When Russell Westbrook scoffed at a reporter for asking him about Stephen Curry‘s defense, he awoke an offensive beast that bounced OKC out of the playoffs. However, Russell Westbrook might have been on to something. However, it’s unfair to grade Curry’s defensive performance when he’s matched up against Westbrook, a freak athlete who can only be stopped by a brick wall.
Golden State has a superb defense that masks their players’ deficiencies on that end. In their schemes, the coaching staff, more times than not, will have Curry defend the guard who isn’t as dangerous on offense. Case-and-point with the last series against the Thunder when Steph spent a lot of time on Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters. Yes, those two were hitting shots, but it wasn’t at a volume large enough towards the end of the series to be detrimental to the team.
In turn, they put Klay Thompson on the other guard (Westbrook) because he’s bigger, stronger, and a better individual defender. Leaving Curry on a less active offensive player lets him be more productive for the Warriors on offense which is where they need him the most.
A big reason Golden State won last year’s championship was due to the injuries on Cleveland’s side — specifically, Kyrie Irving. Uncle Drew’s 23 points in Game 1 helped push the game to OT, and it gave the Warriors issues because he and LeBron are a load to worry about on offense.
(I know what you’re thinking: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are just as big a load and Golden State overcame them. You are correct, and it’s definitely debatable that KD and Westbrook are better on offense than James and Irving, but the supporting cast seldom showed up for the Thunder, and in their four losses, Serge Ibaka was the only other option and was giving just 13-16 points per game. Let’s also not forget how incredibly sloppy those two got with the basketball at the end of games.)
Kyrie being absent meant that Curry could stay on Dellavedova who wasn’t a threat to Golden State; Delly is actually the opposite of Irving on offense. He’s a reliable outside shooter and capable out of the pick-and-roll but lacks one-on-one creativity. Irving is a superstar on the scoring end thanks to great finishing skill and the transparent strings he has connecting his hands to the ball. Expectedly, he’ll tire out any one-on-one defender, whether it’s Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, or whoever else.
When he went down with his knee injury, it allowed Thompson to chase J.R. Smith around on offense, and it’s no coincidence that Smith’s three-point percentage dropped dramatically: 40% in the first three rounds, 29% in the Finals. It’s possible the pressure of being the second option got to him, but Klay’s height and length were clearly bothersome.
LeBron is going to get his, and Golden State will live with that. But a fully healthy Irving is going to force the Warriors’ hands. They can leave Thompson on Smith and prevent the outside shot since Swish has been extra-electrifying this postseason (46% from three), but one of the basketball commandments is to protect the paint at all costs, and Thompson’s size gives them a better chance of keeping Kyrie out of the paint.
No matter who Curry or Thompson guards, they’re most likely going to be left on an island. We pointed out Smith’s accuracy from deep, but Cleveland has five other guys shooting greater than 44% while playing 15 or more minutes: Channing Frye (57.8%), Iman Shumpert (47.4%), Irving (45.6%), Richard Jefferson (45.5%), and Kevin Love (44.6%).
What does this mean? It means that help defense is going to rotate at the last possible chance, and expect a combination of those guys alongside James and Irving for a majority of the game. It’s also going to force the coaching staff to make adjustments and decide how much they help on the drives.
Also, a huge caveat is that we don’t know if Steph’s at 100% or not. Throwing the potential injury issues out the window, it is the NBA Finals. And all the superstar-level players are going raise their offense and defense to new levels, since it’s a rematch from last year and both sides wanted to face each other.