Warriors vs. Rockets: How Stephen Curry has become the elephant in the Western finals


Stephen Curry is used to playing basketball inside a spotlight. Fans can’t take their eyes off him. Neither can defenders. But what’s happening in these Western Conference finals? This is different. This is the mission statement of the still-existent group of people who refuse to drink the Curry Kool-Aid, who will admit he’s a historic shooter but ultimately see him as a limited offensive player (if properly schemed for) who can’t guard his lunch on the other end. 

For the record, anyone refusing to get off either one of these hills died a long time ago for their stubborn cause, even if they don’t know it. Curry is already an all-time offensive player, even if his career ended tomorrow, and he’s proven to be a capable defender, if only as a guy who simply tries to do his job on every possession.  

That doesn’t mean Curry’s perceived vulnerabilities aren’t rooted in some semblance of truth, and in the rare instances that those vulnerabilities get dramatically exposed, it can be ugly. Game 2 vs. Houston, to put it mildly, was ugly. Finishing with 16 relatively harmless points on 1-of-8 shooting from three, Curry had to force what little offense he could muster against a Houston defense chock full of long, physical athletes who can switch Golden State’s every attempt to free Curry with a screen. 

But that wasn’t the biggest problem. 

The offense will come, rest assured.  

Curry’s defense is another story. 

The simple truth is that Curry flat-out can’t guard James Harden or Chris Paul, and the Rockets know it, and they are going out of their way to seek out and exploit him at every available opportunity. They don’t care how long it takes to dribble back and forth or run multiple pick and rolls. One way or another, they’re going to get Curry on an island. And when they do, they’re roasting him. So far in these playoffs, Curry has given up 30 points as the primary defender in 24 isolation possessions, per Synergy, which puts him in the 12th percentile among all playoff players. Not good. 

It is not for lack of effort, which you have to respect. Curry plays his butt off. Just look at this clip below. Watch how hard he fights to show on Harden then recover to his man, fighting through contact, even going to the ground and popping right back up. But Harden just won’t let him out of the crosshairs. He eventually gets the switch, and Curry just gets overpowered:

Here again, Curry shows hard on Harden but recovers back to Ariza. Instead of letting him off the hook, Harden just runs the same action again, and this time gets the switch. Barbecued chicken:

OK, so nobody can really guard Harden. But what about Paul, who Curry doesn’t even really need to get switched onto as he’s often guarding him to begin with? Well, Paul is dropping him to the floor, literally, too:

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And here again — this time Paul double exposes Curry because not only does he clown him off the dribble, but because Curry goes to the ground, after Paul misses his shot he merely waltzes in and grabs his own offensive rebound for the easy put-back:

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To be fair, Curry isn’t the only one getting roasted by these guys — especially Harden. To begin Game 2, Harden scored his first four baskets by blowing right past Klay Thompson for a layup, sticking a three in Draymond Green’s face and beating Kevin Durant to the rim off two separate pick-and-rolls. But a unit is only as strong as its weakest link, and when the Warriors play with their Death Lineup of Curry, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Green and Durant, there is no question who that weak link is. It’s Curry. And it’s a real problem right now. 

Now, usually whatever defensive deficiencies (and again, usually they are not this dramatic) Curry presents, they are largely mitigated by his otherworldly offensive explosions. But again, these aren’t happening either. Against Houston, Curry is shooting just 44 percent from the field, including 2 of 13 from three. The energy he’s expending trying to hold his own defensively likely has something to do with the struggles. It’s possible he’s still a little rusty after missing five weeks with a sprained MCL. As mentioned, the Rockets’ ability to switch on him with multiple long, athletic, physical defenders is certainly a factor. 

Curry is not a perfect offensive player. Strong defenders can stay in front of him, and when he’s not in one of those modes where just about everything he throws up goes in no matter how tightly he’s being guarded, you can contain him. Even bully him. Still, I would argue Curry’s offensive troubles so far in these payoffs run a bit deeper than all these things. After all, the guy’s playoff numbers, not just shooting but across the board, are better than Kobe Bryant’s:

Indeed, this isn’t the first time Curry has seen double teams or long defenders or switching defenses, and he’s always been able to perform, even if it doesn’t look quite as pretty or come off as explosive in the tougher, more physically defended playoffs. What’s different this time around, largely, is Durant. 

It’s hard to criticize the Warriors for running their offense through the utterly un-guardable, absolutely amazing Durant, but there’s little doubt that it’s effecting Curry’s rhythm and overall involvement. We’re talking about a generational talent who can sometimes go three or four consecutive game minutes without taking a single shot, without once running a pick and roll when he’s perhaps the deadliest pick-and-roll player in NBA history. This is the greatest shooter of all-time being reduced, for large stretches, to just another guy running around screens as Durant plays one-on-one. 

There is no doubt Durant is a more reliable, consistent option against any and all defenses for the sheer fact that he can get his shot under any circumstances. There is also no doubt that the Warriors are only truly the Warriors, the team that has collectively redefined offensive basketball, when Curry is heading the attack. It is not a coincidence that they are 15th out of 16 playoff teams in 3-point percentage and just ninth in 3-point makes. They are not the same team a lot of people think they are. They have changed. Whether that’s for the better or worse is up for debate, but ultimately that’s a very complicated, layered conversation for another day. 

For now, this is the simple truth: Curry is not getting it done on either end of the court. He’s a great enough player to figure out his offense even if the action doesn’t cater to him anymore, and I suspect he will. But the defense is a massive hole for which there doesn’t seem to be an adequate cover. He’s getting killed out there. 

In the Warriors’ first title run in 2015, they were in real trouble against the Grizzlies, down 2-1 in the second round. Curry was not playing well — again, relatively speaking — and there was a real sense that all these fireworks were, after all, just a big show. Curry came out and proved that wasn’t the case the rest of that series, and the rest is history. The Warriors are a budding dynasty. But now it’s the Rockets in that position, the offensive juggernaut ready to prove they’re more than a regular-season show. They have selected Curry as the road through which they want to go. 

At some point, he’s going to have to stop them. 

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