NBA Finals: How the Celtics adjusted their defense against Stephen Curry and what it means moving forward

NBA Finals: How the Celtics adjusted their defense against Stephen Curry and what it means moving forward

For the first 12 minutes of these 2022 NBA Finals, Stephen Curry looked like his old video game self as he dumped six straight 3-pointers in a historic first quarter. I haven’t combed through the data, but after watching just about every minute of Curry’s season and career, I can pretty much assure you that, with the exception of the All-Star Game, he doesn’t splashed nearly six consecutive 3-pointers at any point in what was probably the worst shooting season of his life. These showers that were once routine are now fewer and fewer.

That’s not to say Curry still can’t set you on fire on any given night. He can. It’s just to say that if you play a disciplined physical defense and follow him with multiple shifting defenders wherever he moves, these days you seem to have at least a slightly better chance of coming out alive.

But if you’re going to give the guy some wide open looks? Forget that. He will skewer you. That’s what the Celtics did to open Game 1, completely losing track of Curry on two separate possessions as if he were some kind of fourth option. First, Jayson Tatum inexplicably moved away from Curry’s defense to stay with Draymond Green. Then Payton Pritchard and Derrick White stayed with Jordan Poole as Curry appeared on his own from behind the arc.

Pritchard clearly thought White was going to change, which he was probably meant to. The Celtics are changing everything and White would be Curry’s favorite defenseman over Pritchard. These are the type of communication lapses that Curry can, and often does, force because everyone is so paranoid trying to report not just his whereabouts, but all the other Golden State scoring threats that constantly weave their way into the open space created by devoting too much attention to Curry.

It’s a difficult balance. This is what makes Curry so difficult, if not nearly impossible, to defend on both the micro and macro level. But this is the final. Difficult is part of the deal. Mistakes will happen, but letting the greatest shooter of all time live unattended can’t be one of them.

The Celtics were also way too soft in their coverage against Curry during that first streak. If you’re not familiar with what drop cover is, it’s when the big man guarding the ball screener slumps inside the 3-point line, a strategy normally reserved for bad guys. shooters to whom you are willing to concede the 3-pointer pull-up. Playing soft coverage against Curry is suicide. Look how deep Robert Williams sits inside the 3-point line as Curry screens the ball almost halfway up the field.

Williams gave Curry, the greatest pull-up shooter of all time, about 20 feet of headroom to get off the screen and shoot, which he did. Curry missed, but a quick offensive rebound and pass straight to him created his first 3 of the game, and he was gone and running.

Later in the quarter, it was Daniel Theis who sagged inside the 3-point line as Curry pulled up unscathed for what was his sixth and record first-quarter hat-trick.

Again, it’s a difficult balance. Press Curry too far and he beats the big man in the paint and causes a whole other set of problems. Blitz him and, after dragging two defenders out of play, he finds the short roll for a 4-on-3 which, in Game 1, led to several wide-open corner 3s and red carpet dunks. Boston is aiming to split the difference, as Marcus Smart was captured breaking down in a riveting micro segment.

“It’s not the Heat series,” Smart said. “We can’t start over. You have to start, especially if they settle down [the screen] so high. You start and drop, because we are chasing. Now he’s descending into painting.”

When Smart says “we can’t do it again”, he says the big man can’t sag inside the 3-point line when the screen is set. It must “start”, i.e. position itself above the 3-point line, in Curry’s shooting space. This is the first step. Discourage 3-point shooting. It’s a split-second mission on the right positioning.

Once the great man has done this, he then withdraws in order to prevent Curry from bypassing him. “Now he’s going down in the paint,” as Smart said, with the he being Curry, with Curry’s original ball defender “chasing” from behind, essentially pinching Curry from the front and back. It looks like this.

Perfect. Horford starts high, deters the initial pull-up 3, then pulls back as Curry continues to go down with Tatum chasing from behind. Here it is again in a critical period.

Horford has a better feel for the drop than Williams, who has tremendous reach as a jump blocker and therefore enjoys a bit more leeway in terms of starting position. But not a lot. Curry’s trigger is too quick, his reach too deep. Here Williams starts a few steps higher, and that changes everything because Curry can’t come back up. The game dragged on, and eventually Curry had to get into Williams’ area at the edge, where Williams had the advantage and blocked his shot.

Here, Williams positions himself above the 3-point line again, and this time he swings over Curry. Again, he forces Curry off the line, and although Curry eventually finishes possession with a back midrange jumper, it’s a win for the Celtics. It’s not an open 3. They’ll live with that.

Switching, to avoid the tricky dilemma of dropping but not too far or too soon, is a tactic the Celtics deployed more as the game progressed.

Here are two more examples of the Celtics quickly jumping on Curry over the 3-point line, forcing him on his next read, and every time you take Curry through another progression, like a quarterback having to find his second or third receiver, you have put yourself in a statistically better position to succeed.

After the turmoil of the first quarter, the Celtics were much more disciplined to start their big highs and take Curry’s airspace off the dribble, and they clearly cleaned up while losing his track. He only made one 3-pointer after the first quarter, and again it happened because Williams started too low, below the 3-point line, and allowed Curry to walk straight on a shot.

The difference in those few feet, if not inches, of coverage against Curry is everything. It only needs a little space. Going into Game 2, it’s sure to be a focal point for Boston, which is fully equipped to switch, assist and recover at shooters once Curry steps into the paint. They just can’t give up a clean look at the point of attack.

Since Golden State lacks individual point guards outside of Curry (which is what makes Game 2 play better Jordan Poole so vital), every second that hits the shot clock allows the Celtics to further controlling possession such as their size and length to squeeze.

Again, Horford has a better feel for the drop than Williams, who is reluctant to extend too far beyond the 3-point line; maybe his ailing knee isn’t 100% yet and he doesn’t trust himself as much to move through space. But also, Williams is just more of a paint patroller. It’s his instinct. He doesn’t always shut down big shooters aggressively enough either. He is wired to protect the rim and is clearly aware, sometimes too much, of being beaten by the dribble.

But he’s surely capable of extending the few feet needed to deter Curry from the shots he got in the first quarter, and if he and Horford can just do that, creating an offense will become more difficult for the Warriors moving forward in this series. . , as was the case in the last three quarters, and especially the fourth quarter, of Game 1.

More importantly, it allows the Celtics to stay big with their rosters. If Curry would have kept shooting for 3 after 3 like in the first quarter, Boston might have had to rethink some of their lineups, especially those that included Robert Williams III, who brings so much to the table and is so important to have on the floor for normal minutes.

When Curry can’t get out of a 3 either because the big man positions himself higher or the pursuing defender goes over the screen, Curry might look to attack more in the foul line area in the game 2, stopping before the falling shot-blocker before the chaser can fully get back into play. Thus:

It’s an extremely tough shot that Curry makes easy, but going forward in this series, Curry making tough shots could be the only shot at Golden State — which is already in the precarious position of having to win four of the next six — must win everything. Boston isn’t going to spoon feed it like it did in the first quarter, and given how equipped this defense is to switch and spin once the paint is broken through, the one-on-one shot will likely become more additionally necessary.

And again, Curry is the only reliable Warriors creator outside of Poole, who could start losing some of his own minutes if he doesn’t get them back in Game 2, especially on the defensive end, where he’s been. exploited over and over again. in the opener.

None of this is new territory for Curry, who has seen every type of defense known to man. Frankly, the only type of defense he’s not used to is the one that allowed him to take warm-up shots at the start of the first game. He knew it wasn’t going to last and he was still very efficient to finish with 34 points. .

He will adjust in Game 2. Maybe he pulls the trigger a little deeper, forcing the big players to start even higher, making the whole defense even more stretched and vulnerable when he goes into the paint . Maybe the Warriors try Nemanja Bjelica, who can make 3 points when both defenders follow Curry downhill (wouldn’t count on that). Maybe Golden State is giving up the pick and roll, although the reason they ran a fair amount of it in Game 1 is because Boston, again, is perfectly equipped to change and stem Curry’s off-ball movement. .

That’s what it’s about. It’s an elite offense against an elite defense, and only one will win. Curry won the first quarter, but after that Boston adjusted and won the game. It’s Golden State’s move now in what should be another barn burner on Sunday.

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