NBA Finals: How the Celtics adjusted their defense on Stephen Curry, and what it means moving forward

In the first 12 minutes of this 2022 NBA Finals, Stephen Curry looked like his old video game self as he notched six straight 3-pointers in a historic first quarter. I haven’t combed through the data, but after watching pretty much every minute of Curry’s season and career, I can practically assure you that, barring the All-Star Game, he hasn’t squirted nearly six straight 3-pointers has at some point in what is probably the worst filming season of his life. These floods, which used to be routine, are now increasingly rare.

That’s not to say that curry still can’t light you up on any given night. He can. Suffice it to say that these days you have at least a marginally better chance of getting out alive if you defend in a disciplined and physical manner and pursue him with multiple rotating defenders wherever he moves.

But if you’re going to give the guy frank looks? Forget it. He will impale you. That’s what the Celtics did to open Game 1, completely losing sight of Curry on two separate possessions like he was some sort of fourth option. First, Jayson Tatum inexplicably moved away from Curry’s defense to stay with Draymond Green. Then Payton Pritchard and Derrick White both stayed with Jordan Poole when Curry emerged all alone from behind the arch.

Pritchard clearly thought White would switch, which he probably should do. The Celtics are trading everything and White would be the preferred defender on Curry over Pritchard. These are the kind of communication errors that Curry can and often does enforce, as everyone is so paranoid trying to explain not only his whereabouts, but all of the other threats posed by the Golden State that are constantly lurking in the open ones he has created Cutting space devotedly to much attention to curry.

It’s a tough balance. This is what makes Curry so difficult, if not nearly impossible, to defend on a micro and macro level at the same time. But this is the finale. Difficult is part of the deal. Mistakes will happen, but leaving the greatest shooter of all time completely unattended can’t be one of them.

The Celtics were also way too soft in their drop coverage against Curry in this early phase. If you don’t know what drop coverage is, it’s when the big man guarding the ball screener sags well back inside the 3-point line, a strategy usually reserved for bad shooters you’re ready for , pull-up 3 admit -pointer. Playing soft-drop coverage against Curry is suicide. Look at how deep Robert Williams sits within the 3-point line as Curry gets a ball screen almost halfway.

Williams gives Curry, the greatest pull-up shooter of all time, about 20 feet of clearance to get off screen and shoot, which he did. Curry missed, but a quick offensive rebound and a pass straight back to him created his first 3 of the game and he was off and running.

Later in the quarter it was Daniel Theis who slumped back inside the 3-point line as Curry came up unencumbered for his sixth and record-breaking triple in the first quarter.

This too is a difficult balance. Push Curry too far and he’ll knock the big man in the paint and cause a whole host of other problems. Beat him up and after dragging two defenders out of play, he finds the short throw for a 4-on-3 that led to several wide open corner 3s and dunks on the red carpet in Game 1. Boston looking to split the difference as Marcus Smart was caught in a mesmerizing mic-collapsing segment

“This isn’t the Heat series,” Smart said. “We can’t start back. They have to start, especially when they go down [the screen] so tall. They launch and fall as we hunt. Now he’s going down in color.”

When Smart says “We can’t start back,” he’s saying the big man can’t sag within the 3-point line when the screen is set. He has to “approach”, i.e. position himself Above the 3-point line, in Curry’s shooting range. This is the first step. Prevent the 3 point shot. It’s a split-second mission of correct positioning.

Once the big man did that, he then retreats to avoid Curry simply walking around him. “Now he’s going down in color,” as Smart said with the he Being Curry, with Curry’s original ball defender “chasing” from behind and essentially pinching Curry from the front and back. It looks like this.

Perfect. Horford starts high, holds back the initial pull-up 3, then pulls back as Curry continues downhill chasing Tatum from behind. Here it is again in crunch time.

Horford has a better sense of the drop than Williams, who has exceptional range as a jump shot blocker and thus enjoys a little more leeway relative to his starting position. But not much. Curry’s trigger is too fast, his reach is too deep. This is where Williams starts a few steps higher and it changes everything as Curry can’t pull up. The game lengthens and eventually Curry has to enter Williams’ zone on the perimeter where Williams has the advantage and blocks his shot.

Here Williams positions himself above the 3-point line again and this time switches to Curry. Again, he forces Curry off the line, and although Curry eventually ends possession with a step-back mid-range jumper, it’s a win for the Celtics. It’s not an open 3. You’ll live with it.

Switching to avoid the tricky dilemma of the discard, but not too far or too early, is a tactic the Celtics used more as the game progressed.

Here are two more examples of the Celtics quickly jumping Curry over the 3-point line and forcing him into his next read, and every time you let Curry go through a different progression a quarterback has to find his second or third receiver , statistically you’ve put yourself in a better position to succeed.

After the first-quarter uproar, the Celtics were much more disciplined in starting their bigs higher and taking Curry’s airspace out of dribble, and they clearly cleaned up and lost sight of him. He only made a 3-pointer after the first quarter, and again it happened because Williams started too low below the 3-point line, allowing Curry to go straight into a shot.

The difference in those few feet, even inches, of coverage against Curry is everything. He just needs a little space. In Game 2, this will certainly be a focus for Boston, who are perfectly equipped to switch to shooters, help them and recover once Curry gets in the paint. You simply cannot do without clean looks in the attacking point.

With Golden State missing individual playmakers outside of Curry (that’s what makes Jordan Poole, who needs to play better in Game 2, so important), every second ticking off the shot clock put the Celtics further in control of possession than their size and length clamp.

Again, Horford has better feel for the drop than Williams, who is reluctant to go too far past the 3-point line; maybe his aching knee isn’t 100 percent healed yet and he doesn’t quite dare to move around in the room. But Williams is also more of a color cop. That’s his instinct. He also doesn’t always get around to banging big-man shooters with enough aggression. He’s wired to protect the rim and is keenly aware, at times excessively so, that he’s being beaten by dribbling.

But he’s certainly capable of adding the few yards needed to stop Curry from the shots he got in the first quarter and if he and Horford can just do that, it will be for the Warriors who progressing in this series, more difficult to generate attacks, as was the case in the last three quarters and especially in the fourth quarter of Game 1.

Most importantly, this allows the Celtics to stay big with their lineups. If Curry just kept playing 3 after 3 like they did in the first quarter, Boston would have had to reconsider some of their lineups, especially those that included Robert Williams III, who brings so much to the table and so matters, for normal minutes on the floor to have.

If Curry can’t get off a 3, either because the big man positions himself higher or the chasing defender comes across the screen, Curry could try to attack more in the foul line area in Game 2 and stop just before the falling shot. Blocker before the pursuer can fully come back into play. So:

That’s an extremely difficult shot that Curry makes seem easy, but as we move forward in this series, Curry hitting difficult shots could be the only shot at the Golden State – already in precarious position four of the next six to have to win – – to win everything. Boston won’t be feeding him gimmes like he got in the first quarter, and given how equipped this defense is to switch and rotate once the paint is broken, it’s likely going to become increasingly necessary, one-on-one hold true.

And again, Curry is the Warriors’ only reliable creator outside of Poole, potentially losing a few of his own minutes if he doesn’t make up for them in Game 2, particularly at the defensive end where he was repeatedly exploited in the opener.

None of this is new territory for Curry, who has seen every type of defense known to man. Honestly, the only type of defense he’s not used to is the one that got him going on warm-up shots early in Game 1. He knew that wasn’t going to last and he was still very effective to score 34 points in the end.

He will adapt in Game 2. Perhaps he pulls the trigger a little lower, forcing the big ones to start even higher, making the overall defense that much more stretched out and vulnerable when he gets in the paint. Maybe the Warriors will try Nemanja Bjelica, who can score 3-pointers if both defenders follow Curry downhill (I wouldn’t count on that). Perhaps Golden State is moving away from pick and roll, although the reason they played a good dose of it in Game 1 is because Boston, in turn, is perfectly equipped to switch and contain Curry’s off-ball movement.

That’s what the finale is about. This is an elite attack versus an elite defense and only one will win. Curry won the first quarter, but after that Boston adjusted and won the game. It’s now Golden State’s move into what should be another barn burner on Sunday.

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