Stephen Curry put up a triple double against the Los Angeles Lakers during the Golden State Warriors’ first regular season win. But legends of the game hold themselves to significantly higher standards than the rest of humanity — Curry’s poor shooting performance (5-of-21 from the field, 2-of-8 on threes) compelled him to call his performance “trash.”
But we’ve all seen how Curry responds after subpar games. If there was ever doubt that he would respond with aplomb, those doubters are part of a significant minority. Going into the game against the Los Angeles Clippers — on the Warriors’ home court, a place of refuge where Curry is far from the cursed place that is Staples Center — Curry had the opportunity to show out in front of the home crowd, the kind that hasn’t graced Chase Center since before the start of the pandemic.
Curry started out brilliantly. The threes were there, taking his man off the dribble in isolation and switches, and also on transition threes where the Clippers uncharacteristically lost track of him.
The Curry avalanche caught the Clippers off guard — despite having seen him do his thing several times in the past, there’s just no perfect method to capture the madness and completely bottle it up. Not when Curry always finds a way to burn defenses with his multi-dimensional wizardry, both with the ball in his hands and without it.
Even on a cookie-cutter-variety low-post split action, a set teams have seen hundreds of times, there seems to be endless counters depending on how defenses defend Curry trying to make use of the screen.
Deny him the screen with aggressive top-locking/overplaying, and this is what he does to you:
The nightmare of defending Curry and the sense of impending doom that he always imparts on defenses are evergreen. Regardless of how he’s shooting on a given night, defenses are left with no choice but to blitz him on screening actions, relying on the disciplined backline defense to pick up the slack and overcome a disadvantaged situation.
But this iteration of the Warriors roster — full of high-IQ players and capable passers who are cognizant of proper positioning and timing — knows how to take advantage of Curry’s magnetism.
With the Warriors running a corner stagger for Curry above — otherwise known as “Motion Strong” — the Clippers intend to deny him from running off the screens. But there’s a twist. The screen denial turns into “Elevator doors.” a classic action from the Mark Jackson days. Two Clippers jump out, around the elevator screens, in pursuit of Curry.
Bjelica is smart — once he sees two defenders attach themselves to Curry, he immediately rolls to the rim. Curry finds him, and with the relatively diminutive Luke Kennard guarding him deep, Bjelica has no problem with scoring inside.
The theme of the Warriors’ victory over the Clippers — and by extension, Curry’s otherworldly performance against them — was the greatest shooter of all time always finding a way to impact the game, no matter what is thrown at him.
On an end-of-quarter possession, the Warriors run their favorite end-of-quarter set: a “Ram” screen (screen-the-screener), followed by a “Ghost” screen (fake screen), and a down-screen set for the initial screener — Curry in this instance.
Get distracted even for just a split second — as Paul George was above — and Curry will dole out the deep-range punishment.
Not everything was as breezy as the possession above, however.
As was displayed by the Houston Rockets during the 2018 Western Conference Finals, the schematic kryptonite of the Warriors’ motion offense is a defense with interchangeable parts; the Clippers and Ty Lue were aware of that, and they switched the Warriors’ screening actions to death.
Curry himself was victimized by the Clippers’ aggressive switching and physical brand of defense. A notorious turnover machine, he committed six of the Warriors’ 21 turnovers; one of them was on a split-action possession, where the Clippers switched the screening action, forced Curry baseline, and closed off the passing lanes, which forced a deflection and turnover.
While the Clippers’ switch-everything scheme using a small lineup gave the Warriors plenty of trouble, there were chinks in the armor the Warriors were able to exploit.
Kennard is the weakest link in the Clippers’ small-ball lineup. The Warriors were adamant about targeting him; they used the Clippers’ switch-everything philosophy against them, pitting Kennard against Curry and letting Curry isolate. Simply put, Kennard does not have the defensive chops to slow Curry down at the point of attack.
Curry manipulated Kennard like a puppet:
Another switch-hunt target: Marcus Morris. While Kennard is unable to play proper on-ball defense due to lack of any outlier physical traits or athleticism that could help him in that department, Morris being molasses in comparison to Curry renders him as fodder for dribbling exhibitions and feats of separation.
Inverted ball-screens — a smaller player, usually a guard, screening for a big — have been a common action between Curry and Draymond Green. Morris, guarding Green at one point, found himself being screened by Curry, and subsequently was forced to switch onto him.
Morris did his best to keep Curry in front, but Curry wasn’t going to be denied:
Even on possessions where Morris was somewhat successful at making a possession difficult for Curry, there’s just nothing he could’ve done better, other than tipping his cap to a player newly christened as a member of the league’s 75 greatest players of all time.
Peep at Curry setting the early-offense back-screen on Morris on the possession below, forcing another switch. Morris denies the pass as best he can, forcing Curry to relocate up top, almost near half-court, to receive the ball.
Morris succeeded at pushing Curry away from the three-point line — only to be victimized by a virtual logo shot from the greatest distance shooter in basketball history.
The culmination of everything that makes Curry great — not just from a shooting standpoint, but from an everything standpoint — was encapsulated by his pass-and-relocate shot in the closing stages of the fourth quarter.
A successful defensive stop. Running and pushing the pace in transition. The pass ahead to Damion Lee. Immediately running to the right wing to receive the ball back. And finally, pulling the trigger without a hint of reluctance.
Curry’s 45 points on 64/62/100 shooting splits and 82.7% True Shooting (TS) is yet another notch on his belt of all-time performances, proof of his enduring greatness. It also proved the notion that you can’t keep a great player like Curry down for long; it was impossible for Curry to keep shooting poorly, to keep his transcendence on a leash. Sooner or later, it was bound to free itself from its temporary shackle.
It was set loose against an experienced Clippers team, helping the Warriors win their second game and proving that they can hang with the toughest squads in the West.