Stephen Curry got the best of the reigning defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard in their first matchup of the season.
When San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich decided to rest Tim Duncan for Monday’s game between the Warriors and Spurs, it appeared the mastermind coach was intent on not tipping his hand before a potential Western Conference finals matchup.
Not only would Duncan have the night to rest his knees, but Popovich could at the very least appear to have something hidden up his sleeve before the next meeting between the NBA’s juggernauts.
Which made it mildly surprising when Pop pulled out his trump card and called on Kawhi Leonard to guard Stephen Curry in the first quarter of Monday’s 120–90 win by Golden State. And it was even more surprising when Curry torched the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. When was the last time you’ve seen Leonard look like this on defense? Never?
If any team wants to knock the Warriors out of the playoffs, it will have to slow down Curry, who is bending NBA defenses in ways they never imagined. The Spurs seemed to have the best facsimile of a Curry stopper in Leonard, a long-armed, athletic freak who had LeBron James cursing under his breath in back-to-back Finals.
But Curry dominated every defender the Spurs threw at him Monday night, including Leonard, who did little to slow down the defending MVP’s shooting onslaught. And Leonard guarded Curry for much of the time when both were on the court, from early in the first quarter through later in the third when the game was out of hand. No matter when he was matched with Leonard, Curry toyed with the Spurs’ top-ranked defense, launching shots from deep and opening lanes for others.
Curry’s dominance of Leonard has to be the most discouraging aspect of Monday’s game for San Antonio. Of course, this game is no guarantee Leonard can’t slow down Curry in a seven-game series. But the Spurs played perhaps their best hand Monday, putting the best defender in the world on Curry, who still scored 37 points without playing a single second of the fourth quarter.
Because of the beauty of Pop, we still don’t know exactly how San Antonio will counter Golden State in a potential playoff series. LaMarcus Aldridge should theoretically play better next time, and Duncan is nearly as important as Leonard to the Spurs’ defense.
But while the gaudiness of the final score may not accurately represent the gap—if any—between the Spurs and Warriors, Curry’s dominance of his individual matchup with Leonard is no small issue for San Antonio.