LOS ANGELES – He’s small and he’s weak, by NBA standards.
Stephen Curry becomes even smaller and weaker against two dedicated defenders, trying to throw passes while hoping not to fall out of bounds.
For as much glory as they’ve gotten in NBA annals and how much of today’s game is dictated by their speed, point guards can rather easily be made to look far smaller and weaker in the playoffs than in the regular season.
Opposing coaches memorize every one of their preferences and challenge them as directors to produce offensive execution from teammates down to third and fourth play options. Those coaches identify the point guards’ sweet spots and hatch intricate defenses to erase those places from the court—or they just junk up their entire schemes to stick defenders who are bigger, stronger and just as fast on the point guards.
There are two primary takeaways from the first two games of the Golden State Warriors-Los Angeles Clippers playoff series: (1) The Clippers have, as Warriors coach Mark Jackson says, “two of the top-10 players in the world” to go with superior size and depth, and it’s a bit of a fluke that the series is tied. (2) Clippers coach Doc Rivers isn’t going to let Curry beat him, because with all the aforementioned things going for him, Rivers fears only one wild card: Curry being so excellent that it still turns all that logic into a losing hand.
Let’s be clear what a potent weapon Curry is, first. Jackson described him Monday as one of probably seven guys in all of NBA history you could bring together into a gym and he would beat all the others in a shooting contest.
With images in mind of Curry’s dagger-rific pull-up three-pointers and lovely left-foot runners in the lane, Jackson then suggested all those dead-eye, spot-up shooters would be in serious trouble if the game in that gym was a true H-O-R-S-E contest.
“He’s the best shooter,” Jackson said, “when you talk about variety.”
Not even two hours later, Stephen the Magnificent with all his tricks and that great variety show was hardly taking any shots—and he wasn’t making any.
All fired up from losing Game 1, the Clippers were selling out even harder on Curry’s pick-and-rolls. And as Curry semi-baited the traps and gave the ball up quickly, the Clippers cleaned up the terribly messy post-trap defensive rotations that gave Curry’s teammates so many easy points Sunday.
It was altogether predictable. Rivers said it himself after Game 1: He liked the traps on Curry but blamed the Clippers’ loss on those shoddy post-trap rotations.
You knew the Clippers were going to go nuts on defense in that regard, and instead of being one step ahead of them, the Warriors got taken completely out of their game and wound up losing Monday night, 138-98.
Master motivator Jackson, hardly known as an X's-and-O's maven, absolutely should’ve positioned Curry better for Game 2. The Warriors ran the pick-and-roll stuff that is their basic offense instead of anything unexpected, and Curry tried to get his teammates involved the way he likes to do instead of anything unexpected.
Curry just wanted to get the ball to the open man and hope the Warriors could score four-on-three. Make the “right” play. Simple stuff.
Well, it’s not simple. You need special stuff in the playoffs, all the more so when you’re the underdog. You need to offset the human-nature letdown likely coming from your guys against a ready-to-roar Clippers team and do something.
Who knows what might’ve happened in Game 2 if Curry had brought it in the first quarter the way Curry eventually did in the third, when he scored 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting with three assists and no turnovers, and fired his mouthpiece for a technical foul in a fury he later summed up as “just trying to be competitive.”
What we do know is that Curry’s first bucket of the game didn’t come until 2:45 before halftime—and it cut the Clippers’ lead to 58-35. The Warriors’ template was way off by then, everyone knowing Curry hadn’t even scored yet, everyone pressing, everyone accepting how this just feels all wrong.
Curry admitted he didn’t figure out how to beat some of the traps until halftime study. That’s on him and the coaching staff being slow to adjust, but it’s also fair to say it’s simply not easy to beat so much defensive attention.
Steve Nash still feels bitter about how his days in Dallas ended 10 years ago with then-Sacramento Kings coach Rick Adelman sending a third defender at Nash to ruin his pick-and-roll game and cost the Mavericks that series.
It’s easy to recall Phil Jackson putting the long-armed Scottie Pippen on Los Angeles Lakers point guard Magic Johnson in Game 2 of the 1991 NBA Finals, completely turning that series around. Even last spring, we saw LeBron James switching over to defend San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker, using size and strength while not completely losing out in speed.
Where Curry—fifth in assists (8.5) and seventh in scoring (24.0) in the regular season—is different than most point guards is how he can take over a game himself.
He’s a point producer who is willing to pass; he’s a shooter who is willing to share.
And for the Warriors to win Game 3 Thursday night and pull the upset in this series, Curry is going to have to balance his go with his teammates’ flow—and more often than not, prioritize the former over the latter.
“I’ve got to make plays,” Curry said. “I’ve got to find ways to not let them take me out the game.”
Jackson saw enough in Curry’s third-quarter uprising to be placated. Instead of the Clippers blitzing Curry, Jackson saw Curry pushing the limits of the double-teams.
Said Jackson: “Steph is going to be fine. … He established a rhythm.”
Yet part of the intrigue of playoff basketball is that Rivers might have an adjustment already set for Thursday night, perhaps upping the intensity even further and leaving the Warriors a step behind once more.
And there’s the rub of being a little guy: It’s hard to create your own shots in the playoffs, especially good shots, if the other team just doesn’t want you to.
That’s the daunting challenge of being Curry, a point guard who doesn’t have the kind of helper that Chris Paul has with dominant Blake Griffin in the paint. The only way this is a fair fight is if the other Warriors defend like crazy and Curry indeed starts showing he has this many shots from that many spots.
Curry’s work is undeniably fine art. But leaning on a small, thin brush is risky business in the NBA playoffs.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.