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How the NBA’s Best Scorers Became the Biggest Marks on Defense

Steph Curry has been the Warriors’ go-to player for some time, but now he’s the top option for his opponent’s offense, too. With switches being called and floors being spread all over the playoffs, teams are taking advantage of some of the best bucket-getters like never before.

Getty Images / Ringer illustration

Pop quiz: Which player in the 2021-22 NBA conference finals has been forced to defend the most pick-and-rolls?

Is it a switchable big man like Bam Adebayo or Al Horford? A do-it-all defender like Draymond Green or P.J. Tucker? How about an ace wing or guard like Marcus Smart or Dorian Finney-Smith?

Actually, it’s none of the above. The right answer is a shocker: Steph Curry, who has defended the screener on 115 Mavericks picks this round. (All pick numbers in this piece come from Second Spectrum.)

Most Targeted Defenders in the Conference Finals

Player Picks Picks Per 100 Possessions
Player Picks Picks Per 100 Possessions
Stephen Curry 115 42.4
Al Horford 101 36.3
Jordan Poole 70 32.4
Bam Adebayo 66 20.1
Grant Williams 65 20.1
Luka Doncic 63 21.3

The Mavericks took it relatively easy on Curry in a blowout loss in Game 1, using his man to set 16 screens. But the Warriors point guard has had to navigate a gauntlet of picks ever since: a career-high 39 in Game 2, then 28 more in Game 3, then 32 even in less playing time in Game 4.

In the regular season, Kevon Looney defended five times as many screens as Curry on a per-possession basis. Green defended nearly three times as many. But against Dallas, Curry has defended nearly twice as many as Looney and Green combined.

This isn’t a new feature of Curry’s playoff workload: Dating back to his Finals clashes against the Cavaliers, he’s been targeted by opposing offenses much more often in the postseason. At times, his screen-defending burden has increased tenfold in the playoffs.

And he’s not alone this postseason, either. Relative to the regular season, Warriors teammate Jordan Poole’s screen-defending responsibilities have multiplied by more than five times in the conference finals, as Dallas seeks any possible mismatch for Luka Doncic.

Yet just as Doncic hunts Curry and Poole on one end, he himself is hunted as prey on the other. His own screen-defending workload has more than doubled in the playoffs versus the regular season. This is life for a star guard in the modern NBA postseason: Your team expects you to do everything on offense, and the opponent will make you work just as hard on defense, too.

For as long as NBA teams have had weaknesses, opponents have tried to exploit them. But this sort of targeting is made easier by modern switching schemes and spread offenses.

The Warriors started switching across all five positions in 2014-15 to keep up with the free-flowing nature of modern offenses, and the rest of the league soon followed suit. In the tracking era (which began in 2013-14), switching rates have tripled leaguewide. By the 2017-18 playoffs, Curry switched on 46 percent of picks when LeBron James was the ball handler, 56 percent when James Harden was the ball handler, and 62 percent when Chris Paul was the ball handler.

But because the Cavaliers and Rockets knew the Warriors liked to switch, they could then cleanly pick out their preferred target. And with the other three offensive players not involved in the screening action spread along the perimeter, Curry was left on an island, with possible helpers out of reach.

Measuring the extent to which an offense is intentionally targeting a defender in this manner is a trickier problem to solve. In the entire tracking era, the most screens any individual player has defended in a playoff series is 284, from Joel Embiid against the Hawks in 2020-21. But it’s not fair to say that the Hawks targeted Embiid—he just happened to defend Clint Capela most of the time, when the Hawks’ base offensive set started with a Capela pick for Trae Young.

Instead, we can approximate how much a player was targeted by comparing his screens defended in a playoff series to his screens defended in that regular season. In 2020-21, for instance, Embiid’s man set 53 picks per 100 possessions in the Atlanta series, versus 47 per 100 in the regular season. That’s not a major difference, especially because the Hawks set many more picks than the average team. Adjust for the opponent, and Embiid actually defended fewer picks in that series than we’d expect from his regular-season baseline.

Apply that method to every player who’s reached 100 minutes in every series in the tracking era, and we can make a list of the biggest targets in the past nine seasons of playoff basketball. Curry runs away with the lead, with the top three spots on the list and six of the top 15.

Most Targeted Defenders in a Playoff Series (Since 2013-14)

Defender Offensive Team Regular Season Picks Opponent-Adjusted Playoff Picks Increase
Defender Offensive Team Regular Season Picks Opponent-Adjusted Playoff Picks Increase
Stephen Curry 2018 Rockets 4.1 31.6 +27.5
Stephen Curry 2022 Mavericks 8.7 35.0 +26.3
Stephen Curry 2018 Cavaliers 4.1 28.0 +23.8
Jordan Poole 2022 Mavericks 4.7 26.7 +22.0
Rashard Lewis 2014 Pacers 20.2 41.5 +21.4
Kevin Love 2017 Warriors 27.8 48.6 +20.9
Blake Griffin 2021 Celtics 24.6 44.7 +20.1
Stephen Curry 2019 Rockets 3.9 23.9 +20.0
Larry Nance Jr. 2022 Suns 28.0 45.8 +17.8
Bryn Forbes 2021 Nets 5.3 23.0 +17.7
Gerald Green 2018 Warriors 4.0 21.6 +17.5
Stephen Curry 2016 Cavaliers 2.6 18.7 +16.1
Steven Adams 2014 Clippers 35.7 51.8 +16.1
Ja Morant 2022 Warriors 5.4 21.2 +15.9
Stephen Curry 2017 Cavaliers 3.5 19.3 +15.8
Picks per 100 possessions. Minimum 100 minutes played.

Some of these entries reflect changing roles rather than an opponent’s specific game plan. Larry Nance Jr., for instance, played more often as the Pelicans’ center in these playoffs than he did in the regular season, so like Embiid against the Hawks, he was involved in more picks as a matter of course. On the other end, Bobby Portis’s 2021-22 series against the Bulls represents the least-targeted outcome, relative to his regular-season baseline, of any player in the tracking era. But that’s because Portis is usually a big man and effectively played small forward against Chicago after Khris Middleton’s injury, not because the Bulls were especially afraid of Portis’s defense.

But Curry is the true standout here. In the 2013-14 playoffs, the Clippers ran him through only three picks per 100 possessions. And through the conference finals, the next postseason was more of the same: Curry guarded just two picks per 100 against the Pelicans, one per 100 against the Grizzlies, and three per 100 against the Rockets.

Then he faced an injury-riddled Cavaliers team in the Finals and was targeted with 11 picks per 100—a huge increase relative to his usual defensive burden. The following June, as the Cavaliers overcame a 3-1 deficit, they doubled down on that strategy, boosting Curry’s pick gauntlet to 22 per 100 as LeBron and Co. hunted Curry on switches possession after possession after possession.

As Mark Jackson said on the ABC broadcast in the final minute of Game 7, as J.R. Smith—Curry’s man—set a pick for Kyrie Irving, “And they’re putting Curry in the pick-and-roll, trying to get him on Irving.” A few seconds later, with Curry now defending the ball handler, Irving rose for a title-winning 3-pointer.

That trend deepened over the postseasons to come, both across the league and with Curry in particular. The Cavaliers kept targeting Curry in ensuing Finals and the Rockets joined them, as did the Trail Blazers and Clippers to a lesser extent.

There were two main reasons that opponents pursued this strategy, according to a source with a team that targeted Curry. The first is that while Curry is actually a plus defender, he was still the weak link on loaded Warriors teams. “We were hunting him partly because the rest of their defenders were so good,” the source says.

Curry himself agreed with this logic. “I would probably do the same exact thing if I was coaching against me,” he said before facing the Rockets in 2018. “You’ve got Klay, Andre, Draymond, and KD out there.”

The second reason isn’t about defense at all. “We also wanted to tire him out on the other end,” the source says. Especially after Curry suffered injuries early in the 2016 and 2018 playoffs, opponents believed he’d lose offensive effectiveness if they could wear him down over the course of a series.

Now, teams are applying the same philosophy to other electrifying guards, particularly in the Western Conference. All three of the Mavericks’ opponents have targeted Doncic. The Warriors made Ja Morant defend more than three times as many picks as he was accustomed to in the regular season. Dallas attacked Paul like no team ever had before.

It might not be a coincidence that Paul wore down so dramatically at the end of the Suns’ second-round defeat. The Mavericks forced him to defend the most picks of any game of his career (in the tracking era, at least)—and then executed that strategy for five games in a row.

This chart shows the most-targeted players just in this postseason. Note the predominance of guards from the Western Conference at the top.

Most Targeted Defenders in a Playoff Series (2021-22)

Defender Offensive Team Regular Season Picks Opponent-Adjusted Playoff Picks Increase
Defender Offensive Team Regular Season Picks Opponent-Adjusted Playoff Picks Increase
Stephen Curry Mavericks 8.7 35.0 +26.3
Jordan Poole Mavericks 4.7 26.7 +22.0
Larry Nance Jr. Suns 28.0 45.8 +17.8
Ja Morant Warriors 5.4 21.2 +15.9
Chris Paul Mavericks 4.2 19.1 +14.9
Luka Doncic Jazz 12.9 27.6 +14.7
Tyler Herro 76ers 7.7 20.6 +12.9
Max Strus Celtics 8.8 21.6 +12.7
Maxi Kleber Suns 24.0 36.7 +12.7
Jordan Clarkson Mavericks 4.4 16.4 +12.0
Luka Doncic Warriors 12.9 24.5 +11.6
Otto Porter Jr. Grizzlies 11.7 23.0 +11.3
Cameron Johnson Mavericks 7.4 18.5 +11.1
Mike Conley Mavericks 3.9 14.0 +10.1
Luka Doncic Suns 12.9 22.9 +10.0
Picks per 100 possessions. Minimum 100 minutes played.

Remarkably, only two Eastern Conference players have seen their screen-defending burdens increase by at least 10 picks per 100 possessions in a series: the Heat’s Tyler Herro against the 76ers and Max Strus against the Celtics. They’re sensible targets, as the clear weak links in an otherwise stingy defense.

Yet the West dominates this leaderboard because the other guards for the top teams in the East are more defensively oriented than their Western Conference counterparts. Nobody wants to attack Smart, Jrue Holiday, or Kyle Lowry. And while Curry, Doncic, Morant, and Paul are the main offensive engines for their teams, the best Eastern squads run through wings or big men, so there’s not as much benefit to be gained by tiring out the little guys on the other end.

This decision to target guards at any cost can lead to unusual ripple effects that affect the score and flow of a game. It places the guard defending the screener in an unfamiliar role, which can lead to shaky decisions at the point of attack. As Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd said in 2017, when he was the Bucks’ head coach, “We aren’t taught to play that side of it. There is always confusion, always a mistake.”

That’s a revealing sentiment from Kidd in retrospect, given that his Dallas team has matchup-hunted more than any other this postseason. Look at the previous chart again: Take out the four lines belonging to Mavericks (three for Doncic and one for Maxi Kleber), and more than half of the remaining slots—six of 11—belong to players that Dallas attacked. If LeBron was the domineering predator of the 2010s, mercilessly picking on overmatched perimeter players, Doncic is a fine heir to that title now.

Yet one downside is that the offensive lineup must also adjust to unusual combinations, mainly the guard/wing pick-and-roll exchanges that scarcely existed in the NBA before the last decade. In this year’s West finals, for instance, Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock are tied for the most screens set for the Mavericks, rather than a big man like Kleber or Dwight Powell.

Similarly, Curry spent much of his 2018 series against the Rockets attempting to hide on Trevor Ariza, but the Rockets were committed to involving Curry as much as possible, even if that meant changing what had worked for them all year. Through the Rockets’ regular season and first two playoff rounds, Ariza had set only 7 percent of the team’s picks for Harden. But against the Warriors, Ariza led the team with a whopping 33 percent of Harden’s picks.

Teams typically wait to go star-hunting until the playoffs. That isn’t true in all instances; Doncic, incidentally, has always liked targeting Curry even before this playoff battle. In their matchup on February 27 this year, Curry defended 22 picks—the most in any regular-season game in his career. His previous high of 19 picks came against Dallas in a game from February 2021.

More broadly, however, league executives say that the regular-season schedule is too compressed to craft many opponent-specific game plans. Teams need the focus of a playoff series that unfolds over multiple weeks, with a single opponent to scout, to be able to practice and implement wrinkles to their standard playbooks.

This extreme hunting strategy is often effective. It can wear down opposing guards. It can open new avenues to score easy buckets. Sometimes, it can even force important offensive players to the bench because they can’t hang on defense; Bryn Forbes, for instance, saw his playing time decrease in every single game as the Bucks’ series against the Nets progressed last postseason.

But matchup hunting isn’t a guarantee of victory: The other team might be hunting too, after all, and it could also have more talent and more health and more depth throughout the roster. Opponents target Curry because that’s the best of a bunch of bad options. Yet save for the 2016 Finals, Curry still won all those series when he had to face a procession of picks. He and Poole are probably going to win this one against Dallas, as well.