One of the joys of watching the highest level of professional basketball in the world is watching star offensive players getting matched up with premier defenders and seeing how they solve the puzzle of having to create against someone capable of shutting the faucet off.
Steph Curry definitely has had his fair share of battles against top-tier perimeter defenders in the league. Past clashes with the likes of Marcus Smart, Alex Caruso, and Patrick Beverley, to name a few, come to mind. But arguably no matchup is more fun to watch than whenever Curry gets to clash with Jrue Holiday.
Holiday is arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA today. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez have gotten much of the credit when it comes to the Milwaukee Bucks’ defense, which — prior to their game at Chase Center against the Golden State Warriors — was ranked second in the league in terms of efficiency (109.6 defensive rating).
Lopez is the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year because of his ability to wall off the paint and protect the rim. He posted five blocks against the Warriors, twice his season average of 2.5. The Warriors — already the team with the lowest rim-attempt rate in the league — took only 14% of their shots at the rim against the Bucks (1st percentile), with Lopez having a huge hand in that statistic.
Antetokounmpo was sidelined with a wrist injury and wasn’t able to suit up against the Warriors. His presence on the floor as a defensive roamer and helper has always been key for the Bucks; nothing has changed in that aspect this season.
But like all elite defensive teams, they have the complete package: Lopez constitutes the last line of defense, while Antetokounmpo is the Swiss army knife. Both of them are there to clean up any mistake that occurs at the point of attack.
However, the Bucks rarely make mistakes at the point of attack — all because Holiday himself is darn-near mistake proof.
There’s little to pick on when it comes to Holiday’s defensive chops. Not only does he have the size and strength to physically overwhelm assignments who are often smaller than him; he uses those same traits to switch up and defend taller wing scorers and, on occasion, bigger frontcourt behemoths.
He’s adept at using his hands without fouling and toeing the fine line between effective physicality and illegal physicality. He gets in front of ball handlers, cuts off their driving lanes, and forces them to have to either take inefficient contested shots or give up altogether by passing to a teammate.
He’s an elite screen navigator; only Derrick White of the Boston Celtics can truly match him in that department. He gets skinny on screens, shoots the gap by taking the shortest and most efficient route possible to recover, and has the strength to get around even the most solid screen-setters in the league.
But what makes him the best of the best isn’t just his ability to hound ball handlers; it’s his ability to stick to off-ball operators, top-lock tenaciously, and deny them from getting even a single skin cell on the ball.
Which often makes him the perfect foil for the greatest off-ball player in the history of the league:
Holiday makes sure that Curry doesn’t touch the ball for even a split second in the possession above. The Bucks are more than happy to see Ty Jerome create for himself, and their ball-denial on Curry works wonders.
Holiday’s defense on Curry worked to near perfection for the majority of the game. Up till the last two minutes of regulation, Curry only had 16 points, all of which he was made to extremely work hard for.
With 1:51 left in the fourth quarter, a switch flipped within Curry — no matter who was in front of him, he would decide to get open, no matter what it took.
The fun of watching a superstar and all-time great such as Curry solve the puzzle is how they manage to do it in real time. You can almost see Curry figure something out about Holiday as the final stages of the fourth quarter approached.
Defend me tightly? I’ll make you relax even for a split second by giving up the ball, moving to another location, and making you chase me.
Instead of trying to attack Holiday straight on, what Curry figures out is that he should use the fear of him pulling up off of a relocation to his full advantage. Even someone like Holiday is bound to act on that fear — a completely human reaction to someone whose shooting ability is anything but human.
With the Warriors running “Spain” pick-and-roll above (watch Klay Thompson set the backscreen on Brook Lopez), Curry pitches the ball to Green in the corner, with Bobby Portis cheating way off of Green to park himself at the paint.
Soon after Curry gives up the ball, he runs toward Green to receive it back on a handoff (“Get” action). Holiday chases Curry, bites on the fake, with Curry letting him fly by. An escape dribble and side-step later, Curry drills the three to cut the deficit to a single possession.
Fast forward to 24.9 seconds left in regulation. With the Warriors down by three, they seemingly go to Spain action again. The Bucks don’t place Holiday on Curry initially — since they’re expecting the backscreen action, they’re hoping to have Holiday defend the backscreener in order to switch him onto Curry, which blows up the action while also having their best one-on-one defender try to stifle Curry in isolation.
But Curry is smart. He sees the configuration the Bucks have set up and short circuits their gameplan by quickly creating space for himself against Jevon Carter:
In overtime, the Warriors ramped up the ball-screen diet for Curry. Holiday is more than capable of navigating over a single ball screen — but add another to the equation and it makes his life just a tad difficult:
Holiday is forced to chase Curry around the double ball screens: first, over Thompson; second, over Kevon Looney. Holiday falls behind after the Looney screen, forcing Lopez to have to pick Curry up at the level of the screen on a late switch. Curry takes Lopez off the dribble and drills an easy floater over him.
With the Warriors taking a four-point lead later on in overtime, Green sets another ball screen for Curry. Holiday — perhaps fatigued by having to carry the offensive load and chasing Curry around for the entire game — doesn’t make a concerted effort to fight over the screen.
Lopez is then forced to step up to meet Curry and switch — but even he doesn’t provide much resistance:
One final cruel joke from the basketball gods plagued Holiday, who displays one final exhibition of excellent defense on Curry. But the forced miss is rendered null and void when the Warriors get the offensive rebound.
Curry then wades his way through a sea of Bucks defenders to put them away for good.
After seemingly headed for an inefficient scoring game — a huge part of which was due to Holiday doing a bang-bang job of hounding him in all sorts of ways — Curry finished the game with 36 points on 27 shots. He shot 7-of-12 on twos (58.3%), 6-of-15 on threes (40.0%), knocked down all four of his free-throw attempts, and put up an efficient 62.6% true shooting mark.
A huge part of the reason why Curry is who he is — an all-time great who deserves consideration as one of the 10 greatest players of all time — is because no one can truly stop him in his tracks. He can be slowed down, made to work harder for his shots, and annoyed to a certain degree.
But like each and every one of those at the pantheon of all-time greats, Curry finds a way. He makes whoever’s in front of him immaterial and irrelevant — even if that someone happens to be the world’s premier perimeter stopper.