A star was born: Revisiting Stephen Curry’s 54-point performance

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Madison Square Garden: Whether it be Michael Jordan dropping a double nickel or Reggie Miller scoring eight points in nine seconds, the Mecca of Basketball has a flair for the dramatic, the final boss through which All-Stars must pass to validate their status in the upper echelon of basketball’s all-time greats. No player could properly claim the moniker of legend without proving it under the brightest lights in basketball.

Before the New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors squared off five years ago today, the basketball world viewed Stephen Curry as a novelty, an untraditional point guard who could shoot lights out, but nothing more.

By the end of 48 minutes of basketball, Curry had blossomed into a star, baptised by basketball’s biblical entity that is The Garden. Curry was no longer merely the bright-eyed shooter trying to pull the Warriors to their first playoff appearance since the “We Believe” era.

In that game, he showed off every trick up his sleeve, every tool at his disposal, and made one of the better defenses in the NBA look like a rec league squad, dropping 54 points in the most famous basketball arena on the planet.

Curry didn’t just validate himself on the national level, but in the Bay Area itself.

On Mar. 11, 2012, the same night in which Curry would suffer a season-ending ankle injury, fan-favorite Monta Ellis would play his last game as a Warrior.

The Mississippi Bullet, along with Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown, would be shipped off to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for future starting center Andrew Bogut and former “We Believe” captain Stephen Jackson, who would be flipped for Richard Jefferson and a conditional first-round pick.

To say Warrior fans were upset would be the understatement to end all understatements. Many saw the decision to trade Ellis, the last remaining star from the “We Believe” playoff run, as the latest in a string of abhorrent decisions.

Just to provide a small sample of the torture Warriors fans endured, look to the 1990s.

In this decade alone, the front office killed Run TMC by trading Mitch Richmond, moved Chris Webber after one season, passed on Kobe Bryant in the 1996 NBA Draft, let Gregg Popovich walk and traded Vince Carter a mere 15 minutes after drafting him.

So when Golden State’s front office traded a star in Ellis for a seldom healthy center who would play a mere 12 games that season, none of which came as a Warrior, and an aging small forward, one who had a hefty contract at that, Warriors fans were mad. Pretty mad.

Chris Mullin’s Jersey Retirement Night in Oracle Arena showered new owner Joe Lacob with boos, so much so that fellow Warrior legend Rick Barry had to take hold of the microphone and lecture the approximately 20,000 in attendance.

Once Curry’s ankle fully healed up for the 2012-13 season and he began to flash his own stardom, those boos would start to vanish.

Curry entered that historic night against the Knicks averaging 21.3 points and 6.5 assists per contest, both of which were career highs, while splashing home 44.6 percent of his shots from deep. The night prior, he dropped a season-high 38 points against the Indiana Pacers.

As Curry and company strolled into Madison Square Garden, all signs pointed to the Davidson product needing to conjure up more of the magic he produced the night prior.

David Lee, the Warriors’ first All-Star since 1997, was suspended after an altercation with Indiana’s Roy Hibbert — Curry, despite weighing sub-200 pounds, gladly joined in on the madness and was subsequently thrown to the ground like a rag doll — and Andrew Bogut was set to miss his fourth straight game with a back injury.

Taking the places of Lee and Bogut down low would be Draymond Green and Andris Biedrins. Mind you, this was the rookie version of Green, who was making his first career start, and the washed-up version of Biedrins who scored only 24 points in the 47 games leading up to that night.

Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson, in their first and second seasons, respectively, also accompanied Curry in the starting lineup. At that point in time, both were prospects with promise but still a far cry from being the players they are today.

To make a Herculean task even more difficult, Golden State would be going up against the best Knicks squad in recent memory, led by eventual scoring champion Carmelo Anthony. Entering play, New York was 33-20, en route to winning 54 games.

As the first quarter came to a close, the Warriors seemed destined for a long night at the office, only mustering 18 points by the end of the first quarter and digging themselves into a 9-point hole.

At the end of the first 12 minutes, Curry had 4 points off a smooth, midrange jumper and scoop layup right in front of Tyson Chandler, but he’d only connected on 2 of 6 shots with a pair of turnovers to his name. All signs pointed to Curry having, at best, a mediocre night.

Right off the bat, the second quarter looked to be more of the same for Curry, who clanked his first shot of the quarter and was quiet for the first couple of minutes.

The first bits of smoke began to emerge with 9:30 remaining in the second, when Curry hit a tough layup in traffic and nailed a technical free throw, bringing his point total up to 7. But give Curry an inch, and he’s bound to take a mile.

At the nine-minute mark, Carl Landry connected with Curry in the right corner on a risky, cross-court pass. Steve Novak’s attempt to close out is a mere exercise in futility and Curry bangs home his first three of the game.

Human Torch Mode had been activated.

Curry sized up Pablo Prigioni and splash home a trey right in his face. He pulled up from deep on the fast break. He knocked down another on a catch-and-shoot.

Once the dust settled, Curry had himself a 27-point first half and Golden State was in striking distance at the break.

The Knicks desperately tried to smother Curry in the third and take away his breathing room, but he always found that one sliver of daylight, just enough to get a look. And for Curry, as we’ve learned, there’s no such thing as a bad look.

Curry ended the third with 11 points and hit three triples, two of which came off the dribble going to his left off a Festus Ezeli screen.

His last 3-pointer of the quarter was arguably the first mind-boggling shot of the night.

With the clock winding down in the quarter, Curry sizes up Raymond Felton and drives to his right. Felton stops the drive, so Curry alters directions, spinning and beginning to move left. Ezeli slightly bumps Felton on a screen, Felton stumbles and Curry pulls up from about 28 feet. Bang.

Curry’s performance in the second quarter signaled the start of a historic night, but as previously mentioned, there have been no shortage of stellar performances in The Garden. His fourth quarter, however, is what separates his night from those of other legends. It was nothing short of pure magic.

Golden State entered the final 12 minutes of regulation still down 3 points. Shots weren’t falling for Thompson nor Jarrett Jack, the only other Warriors who would attempt more than 10 shots. For every blow New York dealt, Golden State needed Curry to counter — and counter he did.

Take a look at this still on the right.

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There are 19 seconds left on the shot clock, Green is still jogging up the court and Curry is about 30 feet from the basket.

It didn’t matter that Curry was about five feet from the 3-point line — he found his daylight and he was going to fire away.

Curry is so far from the hoop that when he takes the shot, the ball disappears from the frame because no logical camera crew would prepare for someone taking a shot from that distance.

That’s the beauty of Curry. To the average player, even fellow all-time great shooters, this is an illogical shot, a decision that would make any basketball purist cringe with agony.

But Curry defies all traditional conventions. For someone with his combination of skill and swagger, bad shots don’t exist. It was Curry’s world and we were just living in it.

Oh, and yes, he did make the shot. And plenty more. He’d go behind his back to create some space and hit a three in the face of Tyson Chandler. He’d fire off the bounce on another fast break.

His 11th and final 3-pointer of the night came off an out-of-bounds play with 4.3 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Within 0.8 seconds of receiving the ball, Curry had quickly glanced at the rim, committed to memory the power and precision he’d need to knock down the shot, and fired away. Nothing but net.

If you listened to the crowd throughout that fourth quarter, there would be no signs that this game took place in New York. Nearly every fan in attendance dropped their team affiliation and became immersed in Curry’s awe-inspiring performance. Curry had transcended a team; in the moment, he was a bright-eyed youngster shining under even brighter lights.

Lost in Curry’s wizardry was the fact that the Warriors would lose that game, 109-105. They would lose their next two games as well to the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, but the heroics of Curry on that night signaled the true beginning to the reign of the Kingdom of Curry.

In the last 24 games of that season after his career night at The Garden, Curry would average 25.0 points and 7.8 assists per game. He, of course, wouldn’t start hitting 11 3-pointers a night, but would shoot 44.2 percent on shots from deep while attempting about two more per game.

Curry’s magical season wouldn’t end in a title run — he’d have to wait two more years for that magical moment — but he and the Warriors propelled themselves to the upper strata of basketball’s elite with an upset of the Denver Nuggets and a near-upset of the San Antonio Spurs.

Every star’s ascension to greatness can be pinpointed to one particular moment. And in that night at The Mecca, on basketball’s biggest stage, under the brightest lights, Curry had arrived and was here to stay.

Justice delos Santos is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jdelossantos510