Stephen Curry — the person who has made a career out of successfully marrying long-range volume with long-range efficiency — hasn’t had the most efficient of seasons.
Since passing Ray Allen on December 14 to become the NBA’s undisputed three-point king, Curry’s numbers have decreased across the board, averaging 24.8 points on 43.5% shooting from the field, and — unquestionably the most alarming — 35.6% shooting from beyond the arc.
For reference, league-average three-point shooting is 35%. Since breaking the record, Curry has more or less maintained his high volume (nearly 11 threes per game), but has been merely a league-average shooter — a jarring sight for someone who is widely considered the greatest shooter of all time.
Part of that has been due to a plain-old shooting slump. It can happen to anyone, even to the best long-range scorer in history. It just hasn’t happened for this extended amount of time, and it doesn’t feel like it’s based on anything physical; Curry can still gain separation and break down defenders when he wills it. He’s not the spring chicken that he was half a decade ago, but he still hasn’t shown signs of significant decline.
Whatever the case is, Curry is still dangerous; take how defenses are still guarding him like he can go off at any moment: doubles/ traps around ball screens; copious top-locking and overplays on off-ball screens; and basic pick-and-roll coverages that don’t involve dropping back.
Simply put, you throw the whole kitchen sink at Curry to get the ball out of his hands. Because if you don’t — or rather, you don’t get the opportunity to — he’ll do stuff like this:
Some of the traps Curry has faced throughout his career have been self inflicted. Calling for screens invites a second defender’s involvement, and that will almost always result in Curry seeing two defenders trying to pin him against the sideline or half-court line, with him being forced to give up possession.
But since he has a favorable matchup above against Bryn Forbes, the Warriors don’t need to set a screen for him. Curry can break Forbes down and attack him in a multitude of ways. He can take him off the dribble and use the threat of his pull-up to get inside, or he can just pull up from long range without a lengthy defender to contest his shot, as what happened above.
(As an aside, Curry played the entire third quarter and was allowed to close it out. Safe to say that Curry prefers to ride out his rhythm for the full 12 minutes — a formula that has worked in the past.)
The shot above capped off a 37-24 third quarter for the Warriors in their win against the Denver Nuggets, during which Curry scored 18 of his 34 points. He went 6-of-9 on twos and 5-of-12 on threes, with a 70.6% True Shooting mark. He also had 9 rebounds and 3 assists, a couple of which played a huge part in sealing the game late in the 4th quarter.
The Warriors had a 124.7 ORTG in Curry’s 38 minutes against the Nuggets. Without him, they had a paltry 81.0 ORTG. Simply put, the Warriors with Curry on the floor were the best offense in the league; without him, they were 21 points per 100 possessions worse than the worst offense in the league.
When Curry goes on one of his patented scoring binges, the attention he always garners from defenses reaches DEFCON-1 levels. When defenses are desperately throwing everything including the kitchen sink at him, it’s when Curry’s teammates start to feast.
But just how did Curry force the Nuggets into a desperate situation? He worked his way inside-out. When the shots weren’t falling in, he took it all the way to the rim, and he allowed his natural rhythm to establish itself.
Take this bucket halfway through the third quarter. It starts off with a “Zipper” screen for Curry, followed by a wing entry to Andrew Wiggins and a side pick-and-roll with Nemanja Bjelica. After setting the screen, Bjelica doesn’t roll, but instead sets a “Veer” screen for Curry.
Watch Nikola Jokić throughout this possession:
He drifts away from Bjelica to softly double Wiggins in the corner. When Bjelica sets the Veer screen, Jokić realizes that he must recover quickly toward Curry — but Jokić allows his right foot to lead his close-out. Curry attacks the lead foot, and his wizardry is on full display; he draws contact while managing to kiss the ball off the glass for the bucket.
Classic staggered down-screen actions haven’t given Curry the space he has gotten in the past. Teams know when it’s coming and mostly have the answers for it: either they switch, or they double around the screen. Rarely do they attempt to have a defender in single coverage fight over the screens and recover to quickly close the gap.
But the Nuggets do exactly that in this possession. What initially looks like “Pistol” action between Curry and Jordan Poole turns into a Poole/Wiggins pick-and-roll. But it’s on the weak side where the real meat of the set occurs.
You know the drill: Curry running along the baseline and around staggered screens; a defender desperately trying to navigate the screens, but to no avail; and no calls for switching or trapping Curry around the screen.
When the time called for Curry to be aggressive, he answered the call. There’s an element of truth to having that perfect balance between running the team-wide system and deferring to your main man to create some shots. Whenever the Warriors manage to strike that balance, the offense reaches its full potential.
Curry is a pressure point unlike any other; have him hunt for his own shots, especially against defenders who are there to be hunted, and he will cook.
The common denominator in the possessions above? DeMarcus Cousins, who Curry relentlessly attacks in the pick-and-roll two possessions in a row. The tough shot-making is to be commended, but the desire to hunt the lowest hanging fruit was what stood out — and what ultimately made these shots possible.
Fast forward to the 4th quarter, and Curry did the same against Jokić:
Curry rebounds the miss, runs in transition, and receives aid in the form of a Kevon Looney drag screen. Jokić is in no position to stop Curry’s downhill excursion, and he lets him blow past for the layup.
Another Curry layup comes courtesy of Klay Thompson — but not in a traditional half-court-offense setting.
Thompson, while scoring 18 points, didn’t shoot the ball well against the Nuggets (5-of-12 on twos, 2-of-8 on threes). He’s still trying to shoot his way out of a slump that’s been plaguing him since returning from a recent illness. But he made a couple of defensive plays that sparked the Warriors’ late-game surge that helped them take the game for good.
Thompson takes a risk above; he helps off the strong-side corner (usually a defensive no-no) to dig at Jokić. The gamble pays off, and he pokes the ball loose, leading to a Curry layup in transition.
Later on, the Nuggets miss another shot, and the Warriors get another stop. Curry decides to be aggressive and assertive; he attacks Jeff Green — crossmatched onto him in transition — off the dribble, and manages to score over him with a tough finish.
But the game-sealing daggers didn’t come from Curry himself; rather, it came from the Nuggets finally throwing everything at Curry to get him uninvolved with the scoring. But to the Nuggets’ chagrin, Curry was able to find the one teammate who has been having one heck of a five-game stretch.
Watch the Nuggets throw two defenders toward Curry below — but in the process, leave Poole all alone on the weak-side wing:
The process was sound: empty out the left side, have Poole “ghost” the screen and flare out toward the weak-side wing, and run dummy action for Thompson to keep defenders on that side occupied.
Result: a wide-open three for Poole.
When the Nuggets send another double toward Curry — this time, as high up as the half-court line — a simple swing-swing toward Poole in the corner buries the Nuggets for good.
A 24-point second half that consisted of fearless drives, catch-and-shoot threes, and the pull-up audacity that has been his trademark as the best distance shooter in history.
When it was apparent that he was on one tonight, the Nuggets sold out and tried to get the ball out of Curry’s hands. It didn’t work — because everyone else did their jobs and made the necessary plays.
When Curry and his teammates are collectively humming on both ends (especially when said teammates are Thompson and Poole), there’s little any team can do without the proper schemes, the proper personnel, and perhaps a bit of luck sprinkled in.