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Stephen Curry’s skills would translate to any NBA era

In case you missed it, Golden State and Oklahoma City played the best game of the NBA season late Saturday night on ABC, an overtime thriller that advanced the case for Stephen Curry as the best show in sports.

Curry hit a three-pointer from 32 feet with .6 seconds left in OT to give the Warriors a 121-118 win. It was his 12th three, tying Kobe Bryant and UB assistant coach Donyell Marshall for most threes in a single game.

Earlier in the night, Curry had broken his own record for three-pointers in a season – with 24 games still to play. He finished with 46 points – 12 in overtime and 20 in the last 8:36 overall. All this after he spent half the third period in the locker room with a twisted ankle.

But I’m sure Oscar Robertson wasn’t impressed. The Hall of Famer and notorious grump dissed Curry and the Warriors last week, saying Curry’s success was a product of a softer NBA game and clueless coaches.

“I just don’t think coaches today understand the game of basketball,” Robertson said on the Mike and Mike Show. “They don’t know anything about defenses. They don’t know what people are doing on the court. Curry has shot well because of what’s going on in basketball today.”

Bashing the Warriors has become fashionable of late. Cedric Ceballos said his 1993-94 Suns could have beaten Golden State. Stephen Jackson actually said the 2006-07 Warriors were better.

This is nothing new, crusty former athletes insisting that things were better in their day. You know, today’s pampered players aren’t tough as they were. They don’t play enough defense. They don’t respect the fundamentals.

Sometimes, the criticism is warranted. The NBA game isn’t as physical in the post as it used to be. It has become more of a fluid exercise, with a premium on ball movement and outside shooting. It’s a far better and more beautiful game than it was 15 years ago, when offense was way down.

The Warriors are a great team, the best since the Jordan Bulls. But I’d be the first to say they aren’t as good as the great teams of the distant past, before free agency and the salary cap. They’re not big enough to compete with the Celtics and Lakers teams of the 1980s, or the Moses Malone-led ’83 Sixers.

Really, the ’93-94 Suns? They might have gone past the second round if Ceballos had made some big shots. They were a terrific offensive team, with Kevin Johnson and an old Charles Barkley, but they were a mediocre defensive squad that would have been shredded by the Warriors (who are very good on both ends).

As for the ’07 Warriors, I’ll write that off to Jackson feeling ignored and needing to remind people he used to be a leading NBA nut job.

Comparing teams from different eras in all sports is harmless fun, an enduring pastime over drinks at the bar. But when Robertson takes shots at today’s game, he embarrasses himself as an ill-informed crank.

Does the Big Oblivious really think today’s NBA coaches don’t know what they’re doing? Gregg Popovich is ignorant about basketball? Steve Kerr? I suppose Brad Stevens, who took Butler to consecutive Final Fours and has turned the Celtics into a winner, is clueless about the sport.

Robertson said they got up on hot shooters in his day. You don’t think NBA coaches tell their guys to crowd Curry and deny him space? Curry has the quickest release I’ve ever seen. He’s also an extraordinary ballhandler and penetrator, which makes him almost impossible to defend.

“A player from any era would be unable to guard Steph Curry,” Kerr, the Warriors’ coach, told reporters after Curry scored 51 points Thursday, on the day Robertson made his comments.

“It doesn’t matter who you’re talking about,” Kerr said. “No one could guard Steph Curry. He’s too quick, too skilled, too good.”

Rules changes have made it easier for guards to drive, which has opened up the offense. But the idea that today’s NBA players don’t play defense is a worn-out myth. The defense is better than ever. The competition for jobs is fierce, and if you can’t defend, you’re not likely to survive.

It kills me when people talk about the great defenses of old. In 1961-62, the year Wilt Chamberlain scored 50 points a game and Robertson averaged a triple-double, the typical NBA team attempted 108 shots a game. This year, teams are averaging 84 field-goal attempts a game.

That’s 48 more shots a game between the two teams in ’61-62, or one more per minute. You think that’s a product of tough defense and ingenious coaching? It was much easier to get shots off in those days. Go watch some old film. It’s like watching old NHL games. It’s amazing how much space they have.

On the day Robertson made his comments, Kerr joked that Curry couldn’t have made it 50 years ago, because athletes “were much bigger, stronger and faster, more finely tuned.”

It’s the opposite, of course. A lot of players smoked cigarettes during Robertson’s day. Today’s NBA players have the benefit of modern training methods, improved nutrition, even sleep enhancements. Advances in video over the last 30 years have made it much easier to prepare for opponents. So every NBA team is ready to stop Curry, or at least slow him down. They try quick point guards, long-armed forwards, whatever it takes. Seven different players defended him on his first seven threes Saturday. He keeps on making shots, some of them from absurdly long range.

As someone who has followed the NBA for 50 years, I resisted the urge to call Curry the best shooter ever. Younger fans never saw some of the old greats, like Jerry West, Hal Greer or Pete Maravich. Some of the younger fans don’t even recall Larry Bird, Bernard King and Reggie Miller.

Still, over the last two months, I’ve seen enough of Curry to believe he’s the best long-range shooter of all time. No one has ever been so consistently deadly from beyond 20 feet, and so difficult to stop.

Like Kerr, I don’t think it matters when Curry played. He’s playing against the best players in the world, and the best coaches. In one way, Curry is a product of today’s style, as Robertson said. The three-point shot has made his best skill, deep shooting, more valuable.

But if Robertson believes Curry’s talents wouldn’t translate to an earlier time, he’s wrong. Hard as it is to imagine, if you dropped Curry back a half century in time, he might be even better.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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