Statistics from the Golden State Warriors' Game 1 win over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night in the Western Conference Finals clearly indicate that Stephen Curry had his way. His 34 points on 13-of-22 shooting, including 6-of-11 from three-point range, led all players.
But the numbers don't tell the entire story. Most of Curry's points stemmed from mental lapses by Houston and not Curry's individual brilliance. That's why the Rockets should stick with their original game plan moving forward.
There's no secret to guarding Curry or even slowing him down. His unique ability to frequently drain impossible shots leaves zero favorable options for opponents. Against a typical NBA star, defenses can key in on one particular facet of his game to exploit. In the 2013 NBA Finals, for instance, the San Antonio Spurs backed off LeBron James and dared him to shoot.
The reasoning was simple: James' otherworldly ability to drive and create for both himself and teammates was a less palpable outcome than his pulling up for a jumper. Though James is still a good shooter, the tactic over the long term would theoretically diminish his efficiency.
Curry's greatest asset is that he lacks a discernable weakness. Crowd his space to prevent a jumper, and he'll drive to the rim. According to Synergy Sports, his 1.186 points per possession on finishes around the basket during the regular season ranked him in the 83rd percentile in the league. His array of floaters, lofting layups and other junk shots are among the best in the league.
Back off and give him space and, well, you know what happens.
Most teams live with these off-the-dribble three-pointers because they're one of the most difficult shots in the game. Any shot off the dribble, for that matter, is much more difficult than one of the catch-and-shoot variety.
It's why most teams in pick-and-roll drop the big back and have the guard pursue from behind. The big protects the rim while the defensive guard drives the ball-handler into the two-point area.
Curry is particularly adept at rising and firing before he has to step into the mid-range. These "self-created" three-pointers, as Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus refers to them (this category includes all unassisted three-pointers, which in practical terms usually means off-the-dribble three-pointers), are what make Curry so dangerous:
A self-created three is a shot defenses will live with from most NBA players. From Curry, just that shot would have been the best offense in the league. All of a sudden, extra help is needed in a situation where it is unnecessary against 29 other teams. Getting back to the beginning, this extra defensive attention to Curry is a major reason why Golden State had one of the most cooperative offenses in the league, with 58.4% of their field goal attempts coming via potential assist. The Warriors had a 62.8% eFG% on their assisted shot attempts, best in the league. Yet even that figure is preferable to letting Curry “get his own” from three, as his 43% accuracy translates in 64.5% eFG. In effect, Curry’s shooting offers a defense a red pill and a blue pill, except both are poisonous.
The Rockets dealt with this dilemma by switching every Curry pick-and-roll, unless it involved Dwight Howard. If Howard was guarding the big setting the screen, Howard stuck with Curry while the defensive guard fought to get back to Curry as well. This momentary double-team was abandoned as soon as the ball left Curry's hands.
A good pick-and-roll creates breathing space for the ball-handler, but Houston negated this advantage by immediately switching or pressuring. The switches were particularly effective because they encouraged Curry's vice: over-dribbling against perceived mismatches.
Despite facing switches all game and finding himself matched up against Houston's bigs—most frequently Clint Capela and Josh Smith—Curry only scored two baskets in isolation-switch scenarios.
How is this possible? It's because Curry settles for way too many jumpers when he thinks he has a speed advantage. Instead of driving to the basket to draw help and create for teammates, Curry sizes up slow-footed bigs for step-back jumpers.
As noted before, this is still a good shot for him. But it's not a great shot, and it becomes increasingly more difficult when he has to deal with the long arms of a bigger defender.
Although he knocked down a crazy jumper to end the half over Capela in this exact scenario, more possessions ended in ball swings (after Curry is unable to create enough room for his shot) or a miss.
Take this play from late in the second quarter in an almost identical scenario to the end-of-half shot linked above. When Draymond Green sets a ball-screen, Jason Terry and Capela switch.
(The Rockets, to their credit, made quite the risky, but ultimately ingenious, tactical maneuver by putting Terry on Curry. He's quick enough to chase him around screens—the Warriors love to do that to generate catch-and-shoot opportunities—and can have his overall ineffectiveness as a defender neutralized by switches.
If Terry does get blown by every once in a while in one-on-one situations, so be it. The Rockets have their better defenders [Trevor Ariza and James Harden] locking up other dangerous options, further enticing Curry to play selfish basketball.)
Curry drags the screen out to the left wing, where he starts dancing with the ball.
Unlike a normal defender, Capela can back off without penalty because his long arms allow him to muddle up Curry's vision regardless. Fake drives to the rim, therefore, become less effective. What Capela lacks in foot speed is more than made up for in length.
Curry inevitably settles for a bad shot here. Even though this off-the-dribble jumper isn't the worst for Curry, remember that it comes against a much more distracting challenge.
The numbers from the regular season bear out this notion upon which Houston is relying. According to Synergy Sports, Curry shot 38.6 percent from the field against pick-and-roll switches, with an effective field-goal percentage of 45.5. Not only is that poor by Curry standards, it's poor by league standards as well. As with any player, Curry struggles hitting shots over greater length.
And even when he did get by Houston's slower defenders, he was often bothered by these contests from behind. Notice how he gets by Smith on the possession below, but he has to throw up a left-handed runner because Smith still cuts off his right hand from a trailing position.
Still, Curry finished with 34 points. How did that happen?
Golden State is most dangerous as an offense in transition, and Curry got loose for three three-pointers in such situations. It's also how the Warriors got back in the game during the second quarter after being down big early.
"You can't give a really good shooting team easy layups and confidence," said Harden, who shot 11-of-20 from the field, per Antonio Gonzalez of the Associated Press. "That's what we did in the second quarter."
That can be cleaned up through better effort, communication and cross-matching—a defensive tactic where defenders pick up the nearest man instead of their particular assignments in order to shut down easy transition baskets.
The more troubling issue was how Curry got open off screens in half-court offense. Golden State's "Floppy" action, a classic NBA set in which two guards start beneath the basket before jetting out to the wing on either side off screens, proved especially deadly (for both Curry and Thompson).
In the example below, Pablo Prigioni is guarding Curry. As Curry flies off screens from Andre Iguodala and David Lee, Prigioni tries shooting the gap—a defensive maneuver in which the man guarding the offensive player runs above all the screens in an attempt to get between the passer and the cutter.
Lee adjusts his pick, twisting his body to get a piece of Prigioni anyway. Capela, recognizing that Prigioni is going to get caught up and be late, points and yells for a switch.
Shaun Livingston throws a well-placed pass, and Curry knocks down the three-pointer. A great shot, without a doubt, but this should never even have happened. Capela recognized the action, called out for a switch in the correct on-the-fly adjustment, yet still didn't get there in time.
For many defenders, it takes a few minutes of game flow to understand that Curry, unlike any other NBA player, needs almost zero space to make shots. Catch-and-shoot three-pointers are even more difficult to guard because of his quick release, and Capela gets burned here. Even though he arrives with a hand, he's not nearly close enough.
The other issue Houston faced was in the aftermath of pick-and-roll switches. The Warriors sometimes chose to attack the other mismatch, feeding the post with one of their bigs being guarded by a Houston small.
Below, we can see that in one such scenario, Green decides to post up against Harden. Once Curry feeds him the ball and cuts through, Smith has the dual responsibility of helping from the weak side while not losing sight of Curry.
Most guards perform this task dozens of times nightly. Bigs, however, are usually defending the screener in pick-and-roll or hovering around the rim as a weak-side shot-blocker.
Smith, in an unfamiliar position, sinks too far into the paint as Green backs Harden down. In a moment of great recognition, Andrew Bogut slides toward the middle to set a fade screen on the over-helping Smith. Green, seeing the hand motions of both Curry and Bogut to indicate what is going on the weak side, throws a perfect pass.
Because Howard is the one guarding Bogut and is primarily responsible for protecting the basket, he's in no position to help on Curry. While it's certainly Howard's job to alert Smith to the incoming back screen, it's Smith's job to understand his matchup and know that there's no need for him to sag so far.
Golden State punishes his lack of awareness with an easy three points.
Curry is too talented a player to be completely shut down offensively. He'll always find a way to score. Houston's job, therefore, is to make those points as difficult as possible and lower his efficiency.
The defensive game plan they've chosen for this series has already proven successful. Sure, Curry found some buckets in transition and had a few dazzling plays. But overall, they did a solid job. The majority of his points came from fixable areas of defense.
It will be interesting to see how Curry adjusts to Houston's defensive style of play. Will he continue to attack what he perceives as mismatches? Will he give the ball up to the other mismatch off switches and do his work away from the ball? Will he alter his penchant for step-backs and use his speed advantage against Houston's bigs to create for teammates?
What if any changes Curry makes to his game will determine who wins this series? Because if he continues as is and Houston cleans up a few mishaps, don't be surprised if the Rockets find themselves in the NBA Finals.