LOS ANGELES -- Ask NBA defenders to identify the most terrifying sight in the league and they will deliver a wide range of replies: LeBron James, taking that pronounced step backward before starting a headlong drive; Kevin Durant, doing that little shoulder shimmy before unleashing a top-of-the-circle three; Blake Griffin levitating in mid-air, Russell Westbrook stampeding through the lane, Anthony Davis leaking out on the break. But, increasingly, the most horrifying visual seems to be the image of a 6’3” 190-pound point guard dribbling around a basic high screen.
Thirty-nine players are shooting with more accuracy from three-point range this season than Steph Curry, who entered Christmas Day at 38.6 percent, the lowest clip of his career. And, yet, Curry is compiling his best season in all the ways that matter. These two developments are not unrelated.
At some point -- maybe it was when he dropped 54 on the Knicks, or 47 on the Blazers, or pulled up for the game-winner against the Magic -- Curry morphed from a player who commanded attention to a player who monopolized it. “Thirty-five footers are like layups,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks gushed last week, when asked about Curry. Thirty-five footers are not layups, but the response was revealing, since opposing coaches are apparently treating them that way. Curry’s reputation may have finally grown more expansive than his range. When he maneuvers around one of those high screens, two defenders invariably rush to him, petrified he’ll let fly. In a sense, they’ve accomplished their objective, because Curry has already missed 131 threes this season.
But the price has been steep. The mere threat of Curry’s trigger is scrambling defenses and allowing Golden State to consistently play 4-on-3. Other point guards can shoot, but none tilts the floor like Curry, who gets blitzed more than a freshman quarterback. In recent years, under Mark Jackson’s iso-heavy system, the Warriors did not always exploit the man advantage. But since Steve Kerr replaced Jackson, stressing Spursian passing, Curry is firing out of the double teams and the Warriors are finding preposterously open shots. “Last year the ball stuck a lot with them,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “Steve has done a great job getting them to buy into ball movement.”
According to ESPN.com, when Curry is on the floor, Golden State is posting a 113.1 offensive rating, which would lead the NBA. When he’s on the bench, it’s 95.6, second-worst in the league. This is why, three-point percentage aside, he’s the MVP through Christmas. Everyone forces him to dish and he still averages 23.4 points, converting inside more efficiently than ever. “When I come off the screen and beat the big, it negates the trap,” Curry said. And when he can’t beat the big, he enables someone else to do it. “I’ve got to make sure my passes are crisp,” he continued, “so they can’t recover.”
The teams best equipped to take out Golden State are the ones who can defend the Warriors semi-honestly, with mobile big men able to jump out on Curry when he works around screens, and hustle back before he burns them. The Clippers, anchored by DeAndre Jordan in the middle, are among that exclusive group. The Clippers throttled Golden State on Thursday night at Staples Center, 100-86, employing the usual Curry-centric strategy. They smothered the sniper, and even though he spotted other Warriors, they were a step slow and a hair off. “(Defenses) are going to be all over Steph,” Kerr said. “We know that. If we don’t execute when he is taken out of the game, we’re in trouble.”
For the first time this season, the Warriors find themselves in something resembling a rough patch. They’ve lost two in a row and three out of five. No one is comparing them to the 1995-96 Bulls anymore. The Warriors are now 23-5, which is what the Blazers were at this time a year ago, and they wound up the five-seed.
Drawing conclusions at Christmas is dicey, whether about the MVP race or the title hunt, but these Warriors are different than those Blazers. Even though the coach is new, the club has been through the post-season paces before, and is about to head home for 12 of its next 15 games. Center Andrew Bogut, who catches many of Curry’s outlets in the high post, should return during the homestand. Instead of downplaying Thursday’s loss, to a rival with whom they’ve clashed repeatedly, the Warriors sounded chastened. Draymond Green called the showdown “boring” and “too nice.” He said, “It’s no secret that we don’t like them. And it’s no secret that they don’t like us. So I don’t know why the game was that nice. We’re trying to act like we like each other, and we don’t.” Green seemed almost disappointed that the Clippers and Warriors finally survived a meeting without incident.
Several West teams have assembled gaudy records over the first two months -- Golden State and Memphis, Houston and Portland -- but the conference is too tough for those shiny marks to last. The contenders will grind each other down, and in the case of the Clippers and Warriors, perhaps beat each other up. No one will absorb more of the attention, and abuse, than Curry. With every blitz, his three-point percentage may suffer, but his shot at the ultimate prize should improve.