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Breaking Down How the Cleveland Cavaliers Are Stopping Stephen Curry

Jared Dubin@@JADubin5Featured ColumnistJune 8, 2015

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 7: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles against several players of the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game Two of the 2015 NBA Finals on June 7, 2015 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers winning Game 2 of the NBA Finals without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving was surprising in and of itself. But shutting down the league's MVP, Stephen Curry, was nothing short of shocking. 

Curry finished the game with 19 points, but it took him 23 shots (and eight free throw attempts) to get there. He had more turnovers (six) than assists (five). It was—by far—his worst game of the playoffs, and quite possibly one of the worst shooting performances of his career. 

Curry was much better in Game 1, but he didn't quite reach his typical level of performance, either. He managed 26 points and eight assists in the Finals opener, but it took 20 shots (and four free throws) to reach that scoring total. He also turned it over four times. 

After two games, the most pressing Finals question worth asking is: How exactly are the Cavaliers making life difficult for a player who solved every defensive puzzle thrown his way throughout the entire season?

Using a combination of stats and game tape, we can pinpoint four pillars of Cleveland's strategy.

1. Slow the game to a crawl

The Warriors led the NBA in pace this year. Their games featured an average of 100.69 possessions during the regular season, nearly six full possessions more than Cleveland's season average, per NBA.com

Thus far, games 1 and 2 averaged just 93.65 possessions, and that's despite both games going to overtime. The tempo has been ground down to a halt. That plays far more into Cleveland's favor than Golden State's. 

That slow pace has also played into the Warriors' totaling only 31 fast break points across the first two games of the series, a significant departure from their regular season average of 20.9 per game, which led the NBA. 

Curry himself averaged 6.1 fast break points per game during the regular season, according to NBA.com, the second-highest total in the league. Through two Finals games, he has just five fast break points total.  

The Cavs are snuffing out Curry's (and the rest of Golden State's) breaks with a three-pronged plan:

  • Attack the offensive glass
  • Avoid turnovers
  • keep pressure in the backcourt on inbounds passes after made baskets

Golden State ranked just 18th in defensive rebounding percentage during the regular season. When we did a post about possible threats to their winning the Finals before the playoffs, we pinpointed that as an area a team like the Cavaliers could take advantage of, and that's rung true so far.

The Cavs have rebounded 27.3 percent of their own misses during the first two games, a rate that would have ranked among the league's top three during the regular season. Grabbing offensive rebounds snuffs out breaks before they ever happen, both through keeping the ball in Cleveland's hands and by forcing the Dubs to keep an extra rebounder back to hit the boards rather than leak out in transition.

Cleveland has also expertly avoided turnovers in the first two games: They've given the ball away on just 13.9 percent of their offensive possessions, a rate that would have ranked sixth in the NBA this year and one that is much lower than their 14.9 percent regular season turnover percentage.

All those isolations Cleveland's running might yield low percentage looks a lot of the time, but they also prevent the Warriors from jumping passing lanes and quickly going end-to-end, and they've been corralling a bunch of those misses anyway, as noted above.

When the Cavs have managed to score—which they haven't done much, it should be noted—they've been keeping a man in the backcourt to prevent the Warriors from quickly pushing the ball right back up the floor. That tactic is how James Jones wound up with a nifty backcourt steal in Game 1:

ABC/NBA.com

And they continued the practice on occasion in Game 2 as well:

ABC/NBA.com

It's not just the steals that make the strategy a good idea. If Cleveland can prevent the ball from getting into Curry's hands altogether and force someone else to bring it up the court, as they did in the play above, that's all the better. 

All of those efforts have combined to help the Cavs drive down the pace of the games. That plays into their hands as the slower-paced team to begin with, but it's an especially important tactic in this series given their injury issues.

2. Make Curry work on defense

Another way the Warriors are helping hold Curry in check is by heavily involving the man he's guarding in their offensive action, making him work a little bit harder and a little bit differently than he's used to. Whether it's Iman Shumpert or Matthew Dellavedova, the Cavs are having Curry's man screen for LeBron James in pick and rolls far more often than they'd normally do.

The primary objective of those screens is to get Curry switched onto LeBron so James can avoid having to work past Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala (this happened a few times in each game), but even the plays where Curry doesn't switch the pick are taxing.

The Warriors had Curry hedge out aggressively to cut off LeBron's driving lane in Game 2, the better to allow Iguodala (mostly) time to recover back to LeBron, before Curry himself had to sprint back to Shumpert or Dellavedova. That's hard work, especially when you're doing that dance multiple possessions in a row, as happened numerous times in the fourth quarter of each of the first two games.

Curry also simply couldn't hustle back to his man quickly enough on a few occasions, which resulted in threes for Shumpert and Dellavedova.

These plays milk clock, make Curry work hard and put him in unusual defensive positions. If part of your game plan is to tire him out, that's a pretty good way to do it.

3. String out pick and rolls

On the other end of the floor, the Cavs have been aggressive in trying to force the ball out of Curry's hands as early as possible on pick and rolls. Curry's defender has been fighting over the top of the screen, while the big man involved in the action has slid along parallel to his dribble. Like so:

ABC/NBA.com

The Cavs will live with turning Green (or Bogut) into a playmaker, or even better, hoisting a mid-range jumper. They're often reluctant to do that. Instead, Green  has been attacking with his dribble against a defense that is content to let him do so. This is the type of scene Green typically faced in Game 2, one in which he had four turnovers.

ABC/NBA.com

Bogut is more hesitant to put the ball on the floor, and his catches on short rolls have often resulted in him simply holding the ball while waiting for someone else to spring open. 

Even if the Cavs can't get the ball out of Curry's hands right away, aggressively stringing out screen and roll plays can have the benefit of simply burning clock, which plays into Cleveland's strategy of slowing down the pace.

ABC/NBA.com

Golden State loves nothing more than quickly pinging the ball around to find an open man. Sticking two men on Curry as he comes around screens while also staying close to shooters and forcing Green, Bogut, Harrison Barnes, Marreesse Speights and Festus Ezeli to make the correct shoot-pass-drive decision in a split-second mucks up that process. 

4. The Delly Effect

Much has been made of the work put in by Matthew Dellavedova while guarding Curry. Consider this:

In Game 2, Stephen Curry was 0-8 w/4 turnovers when guarded by Matthew Dellavedova. More on Dellavedova's defense: http://t.co/gCZGtCe3Kf

— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 8, 2015

This is not exactly an unusual occurrence. Take a look at the following statistical nuggets, courtesy the of ESPN post linked in the tweet above: 

  • Derrick Rose on May 10 in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Dellavedova held Rose to 1-for-6 shooting as the primary defender, including 0-for-3 in the fourth quarter. Of the 18 instances when a player guarded Rose at least five plays in a single game during this postseason, that 1-for-6 performance against Dellavedova was his worst.
  • Jeff Teague on May 22 in Game 2 of the conference finals. Teague was harassed by Dellavedova to the tune of 1-for-11 from the field. In that same game, Teague was 4-for-5 when guarded by anybody else. Of defenders whom Teague has taken at least five shots against in a game, nobody did a better job guarding Jeff Teague in any game this postseason than Dellavedova.

Or just take it from LeBron James, who had this to say about Dellavedova's defense after Game 2, per NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper.

"It had everything to do with Delly. He just kept a body on Steph. He made Steph work. He was spectacular, man, defensively. We needed everything from him. When Steph shoots the ball, you just automatically think it's going in because he shoots the ball so well. ... [Dellavedova] just did a great job. Just trying to make it tough on Steph. That's all you can do. You make it tough on him. You get a contest, and you live with the results, and I think Delly did that." 

Dellavedova has played a big role in each aspect of Cleveland's Steph plan, but his best work may have come in simply denying Curry the ball for a few seconds longer than he'd normally have to wait to get it. 

To illustrate the impact these efforts have had on Curry's shot distribution, take a look at the chart below. 

That's Curry's shot distribution by the amount of time remaining on the shot clock, per NBA.com's SportVU player tracking statistics. His early shot clock opportunities (denoted by 18-24) have been cut nearly in half, dropping from 31.4 percent of his regular season attempts to just 16.5 percent in the first two games of the Finals.

Meanwhile, he's taking far more shots late in the clock. He's taken a larger percentage of his attempts with zero to six seconds on the shot clock than with 18 to 24 remaining. Considering that shooting percentage tends to drop precipitously and consistently as time runs off the clock, this can only be considered a good thing for the Cavs. Dellavedova (and to a lesser extent, Shumpert) has been largely responsible for these delays. 

Can it continue?

This is the most important question of all. Much of Cleveland's strategy is sustainable, but it's important to note that if it were easy to sustain, everybody would do it. 

The Warriors have faced teams that attempted to do many or all of these things to counteract Curry before—most notably the Grizzlies in their second-round series—and eventually, they've figured out how to beat each and every one of them. They won 67 games and outscored their opponents by more than 10 points a night for a reasonL They're very, very good at this.

And so adjustments will be made by both Steve Kerr and the players on the floor. Bogut and Green can pay extra attention to Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov on the offensive glass. Green can pop out to the three-point line instead of rolling to the nail. Curry can attempt to split the defense when they hedge too aggressively, as he did on his game-tying layup late in Game 2, rather than willfully giving it up and letting Green or Bogut be the one to make the play. 

But more than any of that, the Warriors need to push the pace and tire the Cavs out. Without Love and Irving, Cleveland is down to seven rotation players. That alone puts a ton of strain on those guys, as they'll each have to carry heavy minute loads, especially when you consider that one of those seven players if James Jones, who will rarely play more than 15-20 minutes a night. That leaves over 200 minutes to split between the remaining six guys.

If the Warriors can get out in transition more often, that will not only help boost their offense and give them more possessions with which to assert their overall talent advantage, but it also will negate a lot of the things the Cavs are trying to do to Curry, because those strategies take a ton of energy to enact. 

All statistics via NBA.com unless otherwise noted