The secret strength that fuels Stephen Curry and the Warriors

    Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print, focusing on the NBA. He has covered the Lakers, the Celtics and previously worked for The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times.

IN A HO-HUM January tilt against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the rarest of Stephen Curry celebrations appears late in the third quarter, during which the Golden State Warriors hold — surprise, surprise — a healthy 22-point lead. After a Cavaliers miss, a Warriors’ fast break ensues, and guard Gary Payton II spots teammate Otto Porter Jr. all alone on the right wing for a 3-pointer. Curry, drifting near the basket, trains his eyes on the shot’s arc, then anchors to the left block and boxes out Cavaliers guard Darius Garland.

They’re not alone. Nearby are the more vertically gifted suspects, like the 6-foot-10 Kevin Love and rookie 7-footer Evan Mobley.

But there is the 6-foot-3 Curry, in prime position, watching the shot rattle in and out. He times a perfect leap, snatching the board with both hands while releasing a guttural howl. Then, Curry bounces right back up, scoring on a lighting-quick put-back to give Golden State a 79-55 lead with 2:33 remaining.

Curry takes a few steps toward the baseline, staring into the Chase Center crowd. Fans along the baseline erupting in adoration, Curry stands proud, then outstretches both arms to a T, bends them inward at the elbow, fists clenched, biceps swole.

There it is. The flex.

There is a YouTube compilation devoted solely to it.

“It’s fun to see when he gets offensive rebounds and he does all his flexing and stuff like that,” Warriors center Kevon Looney said. “It’s always just funny to see him do things like that.”

“Physically, it’s not about trying to outshine anybody,” Curry told ESPN. “It’s just about trying to stand my ground.”

The two-time MVP, 34, is listed at 185 pounds but says he now weighs exactly 200. He is, almost without question, the greatest shooter in the history of basketball. He has changed the way the game is played across the world. But he’s not exactly known for his physicality.

According to Warriors forward Draymond Green, who employs the very same flex and is known for his physicality, looks are deceiving when it comes to his longtime teammate.

“He is strong. And when I say strong, I mean strong,” Green told ESPN. “Like, if you go in our weight room, and we’re doing dumbbell bench press, Steph is in the hundred [pound] club. Not many people get to the hundred club. His legs [are] super strong. That change happened last year.”

Whispers of Curry’s prowess have circulated for years among NBA strength and conditioning coaches. And among the Warriors’ coaching staff.

“It’s incredible just how much he’s changed just in the seven years that I’ve been here,” says Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “I would say over the last three years, it’s been really apparent just how much his body has changed.”

Added Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser: “He’s been lifting more than he’s ever.”

Warriors coaches and players say Curry’s emphasis on strength training has been central to his increased — and at times overshadowed — impact on defense. But while it has helped the Warriors maintain the league’s second-ranked unit, it also raised a question long debated among the NBA’s best — including Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

Curry’s signature skill and weightlifting have long been considered uncomfortable bedfellows — an impossibly delicate balance to find between building strength and muscle, while maintaining the type of mobility, flexibility and feel that have fueled the best shooters in NBA history.

Yet multiple NBA athletic training sources say that Curry, the game’s most prolific 3-point marksman, is the best example yet to show how strength training not only doesn’t hinder the most valuable skill in the game, it amplifies it.

“I never gave that any credence because there is a plan for how you can balance both,” Curry told ESPN. “You’ve got to maintain your flexibility and all that type of stuff while you get stronger. That’s something I guess I figured out.”

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