All these years, playoff series and individual matchups later, there is still no solution for Steph Curry, the most transcendent superstar basketball has seen in at least 25 years. On paper, his current opponent has a defense that should be able to make life less comfortable than most can, though.
The Celtics are built to short-circuit much of the spontaneity that makes Curry and the Warriors so singular. Through the first two games of these NBA Finals, they’ve managed to do just that, here and there, but Boston’s total body of work against the greatest shooter who’s ever lived leaves quite a bit to be desired.
In search of his first Finals MVP, Curry is averaging 31.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. He has six steals and four turnovers. His shooting splits are 45.7/46.2/81.8. When he’s been on the floor, Golden State’s offensive rating is a sizzling 120.6. When he sits, it plummets to 90.0, a number the Thunder can laugh at. All of this is over a two-game sample size, but it’s still ridiculous.
Unlike previous battles against Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler this postseason, Boston can’t rely on its elite individual defenders to get physical, contest shots and induce isolation basketball. Curry demands more, often requiring (at least) two Celtics to work in tandem, be it guarding a pick-and-roll or chasing Curry off screens on the weakside. Impeding his progress requires a delicate balance, too—dedicate too much energy toward stopping Curry and other Warriors will kick a hole in the door you’ve left ajar.
Here’s a look at how the Celtics are trying to keep the two-time MVP in check, and some different ways Curry is still managing to have his way.
Since the first quarter of Game 1, when it was hard to recognize any functional defensive game plan, Boston has worked through a mixture of coverages, all relying on who’s directly involved and who else is on the floor. They’ve switched, dropped, fought over screens, brought their bigs up to touch, soft doubled and aggressively helped off non-shooters, rolling through several different defenders on Curry at the start of every play.
The objective is obvious, as Celtics coach Ime Udoka communicated after Game 2. “Just throwing extra bodies, depending on who was in certain spots on the court,” he said. “We were choosing who we wanted to double-team off, who we wanted to switch off of and who played more traditional coverage. Just some things to keep him off balance.”
Overall, Curry has had success regardless of what’s in front of him, initiating ball screens at a high volume with several dance partners, hunting mismatches and then cooking them into vapor. “If I can get in those one-on-one matchups and be able to play-make out of that and read the defense well, we can create a lot of good shots,” Curry said recently. “So we'll see how it goes the rest of the series, but it's been working.”
When these words were uttered, Curry was probably thinking about Al Horford. The Celtics do not want Horford on an island against him for a variety of reasons. He isn’t quick enough to stifle dribble penetration, and when Boston is small, switches pull its best rim protector away from the basket, forcing help off Golden State’s deadly cutters.
The Celtics’ drops have been touch and go, but Derrick White and Marcus Smart have done a decent job recovering back to Curry over the top. Here, they get a stop after Klay Thompson decides to pick on Payton Pritchard in the post. But keep an eye on Nemanja Bjelica, who sets another screen on White as Thompson works in the post and Horford drifts down to help. Thompson isn’t known for his vision, and the decision to shoot isn’t necessarily the worst one, but it goes to show how challenging it can be to stop Curry for an entire possession when the ball hops back to him after an initial win.
Even when Curry doesn’t score himself, the anxiety that precedes Golden State’s shot is palpable. If you gamble and knock yourself out of position, pain will follow. Here, Curry gets the switch on Horford, and Smart responds by doubling him. After they nearly steal the ball, Horford faceguards Curry 30 feet from the basket, Jaylen Brown lunges for an interception, Jayson Tatum closes out a bit too hot on Thompson and Andrew Wiggins draws a foul at the rim. It’s the type of chaos these Warriors love:
Elsewhere, some of Game 2’s out-of-bounds plays yielded curious decisions by the Celtics, where Horford found himself on Curry from the start. At least one of them was a mistake made by Smart, where Horford had no choice but to step up and cover Curry after they missed an obvious switch—which led to four Celtics trying to stop his drive and Kevon Looney scoring a wide open layup:
But then this other example later on in the third quarter makes very little sense, with Horford and Rob Williams III covering Curry and Looney on the weakside. You can say Boston is anticipating a screen that they can then switch, but that still doesn’t explain how they’re matched up from the start (Williams on Curry is even less ideal). The result is a gift for an offense that doesn’t need any help:
Even as Curry looks for a preferable target, Boston isn’t the best defense in the NBA by accident. Throughout the first half of Game 2 it did a decent enough job pre-switching onto Curry—even if it did luck out with Curry missing shots he’s obviously able to drill. Watch Grant Williams on this play below.
Or Smart right here:
Looking ahead, the Celtics still have a few cards to play (in addition to just executing their game plan better than they have). As effective as Williams has been helping off his man (be it Wiggins, Looney or whoever) to protect the paint, starting either Grant Williams or White in his place simplifies how they want to defend a little bit. Boston can stay out of rotations, switch some more and allow cleaner matchups. The Celtics mustered a nine-point lead in the first quarter of Game 2 and unnecessary turnovers are the primary reason they coughed their advantage up, so Udoka will likely keep the starting lineup in place for Game 3. But downsizing from the start is the most obvious alteration to make, should they fall behind in this series.
Whether small or big, Boston could also put Tatum on Curry and Smart on Green. All the switching and cross matches make primary assignments more tangential than they normally are, but in set half-court situations this puts a bit more length on Curry (helpful when fighting over screens to bother him over the top) and lets Smart free safety off Green. If the Warriors go to their Curry-Green pick-and-roll (which Green got an and-1 out of in Game 2 against a dropping Horford), Boston can neutralize it with a switch.
Doing this forces Tatum to expend more energy than he otherwise would, but he’s also one of only a few Celtics with the foot speed and length to keep Curry on the perimeter. The Finals are taxing for a reason.
Case in point: Just look at this possession, where Boston pretty much nails everything—from the off-ball switching to Tatum’s help off Green once Curry drives by Grant Williams—and gets Curry isolated against Brown with the shot-clock winding down. In the end it doesn’t matter.
Guarding Curry isn’t a play-to-play challenge. It’s half-second to half-second.
If Boston wants to win the title, it’ll need to live with his surreal shot-making and control everything it can. That means limiting all mental mistakes, nailing every matchup and then avoiding turnovers and rushed shots on the other end to limit his open floor opportunities. All of this is much easier said than done. Curry is that good. And so far in these Finals, against a defense that’s used to solving every problem it faces, he remains unanswerable.
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