Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Memphis’s Mike Conley and Denver’s Ty Lawson have been a whole lot of fun to watch. You actually root for overtime just to see another dagger-to-the-opponent three-pointer from Curry, a one-man fast break by Lawson or Conley’s wise-beyond-his-years decisions. They’ve been so good, it’s easy to forget that the NBA and its television partners have made the league’s showcase event ridiculously long. (I mean, c’mon, there are four days between games in the Oklahoma City-Memphis series.)
Fortunately for the NBA, it has fresh-faced stars — Conley, Curry and Lawson are 25 — at basketball’s most-important position. One of the best point guards in NBA history has taken notice. Playing point guard is an art form, Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas says, and some new masters are at work.
Thomas, who has been an NBA executive as well as a professional and collegiate coach and television analyst, has followed Conley and Curry for about 15 years, “and I can tell you they have been playing this way, the way their games are right now, since they were 10,” Thomas said in a telephone interview Thursday.
“They haven’t changed their game. They’ve just gotten better at their game. [Conley] and Curry have an intellect for the game that most guards coming into this league haven’t had in a lot of years. And when you look at Ty Lawson, he ran a team that won a national championship in college. So the basketball intellect, the understanding that they all bring to the position, is very unique and exciting.”
Their results are pretty good, too.
Curry led Golden State over Denver in the first round, but Lawson, a former All-Met at Bishop McNamara, continued to show he’s a star. The 5-foot-11 spark plug is as fast as it gets with the ball in his hands, setting the quick pace the Nuggets prefer.
But the best thing about Lawson is his knack for knowing just when to hit the accelerator — or slam on the breaks. You don’t average 21.3 points and eight assists, as Lawson did in six games against the Warriors, unless you make good decisions.
Conley is an assertive floor leader and sharp late-game shooter. Conley played better than Chris Paul, the gold standard for point guards, as the Grizzlies defeated the Clippers in the first round. Conley’s lean-on-me performance — he had team-highs with 26 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists — in Game 2 against Oklahoma City helped Memphis even their second-round series. Thomas figured Conley would take the lead again.
“Conley makes sure Memphis does what it’s supposed to do every time down the court,” Thomas said. “Now, sure, they may miss a shot. But at no point in time are you looking at that Memphis offense and saying, ‘Nobody knows where they’re going.’ They’re not erratic.
“He has that thing tight out on the floor. And that’s the mark of a great one. They can take it off the blackboard and make it come to life out on the floor. Points, rebounds, assists . . . all of that, yeah, it’s important. But that’s a great mind at work out there.”
Curry is the best of the group. Remember Curry’s stretch of four 30-plus-point games during Davidson’s stunning 2008 NCAA tournament run? As it turned out, that was only a warmup drill.
The NBA’s most dynamic long-range shooter has dazzled all season. Curry scored a league-high 54 points against the New York Knicks in February. In the West semifinals against San Antonio, Curry had a 44-point, 11-assist opener. He aggravated his sprained ankle and struggled as the Warriors lost Game 3 to the Spurs on Friday night, but the same injury didn’t stop him from lighting up the Nuggets.
NBA decision-makers expected Curry to shoot and score at a high level. Shooting is in his genes: His father, Dell, led the league in three-point shooting percentage one season and was an outstanding scorer off the bench.
Few in the league, however, envisioned Steph Curry being such an effective quarterback. He averaged a personal-best 6.9 assists this season. In the playoffs, Curry is No. 1 at 8.9.
Curry is a great scorer who also takes care of his teammates. As a point guard, that’s a hard balance to achieve. Curry’s ability to do it all makes him special.
“That’s the separation. Yes. You hit it right on the head,” Thomas said. “That’s the thing guys like myself and Curry had to fight, for a long time, in terms of the perception about what the point guard position is supposed to be. It used to be that the point guard was only supposed to dribble and pass.”
Times have definitely changed. A new breed of point guards has stolen the show in the playoffs. And they’re leaving us wanting more.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/reid