It's hard to sneak up on anyone when your last 12 months have included an NBA record for perimeter proficiency and an All-Star Game starting gig. It's harder still to hide with a defensive mind like that of Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers telling his troops their only objective is to keep you from getting loose.
To his credit, Curry has stayed within his lane, reading Rivers' swarming defense and reacting accordingly. He's lost more than three points off his regular-season scoring average (20.8, down from 24.0), but his shooting marks have held almost identical (.467/.405/.895 in the playoffs, .471/.424/.885 before).
To the Warriors' credit, they are standing strong with a team that has all the makings of a championship contender despite Curry's sagging stats, Andrew Bogut's fractured rib and off-court distractions flying in from both sides of this matchup. Take L.A.'s 40-point rout in Game 2 out of the mix, and Golden State has a 426-413 scoring edge in the series, even after Tuesday's 113-103 loss.
If Curry could've been anywhere close to his normal self, the Dubs could be returning home with a 3-2 series lead. Instead, they need back-to-back wins to save their playoff lives following Curry's quiet 17-point, eight-turnover, four-assist Game 5 performance.
"It's kind of encouraging to know that I didn't get many shots up and we still had a chance to win," Curry, who shot just 5-of-10 from the field, said, via Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. "So if I can find a way to get that done, and get stops, we'll be fine the next two games."
It would be more encouraging if the Clippers hadn't disrupted Golden State's offense to the point that Curry barely had more shots in 43 minutes than Jermaine O'Neal (4-of-8) managed in his 11 minutes off the bench:
Stephen Curry needed to be more aggressive, Warriors aren't winning when he takes the fourth most shots on the team.— Josh Eberley (@JoshEberley) April 30, 2014
Curry's long-range looks aren't gifts, they're necessities. His supporting cast is solid, but it's hard to see where coach Mark Jackson can squeeze any more production out of his tertiary players, ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss explained:
It's difficult to fault David Lee for how he's played when he's suddenly tapping rebounds out of the fray like Tyson Chandler. It's hard to criticize Draymond Green when he's deploying beautiful defense on Blake Griffin, despite being 6-foot-5 3/4 in socks and suffering touch fouls. Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson have acquitted themselves well defensively while providing scoring punch in these last two games. A bad effort this isn't.
For a lot of Jackson's guys, this series has played out as a best-case scenario offensively.
Scoring rates are up for Harrison Barnes (14.1 points per 36 minutes, up from 12.1), Andre Iguodala (13.0, 10.4) and Draymond Green (11.0, 10.2). Klay Thompson has had the unenviable task of chasing best point guard on the planet Chris Paul around the floor and still managed to pump in 18.2 points and 3.4 assists. David Lee is down nearly three minutes a night (30.6, 33.2), but he's still providing 15.2 points on 55.0 percent shooting.
The biggest thing missing is Curry. He hasn't suffered major losses in quality or quantity, but any decrease is magnified in this undermanned, uphill climb.
He's lauding his teammates' effort because he has no other choice. Whether trapping him on pick-and-rolls or switching to keep a body with him as he navigates off-ball screens, the Clippers aren't giving him any breathing room.
He's hitting the players who have enough real estate to work, but he can sense the fools-gold feeling in their production.
"It seems like they've tried to take me out my spots a lot more than any team," Curry said after his 33-point outburst in Game 4, via Marcus Thompson II of Bay Area News Group. "Which makes it easy to get assists and get guys open. But over the course of a series, I've got to find a way to have an impact."
Have an impact as a scorer, he means. The Dubs at least have a puncher's chance if he's sniffing out shots for himself, but they'll knock themselves out if he lets up off the gas.
Or worse, someone else takes his foot off the gas as seemed to be the case late in Game 5, via Bay Area News Group's Adam Lauridsen:
Curry’s absence from the Warriors’ late-game offense was largely of the Warriors’ own design. Curry either brought up the ball and quickly dumped it off to someone less likely to make a shot or — even worse — simply stood in the weak-side corner as a decoy, not even touching the ball as the Warriors played a two-man game without their purported superstar.
Curry buried a triple to make it an 85-81 game at the 8:05 mark. He took just two more shots the rest of the way (missing both) and had one turnover. The Warriors attempted eight triples during that stretch, only one of which was fired by his record-setting three-point cannon.
So, what's the solution?
It's not coming in with an auto-fire trigger for the next game.
He can shoot from anywhere, but he needs help creating those looks. This isn't a situation where Jackson can simply get him the rock and tell him to go. Curry just isn't that type of player:
Curry not quite as adept at splitting double-teams like CP3, Parker, Rondo, etc. because he's not as strong, quick or as athletic as them.— Matt Steinmetz (@SteinmetzNBA) April 30, 2014
Curry has many strengths, but explosive, quick first step and turning the corner on a drive not among them. Gotta skin cat another way.— Matt Steinmetz (@SteinmetzNBA) April 30, 2014
A lot of this will come down to his teammates and his coach.
Jackson has to find him better looks off the ball. Curry might need multiple screens, built-in counters or misdirections to free himself. One swooping move from one corner to the other isn't going to fool this defense.
Curry's teammates have to be more precise in their execution of the plan.
That means getting to their spots on time and avoiding offensive fouls on moving screens. It's setting stronger picks to reroute his defender, finding the creases left behind by an overcommitting Clippers defense. It's no coincidence that his biggest night of the series happened to include 52 points on 73 percent shooting from Iguodala, Lee and Barnes.
Then it circles back to Curry.
He has superstar ability, but we're not seeing the focus or aggressiveness of a player cut from that cloth. There's a difference between reacting to a defense and letting it dictate your impact of the game. He's aiming for the former, but the stat sheet says we're seeing the latter.
There's a thin margin for error with such a perimeter-focused team, but it's the one these battered and bruised Warriors must embrace in a series they really shouldn't win. The long ball is the greatest equalizer in the game, and Curry's hot flashes from range could rewrite this playoff script.
Basketball lifers say if you live by the three, eventually you'll fall on that same sword. The Dubs are already playing on borrowed time, though, so the only alternative is accepting a death sentence.
Golden State needs a miracle, but it just so happens to have a miracle-worker on its roster. Of course, everyone knows he's there. And everyone knows how important he is to this team's playoff health.
The Clippers won't stand around waiting for Curry to work his magic, but he'll still have to find a way to pull a few three-point bunnies out of his hat. Otherwise, it's curtains for what should be the game's greatest show on Earth.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.