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Explain One Play: Stephen Curry’s seven steals and the improving Warriors’ defense

Stephen Curry stole the ball a career-high-tying seven times, thanks to quick hands and excellent team defense in the Warriors-Clippers game on Dec. 7, 2016.

NBA: Preseason-Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State Warriors
Me Steph. You Coach. Me jack up threes.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Curry’s seven steals against the Clippers came thanks to quick hands and excellent team defense. Let’s take a look:

Curry plays defense

Stephen Curry does play defense and anyone who says differently is ignorant. During his stellar 2014-15 season, I wrote this video analysis, Steph Curry is awesome at defense, which pretty much covers it. In 2014-15, Curry’s defense as rated by ESPN RPM was +1.91 — second out of 62 point guards (behind only Ricky Rubio).

Last year, his defense was not quite as awesome but still very good as rated by ESPN RPM at +0.86, making him a top-flight defender and with fifth-spot ranking out of 68 point guards. If you like counting stats, Curry led the league in steals in both 2014-15 and 2015-16.

This year, the whole Warriors’ defense got off to a rocky start, not helped by the disintegration by the Spurs on opening night and a haymaker loss to the Lakers early on. Curry was part of the issue (communication mix-ups, inconsistent effort) and this was reflected in his Defensive RPM being well below -1.00. But, as the Warriors’ defense has improved, his DRPM has drifted upwards to -0.99 (good for a mediocre 48/85). By eyeball, Curry has been improving in effort and consistency in recent weeks.

The Warriors’ defensive issues

Up through the double-overtime loss against the Houston Rockets on December 1st, three major issues with the Warriors’ defense became apparent:

  1. Bad transition coverage. When other teams attacked quickly, defenders would lose track of attackers and give up open shots.
  2. Bad switches. Defenders would try to switch assignments but fail, leaving attackers too much room to shoot or drive.
  3. Open threes from the weak-side corner.

A tightening up of team communication has greatly improved #1 and #2, and as we’ll see in the clips below, this trend should continue as the defense gets experience playing together.

As for #3, a more thorough assessment may be saved for another day, but it is a structural feature of the Warriors’ defensive scheme. Every defense gives up something, and that’s the current concession. Basically, because rim intimidation is lacking (Zaza Pachulia rarely blocks, JaVale McGee is erratic, David West and Kevon Looney are not real shot blockers either), the Warriors often play a goalie to shadow drivers. This goalie helps off the weak-side corner. (Most recent discussion: Explain One Play: Stephen Curry and Draymond Green contain Russell Westbrook.)

Curry’s seven steals

Q1. 10:15 Blake Griffin bad pass (Stephen Curry steals), 3 - 2

The Clippers attack the Warriors early with a 5-on-3 break. But this time the W’s, instead of panicking, suit their coverage to the personnel. The extra man on the break is Luc Mbah a Moute, who the Warriors ignore due to his unreliable jump shot. Instead Kevin Durant waits to pick up Blake Griffin. Watch:

Durant contests Griffin excellently without fouling. Griffin can get out of control on his moves and here he is toast. He throws an unwise bailout pass to Chris Paul, which is easily intercepted by Curry. His second option is J.J. Redick in the left corner, but you can see Klay Thompson already anticipating and cutting it off. Mbah a Moute lingers in the short right corner, drifting, alone.

Q1. 6:11 J.J. Redick bad pass (Stephen Curry steals), 11 - 10

Here, the Warriors’ switching scheme completely consumes this Clippers’ play. The key man to watch is J.J. Redick, who starts at the right elbow guarded by Thompson. Watch how many Warriors switch to him:

Redick gets passed from Thompson to Curry to Durant to Draymond Green. So Redick gets four screens and a hand-off and the W’s turn it into Redick going 1-on-1 against Green’s smothering on-ball defense. Redick gets into trouble in the air. Toss the ball and Curry gets the present. Very refreshing to see the switches and hand-offs being so skilled.

Q1. 2:32 Wesley Johnson bad pass (Stephen Curry steals), 27 - 13

Q3. 11:44 Blake Griffin bad pass (Stephen Curry steals), 62 - 49

This is a lot of motion to get Green off Griffin and switched onto Redick. This leaves Thompson to defend Griffin. What should the Warriors do? This:

Golden State has been double-teaming more this year, and here Durant leaves the disrespected Mbah a Moute to double-team Griffin. Griffin panics and has no idea where his open man is and throws it to Chris Paul, who, unfortunately, is standing behind Curry. Sweet pass from Curry, who apparently is seeing new angles this year.

Q3. 8:10 Chris Paul lost-ball turnover (Stephen Curry steals), 71 - 54

This weird play begins with a Griffin flop which Chris Paul turns into early offense. Paul finds Redick in the corner. Thompson doesn’t lose Redick and he makes an amazing challenge ...

... which forces Redick into an awkward mid-shot bailout pass that flutters into no man’s land. Curry out-hustles Paul to the ball, making this the second steal Curry has really earned himself.

Q3. 7:50 Blake Griffin bad pass (Stephen Curry steals), 71 - 54

This play ends up being a dribble hand-off side pick-and-roll with Griffin screening for Paul. The standard defense for the Warriors on side pick-and-rolls is ICE, not usually switching. This means Curry has to get between Paul and Griffin to force Paul away from the screen and the middle of the court while Green sinks back to protect against Paul’s drive. In this case, Curry’s quick hands deflect the hand-off and Curry just had a little more turbo than Paul. Result: another completely earned steal.

(For more on ICE defense, check out Notes on the Warriors' defense and search the Index for ICE.)

Q3. 7:39 J.J. Redick bad pass (Stephen Curry steals), 73 - 54

This steal will be Curry’s third steal in 30 seconds. Chris Paul tries to push the ball in early offense right after the previous fast-break layup by Curry. But Draymond Green does not lose Redick in the early offense, closes out, and ...

Redick attacks the close-out but is met by a rotating Pachulia — resulting in a a bailout pass thrown straight to Curry. This was unwise, and it just isn’t Redick’s game to dribble attack 3-on-4. Paul has barely caught up to the play, Griffin is still down court and never even makes it back to the logo before Curry comes whipping back the other way. Curry waits for the play to catch up and make a nice find to give Thompson an open three.

If you want to read more video breakdowns — one for every Warriors’ win since 2015 minus two — check out the rest of the series of Explain One Play articles. For the full, updated index, go to The Explain One Play series index.