Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers was hellbent on not letting history happen on his home court.
Going into the game against the 76ers, Stephen Curry needed only 10 threes to usurp Ray Allen as the all-time three-point king. The air of expectation surrounded Curry — after all, he managed to drop 10 threes on the very same court last season, a memory that was clearly not lost on Rivers and his squad.
More importantly, it was a memory not lost on Matisse Thybulle.
Thybulle was assigned as Curry’s primary defender during that game, and he received an up-close-and-personal lesson from Curry, who used his otherworldly ability to gain separation and generate space on his own to torch Thybulle, on his way to 49 points on 28 shots, including 10-of-17 from beyond the arc.
Three notable possessions from last season’s April 19 matchup in Philadelphia stood out:
Thybulle is a screen-navigation extraordinaire. He’s typically intelligent with his routes around hard screens, knowing which paths to take and which shortcuts are there so he can recover in a timely manner toward his assignment. But Curry made Thybulle work hard in his efforts to stick close. Curry used his guile and off-tempo “suddenness” to disrupt Thybulle’s route running. The name of the game was beating Thybulle to his spots; if Thybulle was able to catch up, Curry would use Thybulle’s own momentum and eagerness against him.
Thybulle learned a valuable lesson that game, and for a young player of his caliber who possesses such a natural talent and organic understanding of how to play defense, the data he collected was imprinted upon his mind.
One knows just how much respect a superstar and a legend has obtained by the way he’s guarded by opposing teams. Curry not only commands a high level of respect — he also instills a sense of fear into opponents. Fear that he can capture a rhythm and go on a tear. Fear that once the proverbial dam breaks open, it would be impossible to seal it off.
Fear is a natural emotion teams and individual defenders feel when facing Curry — it’s how they respond to the fear that separates those who are victimized by it from those who take the necessary measures to stand up to it.
In their 102-93 win against the Warriors, the 76ers and Thybulle certainly belonged to the latter category.
It was clear from the get-go that Thybulle’s singular mission was to deny Curry from gaining separation. Unlike last season’s matchup, Thybulle navigated around screens and used his uncanny close-out/recovery speed to eliminate space within a matter of seconds. He stayed disciplined against shifty dribbling, and combined his close-out speed with his length to deny shots from ever going up.
In this particular matchup, Curry was unable to beat his man to his spots, with Thybulle there to meet him almost everywhere he went:
It was no coincidence that Curry generally had a much easier time during those rare moments when Thybulle wasn’t his primary defender. With Thybulle in foul trouble and benched during the closing moments of the first half, Curry was allowed to breathe, a luxury that was voraciously denied with Thybulle on the floor.
But with Danny Green and Tyrese Maxey as his primary defenders, the difference was night and day:
But credit doesn’t solely belong to Thybulle. While the 76ers were able to execute their defensive game plan thanks to Thybulle’s ability to navigate screens and stay in front of Curry, they were able to work around such a skill set and tailor their scheme accordingly.
Whenever the Warriors tried to break Curry loose on ball screens, the 76ers would have their bigs meet Curry at the level of the screen, which served as a momentary stopgap until Thybulle could fully recover toward Curry. The 76ers only switched when a wing or guard was involved in the screening action, but those were few and far in between.
Screen-level step ups, hedges, blitzes — the 76ers sold out on Curry, even at the occasional cost of leaving someone open on the backline and/or the weak side:
Notice that while most of these aggressive coverages on Curry successfully removed the ball from his clutches, there were a couple of instances where the Warriors tried their usual counters. Nemanja Bjelica was used on a couple of pick-and-pop sequences that garnered him open looks, to mixed success. Otto Porter Jr. was also used as a screener and popper, as well as a recipient of a short-roll kick-out pass to the corner. Those were looks the Warriors could’ve used to punish the on-ball aggression on Curry.
The Warriors shot an abysmal 12-of-48 (25.0%) on threes, with Curry (18 points on 20 shots, 3-of-14 on threes) struggling to capture any semblance of rhythm and form. Such subpar stat lines were made possible by two things: excellent defense from the 76ers, and a classic case of looks that were generated through good offensive process from the Warriors, but simply didn’t go in.
With Thybulle as the tip of the spear, the 76ers drove a stake into the Warriors’ beautiful offense. And it all started with targeting Curry, the head of the snake. Once that head was severed and separated from the rest, it was all a matter of going in for the kill.