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Stephen Curry’s defensive performance against the Nets deserves a closer look

The Warriors shut down a Nets offense that ranked among the best, with Curry playing a significant role in doing so.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Going into their marquee matchup with the Golden State Warriors, the Brooklyn Nets had a half-court offensive rating of 101.2, which led the league. The number two team behind them? The Warriors, with their half-court offensive rating of 100.6.

On paper, this was expected to be a battle of two offensive juggernauts, whose philosophies in terms of how they generate advantages occupy opposite ends of the spectrum.

The Warriors rely heavily on ball and personnel movement, creating advantages through putting teams in rotation, using Stephen Curry’s otherworldly pull to draw traps and generating 4-on-3 situations, and countering overplays and top-locks through cuts and slips.

The Nets, on the other hand, have two of the best isolation scorers in the world in Kevin Durant and James Harden. Their way of creating advantages is finding the defense’s weakest links and exploiting them. They force switches — and on one-on-one situations, few are more elite at bucket-getting than Durant and Harden.

If teams help on such mismatches, Durant and Harden are more than adept at finding their open teammates, which often create swing-swing possessions that eventually lead to open shots.

Case in point:

Gary Payton II does an admirable job of trying to contain Harden’s penetration above. Once Harden senses the low-man rotating to help, however, he whips the pass to Blake Griffin in the corner, which puts the Warriors defense in rotation. The Nets swing the ball around till they finally find a seam: Bruce Brown in the right corner, with Nemanja Bjelica’s close out being a tad too late.

Such possessions are what makes the Nets’ half-court offense so difficult to defend. A minor breakdown at the point of attack — not even a particularly egregious one — can burn a defense to the highest degree.

But there was bound to be some form of adjustment from the Warriors, who are making it known that they have legitimate defensive pedigree, entering the game at a league-best defensive rating of 99.3, including a half-court defensive rating of 85.9 — also a league-leading mark. They do it by making opponents miss their shots (49.3 opponent eFG%, 5th in the league) and by forcing turnovers (15.8 opponent TOV%, 10th in the league).

In lieu of heavily depending on marquee defensive personnel — save for Draymond Green, of course — the Warriors have been shutting down opponents with sound defensive concepts and disciplined team defense that touts synergy and chemistry as its main traits.

Rarely are they beat at the point of attack; when they are, their ability to execute sound backline rotations — timely close-outs, correct X-outs, and astute help-side rotations — quickly shut down windows of opportunity for opponents to exploit.

The Warriors have a plethora of capable on-ball defenders who make it difficult for opponents to beat them off the dribble: Payton, Andrew Wiggins, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green comprise the usual suspects.

But another Warrior is rapidly building a defensive portfolio that was always silently present — but one that is becoming louder and louder with every game.

Meet capable point-of-attack defender number five: Stephen Curry.

The Nets were adamant about targeting Curry — the perceived “weakest link” due to his size — all night long. While there were moments of Harden getting the best of him, Curry more than held his own on individual defensive possessions against his old Western Conference nemesis.

Peep at the clips above, where Curry is tasked to guard Harden on switches. His quick hands allow him to poke at the ball and force a turnover. His agile and nimble feet enables him to keep Harden in front, while also maintaining a balanced stance. He is not fooled by Harden’s razzle-dazzle dribbling.

Curry even took a shot at defending like a roll-man defender in the pick-and-roll:

The successful defensive possession above is a two-man effort. The Nets try their best to force the switch, but Wiggins’ exceptional screen navigation makes a switch near impossible. Notice Curry dropping back — as if to play “drop” pick-and-roll coverage like a center — against Harden’s drive. Curry anticipates the pass to Bruce Brown and gets his hands up for the deflection, thus forcing the turnover.

Curry is used to opponents trying to exploit him on defense. He has almost always been relentlessly hunted on switches, which gives him plenty of experience with trying to nullify attempts to get him switched onto a potential mismatch.

Against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and the Harden-era Houston Rockets, Curry perfected a hard hedge-and-recover on ball-screens involving James and Harden. Several playoff battles between Curry and his rivals have sharpened his mismatch-prevention skills.

When the Nets tried to have Harden and Durant specifically target him, Curry knew exactly what to do:

In both instances above, Curry’s hedge either allows him to recover back to his man (in Durant’s case), or it altogether stops the target of the hedge in his tracks (in Harden’s case). The main goal — not giving Durant and Harden what they want — is achieved.

The narrative of Curry being a “terrible” defender has always been a perplexing yet ever-present belief in certain circles. Those circles used to be much bigger and pervasive; now, more and more people are seeing the effort and intensity Curry consistently puts in on the defensive end, and it’s easy to see why: the perpetual motion fueled by his elite endurance level translates into an extremely high motor that drives his effort on defense.

The advanced defensive stats add further fuel to Curry’s case as a plus-defender. FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR (+1.3), Dunks & Threes’ estimated plus-minus (+1.0), and Basketball Reference’s defensive box plus-minus (+0.8) all rate him as a positive.

How about the on/off data?

Per PBP Stats, the Warriors allow approximately 2 points per 100 possessions less with Curry on the floor.

The numbers categorically state that he is by no means terrible, and the film against the Nets — and against most teams this season — is solid proof.

As usual, Curry is far from being alone. The Warriors’ league-best defense is a product of team-wide effort; it was no different against the Nets, who were perplexed by the Warriors throwing out all sorts of funky looks against them.

Nothing was more funky than the triangle-and-two:

An escalation of the box-and-one, the triangle-and-two is exactly what the name implies: two defenders guarding two players, with the other three in a “triangular” zone. The first clip above was perhaps the most exemplary possession where the triangle-and-two was effective at shutting down the Nets offense.

With Iguodala on Durant and Wiggins on Patty Mills, the Nets try to set Durant free by having Mills screen for him — but with Iguodala and Wiggins, two lengthy and like-sized wings, involved in the action, the wing-wing switch is a no brainer. Durant is bothered by Wiggins’ length, while Mills is also helpless against Iguodala’s size and length advantage. It forces a 24-second violation.

The second clip is more straightforward. The Warriors will take Griffin attempting to score on an isolation post-up, instead of Durant or Harden trying to create — hence the triangle-and-two, with Wiggins on Durant and Payton on Harden.

Ultimately, all analyses of the Warriors defense must return to the one who drives it the most. Green’s performance against the Nets — and against Durant, in particular — was sublime. Green used every inch of his 7-foot wingspan to bother Durant:

Green was heavily responsible for Durant’s shooting woes in the second half, where he scored only 3 points on 0-of-8 shooting from the field. Green normally plies his defensive wares as a roamer and help defender, but through his individual efforts on Durant, he reminded everyone that he is equally capable as an elite lockdown defender.

With Green leading the way and Curry punching above his perceived weight defensively, the Warriors were able to keep the Nets to a non-garbage-time offensive rating of 97.6, including a half-court offensive rating of 93.5 — far below their league-leading mark.

The Warriors remain as the league’s best defensive unit, whose “Strength in Numbers” mantra is apparent through how connected each and every player is with each other on defense. But Green continues to stand out as the engine that drives it.

And Curry, often lauded for his offensive exploits but underestimated for his defensive ability, is actively playing a huge part in it.