The first two games of the Western Conference finals have been shaped by the biggest stars but decided in the smallest moments. Every possession matters. Golden State's opening victories came by a combined six points—a margin so slight that its 2-0 lead literally turned on a few shots, lapses, or strategic wrinkles.
As such, it would be fair to dwell on any number of instances as potential game-changers. James Harden's double-teamed non-starter on the final possession of Game 2, for example, has already been dissected along every line imaginable. Other pivotal moments were far less dramatic, including those select sequences in which the Warriors put Stephen Curry to particularly creative use.
There is no rest for those assigned to defend Curry. To lose track of him for even a moment is to give him all the daylight he needs to drain a jumper. As such, tethering to Curry requires an active engagement that can occasionally run in conflict with underlying defensive principles. A defender has an isolated responsibility to stick with Curry and broader obligations to help bump, delay, and unsettle other actions in their immediate vicinity. The intersection of those charges can act as the root of a defensive breakdown.
The key to triggering those breakdowns is to work Curry into actions that would involve other defenders, many of whom can be tempted to overhelp against the threat of his shooting. Pick-and-rolls, curls, and cuts are the standards. In Games 1 and 2, though, we've seen Golden State draw value from the surprise of using Curry as a screener. The reigning MVP, at all of 185 pounds, is a screen-setting titan.
This is the kind of opportunity that a single Curry back screen can create:
What's a defender to do? Corey Brewer plays this sequence as if Curry were gearing up to curl around a Harrison Barnes screen at the elbow—an action the Warriors run dozens of times every game. Instead, Curry screens off Barnes' defender (James Harden) while leaving Brewer in limbo. The inversion of screening responsibilities takes both defenders, and Brewer especially, out of their respective rhythms. Coupled with the need to keep attached to Curry, Brewer is put in a difficult spot.
"The thing with great shooters is often times they make the best screeners," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Game 1. "So it’s just something we’ve done—we have a lot of plays where both Steph and Klay [Thompson] set back screens and then come off down screens. It’s nothing complicated...Defenders are afraid to leave Steph, as they should be because he’s coming off screens constantly. If we can get an angle then every once in awhile we can pop somebody loose when Steph sets a screen."
The dance between Curry and Thompson that Kerr described is a staple of Golden State's offense. Both guards swirl around one another as to throw off the defense's bearings and call into question who is screening for whom. The frequency of those interactions leaves playoff defenses better prepared for them, yet there's only so much a defense can do when shooting threats like Curry and Thompson spring in opposite directions after knotting defenders.
Given that preparation, it's even more challenging for a defense to deal with Curry's screens when they come as improvisation. Curry spends most of his time trying to shake loose to gain possession. He isn't only a shooter, after all, but the caretaker of the Warriors' offense. In these playoffs, Curry has held possession for more than three times the duration (per game) of any other Warrior. This makes it all the more startling when Curry uses his movement off the ball to screen rather than run free:
On similar sequences you'll find Curry running around screens all over the floor in an attempt to brush off Jason Terry's denial defense. Here, Curry actually uses Terry's defensive positioning against him; the guards get tangled before Curry physically moves Terry into the path of his teammate, setting his feet just in time for his (and, unwittingly, Terry's) screen to wall off Draymond Green's defender. Dwight Howard has no choice but to rotate to Green, who then makes an easy segue to Bogut.
Plays like this are blips when set against the larger backdrop of a playoff series. Yet both games between the Warriors and Rockets thus far have been decided in the space of a blip. The first embedded clip broke a tie game with five minutes remaining in what would ultimately be a six-point victory. The second stretched a two-point lead to four with five minutes remaining in a game ultimately decided by a single point.
Every one of Curry's 67 points and 11 assists in this series have been of consequence. So, too, have those baskets he's created by using his gravity as a shooter to disruptive ends as a screener.