How Warriors can benefit from Raptors hounding Steph Curry on defense
Monte Poole | NBC SPORTS
OAKLAND — The debate over Stephen Curry’s gifts and merits on the basketball court never seems to end, with the most recent over whether he needs to win a Finals MVP as some form of validation.
He doesn’t, of course, but he’ll be in line for one if the Warriors, in their physically compromised state, are able to get past the Raptors in the NBA Finals, which resume with Game 3 on Wednesday night at Oracle Arena.
Even if Curry wins the Bill Russell Award, the court of opinion will remain in session. People will argue. The final argument must conclude with a question that should convince even the most skeptical juror.
Is there a more feared player in the NBA?
The evidence indicates the answer is “no,” which ought to close the case.
This is not to say others are not feared. LeBron James once frightened opponents. Kevin Durant still does. James Harden has his moments, as does Kawhi Leonard. Kobe Bryant was feared, too, almost as much as Shaquille O’Neal, perhaps the last player feared as much Curry is now.
With Shaq, the fear was based on sheer physicality. He was the biggest man on the court, using brute force to do as he pleased. So, teams resorted to fouling him, forcing him to shoot free throws, which he missed nearly as often as he made.
That won’t fly with Curry, a career 90 percent shooter from the line, so coaches defend him differently than any other player. They’d rather he lofted a 10-footer than launch from 30.
Curry is the only player who consistently dictates the actions of the entire defense. He is such an imposing offensive force that coaches routinely install game plans specifically designed to keep him from taking over the game.
Call it “Stephaphobia.” It can help Curry and definitely help his teammates.
In Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday, Raptors coach Nick Nurse went full preposterous in an effort to contain Curry. He unleashed a box-and-1 defense, assigning one player, usually the redoubtable Fred VanVleet, to shadow Curry’s every movement while other Raptors were responsible for specific spaces on the court. The idea is that Curry will have one defender at all times, with a second defender a few feet away.
This was the highest possible honor for Curry, the equivalent of a baseball manager deciding to intentionally walk a batter despite the bases being loaded or a football coach opting to assign two cornerbacks to face-guard one wideout.
Nurse was ridiculed for his extreme measure — as if he’s the only NBA coach with a severe case of Stephaphobia.
But get this: Nurse consulted with his players in the fourth quarter, and they agreed.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about going box-and-1. What do you guys think?’ ” Nurse said Tuesday. “And they were like, ‘Well, what does that look like?’ I drew the box up and who would be where. They kind of liked the looks of Marc [Gasol] and Kawhi [Leonard] being down, and Kyle [Lowry] up and Fred chasing.
“Kyle was kind of the one that said, ‘Yeah, man, that will work. Let’s go.’ ”
Lowry also was saying, perhaps under his breath, “Cool. Better Fred than me.”
We’ve seen the Clippers, under the direction of coach Doc Rivers, use “top-locking,” which is designed to keep a dangerous shooter from fully using screens and pin-downs to get a clear shot. The Clippers applied it, with a degree of success, in the first round of the playoffs against Curry and Klay Thompson.
Curry was “limited” to 50 percent shooting from the field, and from deep, against LA.
Teams have tried doubling, tried trapping, tried blitzing, tried crowding, clutching and bumping. Nothing seems to work against the man whom Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle believes transcends basketball.
“You’re talking about a guy that, it’s a little bit like what Steve Jobs has done to our everyday life,” Carlisle told reporters a few years ago. “He’s changed the way we live. He and Bill Gates have done that. Steph Curry is changing the way the game will be played in the future.”
When the Warriors and Raptors meet Wednesday night for Game 3, Curry will have the biggest job on the floor, especially if Thompson (hamstring strain) can’t play. Durant won’t play. The primary focus of Toronto’s defense will be on Curry. He will have to figure out a way to make the Raptors pay for whatever they have in mind.
Maybe the best way is to utilize the teammates he does have. The side effect of Stephaphobia is, after all, that it tends to make the game easier for whoever shares the floor with Curry.
The Toronto Raptors decided to “let it rip,” and now they have the momentum again in these back-and-forth NBA Finals.
Leonard scored 30 points on a night Curry went off for a playoff-best 47, and the Raptors beat the banged-up Golden State Warriors 123-109 on Wednesday for a 2-1 series lead.
Curry also had eight rebounds and seven assists but couldn’t do it all for the two-time defending champions, down starters Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson and key backup big man Kevon Looney because of injuries.
“They outplayed us. They deserved it,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I’m very proud of our effort, and now we’ve just got to bounce back and hopefully get back in here Friday night and hopefully get a little healthier and get some guys back.”
Splash Brother Thompson missed his first career playoff game after straining his left hamstring late in Game 2, while Looney is out the rest of the series after a cartilage fracture on his right side near the collarbone that also happened Sunday. Durant, a two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP, has been sidelined nearly a month because of a strained right calf.
Before the game, one of the Raptors wrote “let it rip” on the locker room board.
Lowry contributed 23 with five 3-pointers and Green had 18 points with six 3s after Pascal Siakam got the Raptors rolling early. Toronto shot 52.4% and made 17 from deep.
“I give our guys a lot of credit. I thought we answered a lot of runs,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “Each time they chipped, we kind of answered back. And that’s kind of what you got to do if you’re going to keep your lead.”
The Warriors trailed 96-83 going into the final quarter. Curry’s three free throws at 10:37 made it a seven-point game before back-to-back baskets by Serge Ibaka.
Siakam scored 18 points and established the momentum for Toronto from the tip, hitting his first three shots and setting a tone for a defensive effort that stayed solid without the foul problems that plagued the Raptors in Game 2.
“Every time we made a run or got the crowd into it they either made a tough 3 or there was a tough foul call and they slowed the tempo down or something went their way,” Curry said. “You have to tip your cap to all the guys who made pivotal plays in the right times.”
Golden State greatly missed not only Thompson’s touch from outside but also his stifling defense.
Nurse challenged his team to produce more defensive stops in order to get out in transition — “make them miss more,” he said.
The Raptors re-watched the costly 18-0 run by Golden State in Game 2, then got six blocked shots from Ibaka.
“We know that they’re going to make good runs and make shots but we watched that third quarter in Game 2 and we’ve just got to continue to play with pace,” Lowry said. “That was the one thing about it, we played with pace, half-court, full-court, and that was a big thing for us.”
Curry shot 14 for 31 including 6 of 14 on 3s while making 13 of 14 free throws in his sixth career 40-point playoff performance.
Nurse pulled out a box-and-one to try to stymie Curry in Golden State’s 109-104 Game 2 win, then the Raptors made Curry’s short-handed supporting cast try to beat them this time — and it sure worked.
Raptors: All five Toronto starters scored in double digits and Fred VanVleet added 11 off the bench. …
The Raptors began 10 for 14 and scored 12 early points in the paint. .. Former Warriors G Patrick McCaw, who departed after last season in contract dispute, drew boos from the crowd when he checked into the game late in the first.
Warriors: Curry’s 17 first-quarter points matched his most in the period for the postseason. He also did so on April 27, 2014, against the Clippers. … In the first half, Curry was 4 of 8 from 3-point range the rest of the Warriors 1 for 11. … Draymond Green‘s streak of double-doubles ended at a career-best six games after he had 17 points and seven rebounds. A 12th would match Denver’s Nikola Jokic for most in the 2019 playoffs. … Tim Hardaway from the Warriors’ “Run TMC” era attended the game.
Durant went through extensive workouts both Tuesday and Wednesday at the practice facility with the hope he would do some scrimmaging Thursday. While the Warriors aren’t scheduled for a regular practice, Kerr said some of the coaches and younger players might be called upon to give Durant the full-speed court work he still needs before being medically cleared to return.
He missed his eighth straight game since the injury May 8 in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Rockets.
Thompson was hurt in Game 2 and was to be evaluated by the training staff before tipoff. He didn’t end up warming up on the court.
DeMarcus Cousins went to the locker room late in the game to be checked but Kerr expects him to be fine.
The home fans waited 20 days between home playoff games after the Western Conference finals sweep of Portland before Golden State opened the finals in Toronto.
It had been since Game 2 against the Trail Blazers on May 16 that the Warriors hosted — the second-longest lapse between home games since the current 16-game, four-round format was established in 1983.
The Warriors hosted a Game 3 in the finals for the first time since winning the 1975 title, having begun at home in each of the previous four.
Curry’s heroics not enough to save Warriors in Game 3
Curry scored 47 points — a playoff career-high for the three-time champion — but the Warriors still find themselves in some postseason trouble. Missing Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Kevon Looney with injuries, the Warriors fell 123-109 to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night and now trail these NBA Finals 2-1.
“Steph was incredible,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “The stuff he does is, he does things that honestly I don’t think anybody has ever done before. The way he plays the game, the way he shoots it and the combination of his ball handling and shooting skills, it’s incredible to watch. He was amazing.”
Though it’s no consolation to Curry, his 47 points were the second-most ever by a player in a finals game loss. The only time someone scored more and wasn’t on the winning team that night was LeBron James, who scored 51 points on this same Oracle Arena floor in Game 1 of last year’s title series. Golden State wound up sweeping Cleveland.
Thompson didn’t play because of his strained left hamstring, Looney’s season is over because of an upper-body injury sustained in Game 2 and Durant sat out for the eighth consecutive game with a calf injury. Game 4 of this series is Friday, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see both Durant and Thompson back in the lineup for the two-time defending NBA champions. Thompson was lobbying to play Wednesday, and Durant has been ramping up toward a return.
The Warriors need them.
Or else their reign might end, no matter how great Curry is the rest of the way.
“The moment is now,” Curry said. “You’ve got to try to have a next-man-up mentality, like we always say, and just go out and fight. We did that tonight. We can play better, obviously better on the defensive end. But I liked the competitiveness that we had, understanding that we’re missing 50 points pretty much between KD and Klay.”
It was evident from the outset that if the Warriors were going to somehow win without both Thompson and Durant in the lineup, it would be Curry carrying the load.
He darn near made it happen.
“Not that he’s not amazing pretty often,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said, “but tonight was a special performance by him.”
Curry scored Golden State’s first five field goals. He had 25 points and eight rebounds by halftime, the first time in his 803-game career that he put up those numbers in the first 24 minutes of a game. Midway through the third quarter, he was outscoring all of his teammates combined. He had his entire arsenal working — 3-pointers, layups, free throws. He was diving for loose balls. He even won a jump ball.
He conceded nothing.
Curry just didn’t have enough help. Or, maybe more accurately, the Raptors had too many answers.
“We tried to up our presence on him a little bit with some double teams, but it doesn’t really matter,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “All that matters is … my dad used to tell me the stats don’t matter, just the final score. So we’ll just take the win and be thankful for that.”
All five Toronto starters scored somewhere between 17 and 30 points. The Raptors made 17 3-pointers, Fred VanVleet‘s desperation 3 with just under 2 minutes left put Toronto up by 13, and that’s when Kerr decided to empty the bench.
Curry’s night ended there, with the eighth-highest single-game scoring performance in NBA Finals history. He also had eight rebounds and seven assists, ending with a stat line that only James has done in a finals game.
“We fought, but we lost,” Curry said. “So we’ve got to go back to the drawing board and just recalibrate for Game 4.”
Game 4 is Friday at Oracle Arena, where Warriors fans will be rooting for the returns of Durant and Thompson.