Defending Stephen Curry in the pick-and-roll is difficult. The innate advantage gained by screening his defender almost always puts the defense—at least momentarily—in a compromising position. He can shoot it from deep, take you off the bounce and make the right pass if the defense comes with a double-team.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Curry is creating 0.924 points per possession on the pick-and-roll just for himself. That puts him in the 89th percentile in the league, which is particularly impressive considering that it's such a high-volume play for the Golden State Warriors.
Since Curry's ascension to elite status among NBA guards, teams have been trying, and mostly failing, to defend him in the pick-and-roll. Multiple strategies have been tried, with varying levels of success.
But the key in any defense is adapting to your personnel.
Miami can attack ball-handlers and scramble out of the pressure with weak-side rotations because the team is extremely fast. Indiana and Chicago, meanwhile, are supremely physical and simply try to protect the paint. They trust the on-ball defender to fight over the screen and bother Curry from behind.
It's all risky, because every pick-and-roll defense concedes something. Curry is a master of detecting this weakness and attacking it, even if that means giving the ball up.
Still, there are some strategies that have proven slightly more effective than others.
Drop and Fight Over
This is the main strategy employed by Indiana and Chicago, as well as a number of other teams in the league. The idea is to bottle up the ball-handler by limiting his actions, forcing him to shoot it from less-than-ideal locations on the floor—which is to say, the mid-range area.
Cleveland employs that strategy on this play, when Spencer Hawes drops all the way to the free-throw line in order to protect the paint.
Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, fights over the pick, attempting to bother Curry from behind and push him beyond the three-point line.
The combination of Hawes and Irving try to squeeze Curry within that 15-to-20-foot area, hoping he'll pull up for a jumper. The rest of their teammates stick close to shooters, cutting off any relief options.
Based on the photo above, it might seem like Curry can still pull up from three-point range. In simple terms, he can. But for anyone who's ever played basketball before, it's extremely uncomfortable to shoot knowing a player might block you from behind.
Often times it alters your shooting form, as you adjust for a hand that might be swinging at your shooting arm.
This effect, therefore, drives shooters off the three-point line to get into a more comfortable position. And while that two-point shot might be slightly higher percentage, it's worth an entire point less.
Even if Curry makes this shot (he doesn't), it's still a win for Cleveland.
In an ideal scenario, the defensive guard fighting over the pick will be able to recover to Curry before he can get a shot up. The defending big, then, is serving more as a temporary defender, hoping to contain Curry before he can do any damage.
The best defensive guards in the league do a great job fighting through picks so that the defense doesn't have to play pick-and-roll defense. The easiest way to blow up a screen is simply to bully your way through it, rendering it useless.
That's what the Phoenix Suns' Goran Dragic does here, sensing the incoming pick and slivering his body through the contact to remain somewhat connected with Curry.
Miles Plumlee's drop is a bit more aggressive as he's lifted higher, but it's Dragic's pure effort to recover back to Curry and get between him and the basket that makes this play. By the time Curry shoots the ball (from the mid-range), it's against a pretty heavy contest.
Part of this strategy requires the defensive big to sort of ignore the offensive pick-setter. If the offensive big pops instead of rolls, this can lead to an open jumper—assuming both that Curry makes the pass, and that the big can knock down the jumper in the first place.
With David Lee on the floor, Golden State has a player who's fully capable of hitting that shot. It's a part of what makes the Warriors so dangerous, with both players in the pick-and-roll able to wreak offensive havoc.
Good defensive guards will try to limit this throwback pass by recovering with their hands high. Even if they can't see where the pass is going, it forces the ball-handler to change his angle.
This can give the big enough time to recover back to his man, and in a best case scenario, recovering with hands high can deflect the ball or deter a pass in the first place.
Different teams use different terminology, but we'll call it "blue" here. This indicates a specific-side pick-and-roll coverage in which the defensive guard forces Curry to reject the screen—that is, angle his body so that the screener is on his back and make Curry drive baseline.
The big, meanwhile, has dropped and is containing penetration. As with the "drop" on top pick-and-rolls, the idea is to induce a throwback to the big.
The throwback pass is there, but Curry's angle on the drive makes it difficult. Aldridge's presence stops Curry from getting all the way to the hole, and the combination of Portland's defenders keeps him in that eight-to-10-feet area.
This forces him into an awkward floater, which he misses.
Can Curry Be Stopped?
If there's any single key to guarding Curry as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, it's really a matter of dictating his shot selection or guiding the ball out of his hands. He's too smart on the ball to make horrible decisions and too good a ball-handler not to get a shot off.
But if there's something that the defense can control, it's where he shoots the ball.
Allowing him to throw up floaters or mid-range jumpers is ideal, with throwing out to an open big a secondary option. Driving him off the three-point line without giving up rim pressure is the ideal.
The examples above make it look easier than it is. Curry is one of the best on-ball guards in the league, and most of the time he's the one dictating to the defense. But if there's any way to somewhat limit his output, the defenses above give his opponents the best chance.