In the midst of his first playoff run, and a brilliant one at that, the Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry has emerged as one of the most uniquely potent threats in the NBA.
Among all NBA players, perhaps only Kevin Durant can access such a dangerously accurate shot in such a variety of ways. Coming off screens, in transition, spotting up for catch and shoot three-pointers, and even dangerous off the dribble in isolation, the moment either player crosses half court the defense must mark them as a threat to shoot, regardless of the situation.
While Curry lacks the length and athleticism of Durant, he compensates with elite ball handling and premium court vision and passing. He also possesses one very important advantage that Durant currently lacks, one that could make a difference in his series against the Spurs: the Warriors protect Stephen Curry as much as they rely on him.
In baseball, quality teams protect cleanup hitters by surrounding them in the lineup with similar players. This is done to prevent pitchers from dictating the matchups they want whenever possible. In Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, the Warriors have two quality options that force opposing defenses to “pitch to Curry” so to speak.
In the modern NBA, the point guard position has become the hardest position to defend. With an emphasis on removing physical contact on the perimeter, it has become increasingly difficult to keep point guards out of the paint without, at the very least, an extra defender shading a step or two towards the paint to discourage dribble penetration.
Curry takes advantage of the hand-checking rules in a different manner. An elite shooter, even off the dribble, Curry needs only a little bit of space to produce a high percentage shot. Combine that threat with his ball handling, and it’s extremely difficult for most point guards to defend.
In the modern NBA the best way to reduce the damage of a point guard, strictly from a matchup point of view, is to cross match with a quick, lengthy defender.
The theory is sound. A lengthy, quick defender can back off a point guard’s dribble, buying time to recover from their first step or quick change of direction, while still contesting the shot.
It is a strategy that has been used with varying degrees of success against the Spurs and Tony Parker, and one that the Warriors are employing by moving Klay Thompson over to guard Parker. The aim isn’t necessarily to shut the opposing point guard down, but to skew percentages and efficiency enough that a team doesn’t have to commit and collapse their entire defense.
Teams have gotten away with this tactic in recent years due to multiple injuries to Ginobili, and players like Danny Green or George Hill not having enough savvy off the dribble or in the post to consistently punish the weaker defender.
In Thompson and Barnes, the Warriors have two quality threats with enough size, athleticism, and shooting ability to overwhelm an opposing point guard should one be defending them.
When the Spurs tried to move Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard over to guard Curry at different times, the Warriors immediately posted Thompson, who simply shot over the top of Parker with little duress.
Klay Thompson is the key to it all in that he is capable of taking on the more difficult backcourt assignment while punishing teams that try to do the same. In this sense the Mark Jackson and the Golden State Warriors are able to dictate the matchups they want to some degree.
It sounds simple to say just put Leonard on Curry, but there are ramifications to that.
There is a reason the Spurs biggest run came when Thompson fouled out. There’s a reason Tony Parker shot 4-15 before Thompson fouled out and 7-11 after. For Game 1 there is only one player that posted a positive +/- every stint he played, and that’s Thompson.
With Thompson and Barnes next to Curry, it becomes difficult to move better defenders over to Curry. When Jarrett Jack enters the game, that dynamic changes.
Ideally the Spurs would remain in their base defense with their base personnel and hope that Curry doesn’t simply go off on them. Throughout the season the team has been able to approach all elite point guards in this manner while still retaining a top five defense.
But it’s foolish to say allow a red hot Curry to get his while containing everyone else because he is absolutely a player that can efficiently score 20-plus points in a quarter and in most cases that will be enough to beat you.
There are contingency options for such occasions.
A simple one would be to fight fire-with-fire by giving more minutes to Parker-Ginobili lineup combinations, forcing Curry to work defensively and creating multiple advantages for the Spurs in transition, where cross matching can actually backfire on a team.
Another is to move Parker to Barnes. The obvious response would be to move Barnes to the low post to exploit, but the Spurs have had similar success in the past (for example, Brent Barry guarding Rashard Lewis while the latter was still a post-up threat in Seattle). It’s certainly easier to provide help to the low block than it is above the three-point line, and the Warriors taking advantage of that matchup would also mean keeping the ball out of the hands of their top two options.
No option is ideal, but then, the playoffs aren’t about ideal situations. They are about who can dictate matchups and who can adapt to them. A significant part of the Spurs victory wasn’t about adjusting; it was simply about six fouls ceasing it from existing.