Stephen Curry's offense usually garners the spotlight, but its his defense that has the Cavaliers' attention during the NBA Finals.
The most successful defenses against the Warriors know where Stephen Curry is at all times, having trained themselves to track the looming threat he presents. The offenses that give the Warriors the most trouble tend to locate Curry in the same way—if for entirely different reasons.
A healthy Curry is both a solid defender on balance and a point of relative weakness. When faced with the alternatives of outfoxing Andre Iguodala, escaping Klay Thompson, or pushing past Draymond Green, most would prefer to take on Golden State’s twiggy point guard, no matter his pesky hands.
Cleveland knows this well. Even as Golden State’s defensive matchups have evolved to protect Curry (pitting him against J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert rather than Kyrie Irving), it rarely takes more than a single screen to pull him back into the action. Involving Curry off the ball can prompt the kinds of awkward exchanges that lead to breakdowns like this:
Bringing Curry directly to the ball, too, can trigger the types of switches that give Cleveland some relief:
Even when Curry sticks with the play to contest Irving right at the point of release, he stands as Cleveland’s preferred defender for the simple fact that he is not Thompson. Curry is tall for point guard but not 6'7", stronger than he looks but still movable, lively but not relentless. The margin between a useful team defender and one of All-NBA caliber is vast; neither could offer much resistance during Irving’s iso onslaught in Game 5, but so much is made easier for the Cavs by circumventing Thompson whenever possible. Curry, because of who he is and who he plays with, is a target.
The drag on Curry’s lateral movement is also noticeable to the point of exacerbating the problem. It calls to any opponent paying attention. What’s seen plainly on film is more context than excuse; an inability to separate, struggles to make quick bursts and hampered sidestepping align perfectly with the symptoms of the MCL sprain Curry suffered earlier in these playoffs. To be able to play at all in these games requires a very different threshold from being able to play every possession to its fullest. Curry is stuck between those lines, and his performance fluctuates with what his body allows.
None of this pardons Curry’s defense, which has been dreadful at points in the Finals. There is no satisfying explanation for the way Curry has lost track of his man at times. Nothing in his body of work suggests that he would scramble—without reason—out of position as often as he has. The nadir of Curry’s defense came in his stunningly unfocused Game 3, though his coverage since has only been cleaned up to the point of allowing a few painful flubs a night:
Those concessions matter. Some, like the sequence above, are too random in nature and reliant on Curry’s inattention to dial up on command. Others are actionable—whether by making Curry defend ball screens or allowing his man to challenge him unexpectedly. Those options weren’t used much in Game 5 because they weren’t needed; diversified offense pales in comparison to two superstars scoring at overwhelming levels. But when Irving’s contested runners stop falling and LeBron James’s jumper cools, the Cavs should invest their offensive capital in running as much as possible at Curry. The targeted result isn’t necessarily to pit a scorer against Curry in a one-on-one scenario, but to use his matchup as a point of collapse.
Implicit in all of this is the value of making Curry work through every long rotation and labored shuffle possible. Every possession in which he commits defensively—rather than sit with Shumpert in the weak-side corner—is a drain. The cumulative toll of that kind of investment is intensified by the fact that Curry’s body isn’t quite right. Even lingering injuries have a way of promoting inefficient movement. Create enough demand on him and Curry might surrender points two-fold—first with the complications of his defense and later on short-armed jumpers.
If the Warriors detect a familiar setup intended to switch Curry into a problem matchup, they’ll have Thompson or Iguodala do what they can to maneuver through. This, in itself, is an opportunity. To avoid a switch in those situations all but requires that the Warriors twist their way out of good position—if only temporarily. James and Irving are capable enough to catch them in the act and counter. Tristan Thompson, too, does a nice job of setting and re-setting multiple screens at varying angles to punish Golden State’s near-switches. Relying too much on these tools can be a drain on the shot clock. Selective use, however, undercuts the Warriors’ ability to control their defensive matchups. The Warriors will win this series so long as they’re able to dictate the terms. It’s up to the Cavs to disrupt their opponent’s plans at their premise. A little disorder goes a long way.