clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Steph Curry’s Adventures in the On-Ball Screen Trade

The Warriors built their dynasty around Curry’s off-ball movement, but against the Celtics’ switching, swarming defense, Golden State has gone for a more direct approach

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The collective game-planning and best practices of Warriors opponents over Golden State’s dynastic run can be boiled down to one simple truth: The Warriors aren’t the Warriors if they’re standing still. Every successful strategy against them—whether it holds up for a single game or, in rare cases, an entire series—has been an all-out attack on their freedom of movement, which is to say an all-out attack on Stephen Curry. Slow down Curry, and you slow down the Warriors. Hold up Curry as he flies around screens, and you hold up the progress of the entire offense.

“It all starts with Steph,” Draymond Green said Sunday night. “[Even] when KD was here, our offense still started with Steph.”

The key point of strategic friction in these NBA Finals has come from Boston’s attempts to alter that reality. In their most stifling moments, the Celtics have controlled the individual matchups and switched enough to disrupt the Warriors’ natural flow. “The way we move bodies and move the ball, switching [against us] is designed to keep everything on the perimeter,” Curry said. “Keep bodies in between the man and the basket. Try to force you into tough shots. But it also allows some confusion at times, if you run your sets hard.”

Almost every member of Golden State’s supporting cast relies on having Curry in motion to help them generate offense—including ostensible costar Klay Thompson, who’s having an awful time trying to separate from Boston’s smothering perimeter coverage. Yet from the Celtics’ defensive switches comes a different kind of opportunity. In Game 2, the Warriors utilized Curry in a way that Steve Kerr has long resisted: by attacking Boston’s bigs straight away, off the dribble.

Running pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll is a more direct approach than the Warriors generally prefer—more crude than having Curry whirl around the floor until the defense collapses on itself. Curry, after all, grew up wanting to be Reggie Miller. Kerr drew his basketball philosophy from years playing in the triangle offense, and modernized its concepts to fit some of the greatest shooters in the world. Taking the ball out of Curry’s hands back in 2014—and entrusting it to a nontraditional playmaker like Green—revealed layer upon layer of stunning offense.

“The bigs in the triangle are asked to pass, whether it’s out of the low post or off the pinch post,” Kerr told The Ringer in 2020. “There was just so much good action that came off of that.” Golden State’s entire culture of movement grew out of that design, which is why Boston set out to make Curry create through any other means.

Assigning Marcus Smart to guard Green for stretches in Game 1 was a fairly explicit challenge to Curry, and really to Golden State’s entire way of life. Any of the Warriors’ usual dribble handoffs between Green and Curry could be easily contained by Smart—the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best defenders against Curry in the entire league—when he switched over to pick up Steph on command. Yet by going out of its way to prevent Curry from turning off-ball cuts into open shots, Boston had also announced it would live with pretty much everything else.

The Warriors stripped down their approach in Game 2 to take full advantage of those priorities. It didn’t really matter that Smart returned to check Curry more or less full time; Curry simply exploited Boston’s switches to hunt Al Horford in the pick-and-roll instead, to the point that the Celtics attempted to hide Horford anywhere they could to keep him out of the action and away from Steph. The Celtics then tried to go back to a drop-style defense to save Horford and their other bigs, but in response, the Warriors simply set their screens for Curry higher and higher on the floor, stretching the best defense in the league until it snapped. Curry pulled up for 3s. He dashed into the lane, taking three defenders with him. In Game 2’s whirlwind third quarter, Curry created so much downhill momentum that his entire team was able to move freely again.

“If I can get in those one-on-one matchups and be able to play-make out of that and read the defense well, we can create a lot of good shots,” Curry said. “Thankfully those type of possessions, either we got a good shot or ball started moving and we weren’t turning the ball over, which helped our offense kind of settle in a little bit.”

Curry has scored 63 points on 46 shots in the first two games of this series, with floaters and runners and pull-up jumpers galore; his individual production against this historically great defense hasn’t been an issue. Yet because the Celtics had previously managed to chase Curry through his cuts without losing their collective minds, Golden State hadn’t been able to translate all that shot-making into a more holistic offense—until it gave up the ghost and handed Curry the ball.

The Warriors ran fewer pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions this season than any other team in the league, according to Second Spectrum, and yet the cadence of their offense was still completely recognizable when they cranked up the dial on ball screens in Game 2. The tempo, the passing, and the patterns of movement were all there. This is Warriors basketball—in streamlined form, perhaps, but with all its principles intact.

Playoff matchups aren’t always about imposing your will; more often, the team that wins is the team that gives up what it wants for the sake of what works. Golden State’s preferred system is an elegant bit of basketball engineering. Yet it’s always been Curry who breathes life into the machinery, and he can do the same with a slightly altered construct under these kinds of challenging circumstances. Over his career, Curry has spent possessions sprinting through every corner of the offense, catching and creating from every possible scenario. Running pick-and-roll, by comparison, is easy living.

“I try to be under control, composed, see the game, feel the flow and the rhythm and know where I can get to my spots,” Curry said.

There might be more pressure on Golden State’s resident MVP to steer entire possessions in a more straightforward, pick-and-roll-heavy attack, but it’s not as if he wasn’t carrying the full weight of the offense already. Every possession Curry spent curling around screens away from the ball was predicated on the idea that he could create meaningful separation from his defender, or at least lure another opponent on the floor into thinking he might. If Curry failed in that task, Green would be stuck with the ball in his hands at the top of the floor, his pass all loaded up with nowhere to go. It all starts with Steph, and always has; creating as much off the dribble as this matchup may require is simply the next adjustment for a superstar who’s shown he can handle it.

Curry trains for this, in effect—not by spending his entire offseason grinding through pick-and-rolls, but by pushing his body to be ready for whatever’s needed. It wasn’t hyperbole when Mavericks coach Jason Kidd called Curry “the best-conditioned athlete in this game” during the Western Conference finals. Curry will outlast you. “I do pride myself on trying to be the hardest worker, the most consistent worker,” he said.

When other NBA players have tried to train with Curry in the offseason, they’ve been daunted by his routine: dynamic, game-speed drills where the now-34-year-old Curry will fly all over the court, almost never taking consecutive shots from the same spot. His entire regimen is structured to give him answers—another move he can make, another option he can get to.

Still, there’s always some concern about pushing a great player too far at the end of a long run, especially when the Celtics will make Curry work and scramble on defense at every opportunity. “There’s plenty of concern about plenty of things,” Kerr said after Game 2. “Boston is a hell of a team. They have a great defense. They have got guys who are athletic and powerful and can get to the rim.” There’s no way through an opponent this formidable without pushing beyond comfortable limits. More minutes. More touches. More pick-and-rolls, even if they divert the Warriors from being the team they want to be.

“Whatever it takes,” Kerr said. The only way forward, for the Warriors, is to keep moving.