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Explain One Play: Stephen Curry is not going home yet

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Video analysis of how Stephen Curry played within his new injured self and helped the Warriors past the Thunder in Game 5.

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden State Warriors
Steven Adams: "I will love him and pet him and call him George."
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Here was my micro-preview of game 5:

I think it will basically come down to Curry and the OKC role players. If Curry can get loose and hit and create some open shots, that will create space and make the W’s offense go. If the OKC role players come down to earth and stop hitting almost everything, then the W’s can do this.

The W's limited the OKC Role players, and Curry did hit some open shots. But since the knee injury, he isn't creating open 3s so he has to play like a normal human. He is defending his butt off, though. Let's look at each of these pieces separately.

Corralling The OKC Role Players

The part about the role players felt like an accurate prediction, as the feeling watching the game was that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were making amazing shots over tough defense while the other Thunder were largely not scoring the way they did in Games 3 and 4. This is supported by some of the numbers:

  • Game 3: KD & WB: 62 pts on 51 shots / Others: 56 pts on 49 shots
  • Game 4: KD & WB: 71 pts on 59 shots / Others: 40 pts on 32 shots

The difference was that in Games 3 and 4 the Warriors tried to treat Andre Roberson like Tony Allen and left him unguarded. It worked great in Game 2 but since there was huge amount of time to game plan between Game 2 and 3, OKC made great adjustments and put Roberson and others in great position to punish the GSW Allenizing defense.

In Game 5, the W's toned down the Allenizing defense and went with more straight defense, with some switching thrown in.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote:

The Warriors had Curry guard Andre Roberson more, as they’ve traditionally done when playing the Thunder before this playoff series. They also switched defensively more, as they’ve traditionally done when playing everybody. As a result, perhaps it’s no surprise that the Warriors resembled themselves for the first time in two games.

Throw in the generally observed phenomenon that role players play well at home in the playoffs and not on the road, and it put a lot of the load on KD and RWB.

Can't Pick on Curry's Defense

Now, with switching, you have the chance that OKC will pick on Stephen Curry. But Curry is a very good defender, as we've documented multiple times (see for instance Explain One Play: Stephen Curry throws down big dunk). In fact, he guards Russ pretty well. Now, Curry's defense still doesn't get its full due. For instance, from tonight's postgame, Tim MacMahon reported:

Kevin Durant, asked about Steph Curry as a defender: "He's pretty good, but he doesn't guard the top point guards." Added: "I like our matchup with him on Russ."

So how does that matchup turn out?

And Coach Nick saw the same thing going through all the possessions on film:

And he adds this update after Game 5:

And I can't help pointing out these two plays in down the stretch of Game 5 where Curry is getting isolated one-on-one by Durant and gets steals both times.


And here is the first use of 360 degree TV that wasn't a gimmick: an awesome view of Curry's clean steal on Durant.

Post-Knee Mortal Curry

I thought Curry played a masterful game of being under control and playing within his limitations.

Now any serious observer can see Curry is still limited by his injury.

He is still a very good player, perhaps All-Star quality, perhaps 2013 level Curry. But just compare these extensive highlights from That Game in OKC which I broke down lovingly at Explain 1 OT: Curry & Klay Break Records & Hearts and there is absolutely no comparison. 2015-16 Curry could get a high percentage 3 off the dribble more or less at will, shoot from anywhere in the half court, and consistently beat his man off the dribble to finish creatively at the rim. Behold the cheat mode:

Post-knee Curry has to earn his points honestly by cutting for catch-and-shoot threes, and in one-on-one situations driving past his defender through guile. Basically, he's a less explosive(!) Steve Nash now.

Since his knee (and ankle) injury we have not seen those magic cheat-mode plays except for a couple of plays in the Portland OT of Game 4. Even his other couple of mini-explosions have been set up by teammates or driving to the rim.

For instance, here are two memorable plays from Game 5. This first one has Curry cutting to open space. See if you can figure out how he gets so open.

The play begins as Festus Ezeli setting up to set a pindown screen on Westbrook, defender of Curry. Typically Curry or Klay will curl up around the screen to get a three point catch-and-shoot. (Compare Explain One Play: Klay curls a go-ahead three.)

Instead, Curry declines the screen and takes off across court. RWB and Steven Adams both go towards the imagined curl and RWB eventually points and shouts Adams to switch. In the best version of the Warriors offense, they pick on Curry's big defenders by screening them like a small. Here Adams just gets lost and Curry cans the open shot.

And here's the play where Curry seals the game and yells "We're not going home! We're not going home!"

Andre Iguodala is guarded by Steven Adams, so he immediately screens Westbrook, who gives up the Curry assignment without a fight. Then he does get around Adams, but not as crisply and quickly as 2015-16 Curry.

What Curry did in Game 5 was not try to make 2015-16 Curry plays. His missing all those long shots and layups in OKC let the Thunder run out and kill the Warriors on the break. Tonight, we saw an older wiser Curry playing an old man Curry game.

Final Thoughts

Well, I don't have to tell you that it does not look good.

OKC has looked very together in OKC, and the role players ignited and were on fire throughout Games 3 & 4. Even if the Warriors continue by going big with Bogut, and by playing KD straight up (without the goalie or leaving Roberson), they will need to play another gritty tough game driven by energy on defense. Basically, if the W's can win in OKC, it would be the most impressive win of the year.

So, there is a better than even chance that this will be the last Explain One Play of the year. And what a year this has been. Even though it would be a grave disappointment for a 73-win team to not win a title, by Warriors standards, this is still certainly the second or third greatest season in West Coast Dubs history.

Think back to when Curry went down with the knee injury. I thought right then that the title hopes were smashed. I would have gladly taken the Warriors making the WCF with a puncher's chance at getting a Game 7 in Oracle.

And think even further back. Imagine reading that Monta Ellis fell off a moped. Could you have ever imagined that the Warriors would have such an incredible year? Or that they would have such admirable high character guys ripping off the greatest regular season in history? Yes, if you're a Laker or Celtic fan, you can consider anything short of a title as a failure. Or if you're a current Warrior! But if you're a Warrior fan from the bad old days, you can't afford to miss out on appreciating what we've been able to enjoy these last two years.

Okay, I'm not ready for the ride to end yet. Bring on Game 6. LGW!

If you want to read more video breakdowns, 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.