Steph vs. Sabrina lived up to the hype

INDIANAPOLIS — Living up to internet hype is tough. And Saturday’s first-of-its-kind 3-point showdown between Stephen Curry and Sabrina Ionescu had lots of buzz leading up to it. All around the festivities of NBA All-Star weekend in Indianapolis, the question posed to seemingly every player and person involved, no matter the venue and no matter the event, was simple: “Steph or Sabrina?”

It took seconds into the contest to realize the hype was warranted.

Sabrina Ionescu opened the contest — in which she opted to shoot from the NBA 3-point line — and missed just once in the first two racks, including hitting all five of her money ball attempts on the opening one. She tallied 14 points through the first 10 shots and finished with a score of 26.

Steph Curry responded in kind, saving his streak for the back half of the round. And he needed every one of them, as his final shot on the final rack — his chosen money ball rack — gave him 28 points, the victory and the inaugural 3-point champion belt.

“I saw the first rack, I think she made the first six, I believe, maybe seven. I was having flashbacks of watching this summer,” Curry said. “No matter what competition, whether it was this or the regular 3-point competition, we would have both advanced to the next round. So it added a lot of pressure, for sure.”

There was certainly already a lot of pressure and focus on the event. Both players came in cold, having not performed earlier in the night. Both had just one round to live up to the moment.

And while this is coming mid-season for Curry, Ionescu is months away from her season even beginning.

All that makes Ionescu’s performance from the jump remarkably impressive. It immediately energized the event and, in many ways, legitimized it.

While the announcement of this showdown led to weeks of build-up, in reality, this was much longer in the making. Steph holds the record for points in the NBA 3-point contest, scoring 31 of 40 on All-Star Saturday night in 2021.

Sabrina, meanwhile, obliterated that record with her stunning showing at the WNBA All-Star weekend, recording 37 of a possible 40 points by hitting 25 of her last 26 shots. It stands as the greatest performance in any professional 3-point contest, WNBA or NBA.

In January, Steph rather coyly laid out the challenge while mic’d up on TNT, with it soon reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic as an event added to All-Star weekend.

The weeks of discussion and debate that followed led to the event feeling like the biggest deal on another night where All-Star Saturday was otherwise once again full of duds.

Sabrina vs. Steph, though, did not follow the underwhelming script. The arena was never louder on the evening than it was after she blazed through her first 10 shots. The crowd was never more invested than it was in that event.

Ionescu was remarkable, matching the highest score of the night from any NBA player in the contest. In fact, her 26 points was exactly as many as Damian Lillard had in his final round to win the 3-point contest.

“Honestly, just happy that we were able to get out there and start shooting,” Ionescu said. “Obviously there was a lot of buildup to this and excitement around it. So I was just excited to be able to finally have the opportunity to get out there and just shoot, to be honest.”

The grander result of the night was the doors opened. And big picture, it’s Sabrina’s words that will resonate longest.

The WNBA’s best shooter went toe-to-toe with the greatest shooter of all time. The visual of Ionescu pushing Curry to the wire isn’t going to be forgotten by the important audience it will reach.

“I think the media has changed the conversation for little boys and girls watching us play, it doesn’t matter what gym you show up to, don’t discount who’s to your left and to your right,” Curry said. “If they can shoot, they can shoot. We can compete and have fun. Hopefully we can be models of what that looks like on the biggest stage.

“Long term, we’ll see,” Curry continued “She’s just getting started on her career, so I’ll let her speak to that. But we’ll continue to find awesome ways to further the conversation on how amazing the women’s game is, getting the eyeballs on it and continue to create energy around it. This was a small step in that direction.”

That last point feels more relevant. The door is now wide open for future versions of this event.

Caitlin Clark’s name was mentioned more than once on the night by those in attendance, assuming she enters the WNBA this spring.

Lillard captured his second straight 3-point contest title.

Steph Curry is ready to run it back again next season.

“We’ve been talking about finding different ways to change this up next year,” Ionescu said. “I think he has a partner in mind that’s going to join him. So I’m open to any partner that could help me win and take that belt.”

2024 NBA All-Star - State Farm All-Star Saturday Night

Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

By living up to the hype on Saturday, Steph vs. Sabrina stole the show and set the stage for a potentially bigger future, on and off the court.

“Obviously very thankful for everyone that’s kind of helped make this dream we both had a possibility,” Ionescu said. “We’re very excited to see kind of what the future has to hold with more people having the opportunity to do stuff like this.”

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