With around a minute and a half left to go in a crucial Game 1 between eternal Western Conference adversaries, Stephen Curry — playing with 5 fouls and also playing with wildfire by continuing to make body contact on defense, continuing to poke and reach in, and just overall giving Warriors fans a series of neverending heart attacks — played perhaps the best defensive sequence of his career.
The weakest link in the Hamptons 5, a lineup replete with elite defensive players, shone brightest on the defensive end. This sequence displays the epitome of Curry’s defensive effort in Game 1.
As Harden brings the ball past the half court line, Curry jumps out and hedges, forcing Harden to pick up his dribble. Curry recovers in time to his man, while great off-ball denial puts even more pressure on Harden. Finally, he gives the ball to Tucker, receives it back, and gets switched onto Curry, who stays put like a rock and doesn’t allow Harden to get past him. Curry’s pressure forces Harden to step on the line, and the Rockets turn the ball over.
Curry is often a natural target for opposing offenses, simply due to the fact that he’s relatively the worst defensive player on the floor for the Warriors. That’s not to say that he is overall a terrible defender — he’s not as bad on defense as some people make him out to be — but he’s certainly not an elite defender nor a consistent lock-down perimeter stopper.
So it is natural that an offense that predicates itself on isolation, spreading the floor, and targeting the weakest defensive links through forcing switches targets the one player on the floor who is perceived as the most vulnerable on defense. The Rockets did this plenty of times last year during the regular season as well as the Western Conference Finals.
While it is unavoidable that Curry will have to deal with a one-on-one situation against Harden, the Warriors have developed several counters to the Rockets’ switch-hunting tendencies.
GSoM’s very own Apricot previously detailed how the Warriors countered the Cleveland Cavaliers’ strategy of trying to switch Curry onto LeBron James. They had Curry “tag” James on the pick-and-roll, which is a variant of the show/hedge tactic that was displayed in the first clip above. This prevents a mismatch, while pressuring the ball-handler enough to not give the ball up to the man left open by Curry’s tag. After the the initial show/hedge, Curry recovers quickly to his man, and the switch is successfully prevented.
Curry employs the same defensive tactic whenever the Rockets try to force him to switch onto Harden, which has been proven effective at blowing up their plans of trying to exploit Curry’s perceived deficiencies as a defender.
Here is one instance of Curry’s “tagging” during Game 1.
He doesn’t tag Harden here per se, nor is he as aggressive on the show, but the principle is still the same: Momentarily switch onto Harden, then find an opportunity to recover back to your man, as Curry does above.
Compare this with a traditional switch onto Harden, which Curry and the Warriors will have to deal with at times, especially if the screen setter is someone who is a deadly three-point shooter such as Eric Gordon. The Warriors can’t afford to leave Gordon open for a significant amount of time, so they opt to switch this possession straight up. Harden ends up missing the shot anyway.
Curry may also be forced into matchups against Harden due to having to pick him up in transition. The name of the game in transition is to always pick up the ball-handler and stop an easy transition bucket, and this is what Curry does by picking up Harden. Naturally, Harden sees that he has a favorable matchup and elects to take Curry on in isolation, but his stepback jumper misses over a decent contest by Curry.
Not every switch is a successful stop, even if Curry isn’t directly responsible for letting the Rockets score. Here is another possession in which the Warriors live with Curry defending Harden. When Curry allows Harden to get the step on him, it forces Draymond Green to rotate off of his man to help on the drive. With Green’s man left alone, this forces Andre Iguodala to leave his man in the corner alone to rotate onto Green’s man. Harden recognizes this and kicks out to the corner for the open three.
Anyone can say whatever they want of Curry’s defense, but no one can knock him for his effort on that end. Despite being at a physical disadvantage for most of the time, and despite the fact that he can be a strong magnet for fouls, Curry tries his absolute best on defense. When he gets switched onto Harden again, Curry is aware that the shot clock is winding down, and that crowding Harden’s personal space would put more pressure on him to get up a shot. But Harden doesn’t seem to be aware of the precarious situation he’s in — a last-minute reach and poke assures that Harden doesn’t get into shooting position, and a 24-second violation is forced.
In this sequence, Curry goes back to tagging Harden then going back to his original assignment. This blows up the switch and takes precious time off of the shot clock. The Rockets use Curry’s man to re-screen, and this time the switch is successful. But with the shot clock winding down, Durant comes over to double Harden in order to prevent a shot from going up. Harden opts to pass, and the Warriors force another 24-second violation.
Curry tags Harden again in this possession, but when he goes back to recover to his man, he bumps into Iguodala, which leaves his man alone on the wing. Curry’s hesitation — whether to stick to Harden or to go back to his man — gives Harden enough time to pass to the right wing for an open three-point look, but the Warriors escape with a missed shot.
Here is another Curry tag on Harden to prevent a switch. Notice Curry’s man, Iman Shumpert, set the screen then pop out toward the weak side wing. Curry doesn’t make an effort to recover back to Shumpert after the tag, which is virtually daring him to take an open jumper after getting the pass. This is with good reason though — Shumpert has been terrible from three-point range, with a 29.6 percent success rate on threes during the regular season. The Warriors will most certainly live with him taking those shots.
When Curry tries to tag again in this possession, Harden adjusts by splitting and driving his way toward the rim. Kevon Looney steps up to discourage Harden, who promptly passes out and resets with Looney on him. It should be common knowledge by now that Looney is an exceptional Harden defender despite his perceived lack of mobility, which is made up for by his extreme discipline and solid defensive fundamentals. When Harden goes up for the three, Looney contests while making sure to avoid contact by jumping to his right. It bothers Harden enough to force an airball.
With Curry being placed in the precarious position of having to play with 5 fouls, the Rockets try to target him again with switches. Watch the Rockets try to force a switch twice on Curry, both of which are unsuccessful due to Curry tagging and running back to his man. The Warriors temporarily put a wrench into those plans, but Klay Thompson fouls Chris Paul to send him to the line.
The Rockets try to hunt for Curry again, with Curry’s man setting another screen for Harden. Curry shows and tags Harden with his body, then promptly recovers back to his man. Harden is left with no choice but to deal with Iguodala, who is more equipped to defend him.
The one defensive possession that probably caused many Warriors’ fans hearts to skip multiple beats came in this sequence. Gordon tries to isolate on Curry, who sticks to him and even navigates around a Clint Capela screen to put pressure on his man. Without reaching, Curry superglues himself to Gordon, who has a difficult time trying to get past his dogged defender. The pressure from Curry eventually gets the better of Gordon, whose pass to Capela is quickly turned into a fastbreak dunk from Iguodala on the other end.
Remember, Curry had 5 fouls during this sequence, but he manages to stop himself from reaching, stays in front of Gordon, and completely locks him down.
While Curry certainly held his own defensively, it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies for him. His trend of getting himself into severe foul trouble continued — and while some of those calls are questionable, Curry also has to know when to take risks on defense and when to hold back and play it safe. Reaching and trying to poke or strip the ball away while having 4 fouls isn’t the most prudent course of action, and it’ll only give the officials further reason to blow their whistles at him.
“On the play where he picked up his fourth foul, I asked him, ‘Steph, where’s your mom?’,” Steve Kerr jokingly mused after the game. “He pointed out about 10 rows behind the bench. I looked up and made eye contact with Sonya, I said, ‘Tell him not to foul anymore.’ If his mom can’t get through him I’m definitely not gonna get through to him.”
Steve Kerr mused hes running out of solutions on minimizing Steph’s foul trouble pic.twitter.com/j2emYUyeou— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) April 28, 2019
While Kerr may have been saying that in jest, it is true that perhaps no one can really solve Curry’s foul problem just by telling him not to do it. It may be up to him and only him to create a mindset of being disciplined, being patient, and being aware of his importance to the team. He is far too valuable to spend extended periods of time on the bench because he couldn’t keep his hands to himself.
Fouls also affect his rhythm on offense — he finished the night with 18 points on 5-of-12 shooting overall (41.7 percent), with a 3-of-10 clip from beyond the arc (30 percent). While he was able to bury the dagger shot that provided the Warriors with enough cushion to eke out a win, he largely struggled to find a consistent rhythm on offense all night long.
Curry will have plenty of time to make personal adjustments, as does the team, who played a highly-flawed game, with the most notable flaw being their 20 turnovers that the Rockets were able to turn into 20 turnover points. An argument could’ve been made that if not for those giveaways, the Warriors would’ve won by a more comfortable margin.
Furthermore, while the Warriors played great defense against the Rockets — posting a defensive rating of 102.0 and holding them to 41.9 percent shooting from the field and 29.8 percent on threes — the Rockets also missed plenty of wide-open shots they normally would make. If the law of averages is to be followed, then the Rockets are going to start hitting more of those in the following games — and the Warriors should be cognizant of that.
With that said, the Warriors not only gained a one-game advantage over their fiercest rivals, but they also garnered an important mental edge. With barely a day’s worth of preparation and rest, and with players still nursing injuries, the Warriors rendered the Rockets’ advantages moot. They planted seeds of frustration within their opponents, who resorted to crying wolf to the media about the lack of impartiality when it comes to officiating.
James Harden: “I just want a fair chance, man. Just call the game the way it’s supposed to be called and we’ll live with the results.”— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) April 28, 2019
And while the Rockets are spending their time focusing on how to navigate their way around the perceived persecution they are receiving from the officials, the Warriors are keeping their focus locked in on their opponents.
For their own sake, the Rockets should do the same.
Five wins down, 11 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.