Last night, the Golden State Warriors faced off against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Minnesota’s point guard, Ricky Rubio, is known to be a good defender and the commentators noted how he “gives Stephen Curry trouble.”
But does he really?
Over the past three seasons, various defensive players have been described as “Curry stoppers.” I googled “Curry stopper” and the first two names to pop up were Avery Bradley and Matthew Dellavedova. Let’s see how they, and Rubio, have done so far this season against the league’s deadliest shooter.
We start with last night’s opponent, Rubio. During the first half of the game, Rubio was outscoring Curry and tenaciously chasing him around screens. Rubio finished the half with 15 points and made an impressive number of shots for someone with a historically untrustworthy jumper. Meanwhile, Curry missed his first three shots and ended the half with only six points.
But, as he is wont to do, Curry came out of halftime firing. He scored 13 points in the third, making back-to-back three-pointers and highlight-worthy assists. The Warriors put the game to bed that quarter and, by the end of the game, Curry had 19 points, 9 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 blocks and plenty of rest.
Looking back at their previous three match-ups this regular season — all of which Rubio played — Curry averaged 27.3 points-per-game (PPG), 6.0 rebounds-per-game (RPG) and 7.3 assists-per-game (APG). Last night was actually his lowest-scoring game against the Timberwolves this season. But, for anyone who watched, it was clear that Curry’s play in the third is what put the game away.
Dellavedova was given the Curry-stopper tag after one game during the 2015 NBA Finals. He followed it up by being voted the NBA’s dirtiest player in a coach/player poll in 2016. Despite the fact Curry has danced Dellavedova in circles repeatedly, the title persists among play-by-play announcers.
So, how has Curry fared this year against the defensive force of Delly?
In the two games against the Milwaukee Bucks, Curry averaged 24 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 4.5 APG. And one of those games was early in the season when Curry was in full defer-to-Durant mode. Not exactly what I would call shut-down defense.
Bradley is an excellent defender so it wasn’t surprising to see his name pop up.
Curry’s numbers definitely take a dip here, as he averaged only 19.5 PPG and 4.0 RPG against the Boston Celtics this season. But he did get a small bump in assists, averaging 7.0 APG. Of note, however, are Curry’s abysmal three-point shooting numbers this season against the Celtics — a combined 4-19 from three in the two games against Boston.
Of these three players, Bradley is the most deserving of the title. The Celtics are also the only team from the three mentioned that have played the Warriors to a draw this season.
Run him off the line and pound him to the ground
There are two common schools of thought that are often brought up when it comes to defending Curry. The first is to deny him the three ball and force him off the line — or, at least, into difficult shots. The second is to defend him with incredible physicality, just on the verge of dirty play.
After a bajillion games in a row scoring at least one three-pointer, Curry has gotten a bagel in the three-point column thrice this year. He went 0-for-11 against the Philadelphia 76ers, 0-for-10 against the Los Angeles Lakers, and 0-for-8 against the Los Angeles Clippers. But the Warriors went 2-1 in those games, while Curry averaged 19.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG and 6.0 APG in those two wins.
However, if you look at Curry’s 10 worst three-point percentages this season, the Warriors went an unimpressive 4-6. Compare that to the Warriors’ 10-0 record for Curry’s 10 highest three-point percentage performances and you can see there’s something to taking away the three.
As for playing physical against Curry, I never really bought into that as a great tactic on its own. Yes, it bothers him, but he eventually figures out a way to either get free or get to the line — although, for some reason, refs let a lot go when it comes to Curry. Dellavedova is a great example of a physical defender who just doesn’t slow Curry down in the end.
The ideal Curry stopper is someone strong enough to play physical but fast enough to guard the three-point line. He would also be a guard because if you put a forward like Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James on Curry, you leave your point guard against 6’7” Klay Thompson.
Bradley fits the bill. So it’s no surprise that two of Curry’s ten lowest three-point percentage performances this season included the Warriors’ two games against the Celtics.
Not just a shooter
All that said, the problem teams face when playing the Warriors is that Golden State is not dependent on Curry alone when it comes to points. Looking at Curry’s top 10 lowest scoring games this season, he averaged 13.1 PPG. However, the Warriors have a 7-3 record in those 10 games. In those seven wins, Curry averaged a +/- of +20.7.
One of Curry’s “worst” games this year was against the New York Knicks. He scored eight points on 3-for-14 shooting, going 2-for-8 from three, and he attempted zero free throws. The Warriors won by 13 and Curry finished the game +20.
None of this is to say that Curry is unstoppable (baby). And there are plenty of other guards that have hounded Curry this year that we haven’t discussed — Tony Allen, Patrick Beverley and Danny Green, to name a few. Plus, there are always big, strong defenders like Leonard and James who pose problems for every star player in the league, Curry included.
But Curry is more than the sum of his points. His handle, his assists, his rebounding and his gravity are all key components to his game. So, in the end, a “Curry stopper” does not a “Warriors stopper” make.