There are few players in NBA history who can make a defense feel more helpless than a scorching-hot Steph Curry. In the Warriors’ 122-103 win over the Cavaliers in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night, Curry scored 33 points and made a record nine of his 17 shots from 3, including a prayer that was launched to the moon.
While Curry can fling the ball up and turn his back before it swishes, LeBron James has to run through brick walls like the Kool-Aid Man to create shots for his teammates, which often end up clanking off the rim anyway. Non-LeBron Cavaliers shot 7-for-23 from 3 in Game 2, after shooting 7-for-30 in Game 1. James needs to work within the limitations of his offense, so it’s paramount that the defense is clicking. The Cavs are against the ropes as they head home for Game 3, and it’s time to change strategies.
“No matter where you are on the floor,” Kevin Love said after the game, “[Curry] always has a chance to make a miraculous shot.” That’s the truth. In addition to Curry’s dagger above, he hit this lethal pull-up in transition:
The Warriors have also used Curry on a creative pass-and-scamper action, when he gets rid of the ball then gets it right back for a corner 3.
“Everything’s under a microscope in the playoffs. Especially how teams guard us with all our switching and things like that, you’ve got to find different ways to create space,” Curry said. The Warriors are doing a good job of that by scoring 128.6 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor in the Finals. They also face little resistance, as the Cavs opened this series by switching screens, which left their bigs to die alone on Curry Island.
The Cavs mixed in aggressive trapping and blitzing of defensive schemes all season, and used it to greatest effect in the first round against Pacers guard Victor Oladipo. Any time an on-ball screen came for Oladipo, the Cavs sent two players at the All-NBA guard and forced him to distribute, which put the onus on one of his teammates to make a play.
Oladipo’s supporting cast is lightweight compared with Curry’s. But in the same way the Cavs didn’t fear Domantas Sabonis when they forced the ball out of Oladipo’s hands, they can’t fear a Golden State supporting cast that lacks much shooting. Aside from three of the greatest shooters ever—Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant—the Warriors don’t have any major threats from outside. Quinn Cook and Nick Young are Golden State’s best shooters outside of its star trio, but they’re about as dangerous as Birdemic is scary.
Love, Larry Nance Jr., and Tristan Thompson are doing what they’re told to do on defense by switching screens, but it’s not working. The Cavaliers should feel comfortable trapping and helping off lineups featuring three nonshooters. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr opened the fourth quarter surrounding Curry with Young, David West, Draymond Green, and Shaun Livingston. Livingston and West don’t space the floor. Green barely can. It would’ve been the time to be physical.
West doesn’t even set a pick here, but the Cavs switch Jeff Green off Curry for Nance, who nearly gets his ankles snapped on a simple crossover. It’s impossible to stop Curry from doing what Curry does throughout a game, but isolating against a mismatch is easy money. The Cavaliers have done a good job of limiting Curry’s driving lanes by selectively helping off nonshooters, like LeBron does above by hovering near the free throw line instead of near Draymond. The key is to influence the ball to find less potent shooters or non-Curry playmakers. A trap could do just that.
The Warriors are at their best when Curry, not Durant, initiates the offense, as we’ve seen over the past two seasons when Curry is either injured or off the court. Because of that, it’d make sense for the Cavs to try to take the ball out of Curry’s hands. Cleveland did just that to open Game 3 last season:
Maybe we’ll see a repeat Wednesday, with two Cavaliers defenders chasing Curry and then happily letting Green unload from deep. If they do start trapping Curry, he knows to get rid of the ball quickly, and that’s where they must be sharp. Cleveland needs to make smart rotations and communicate.
Regardless of the scheme, the Cavaliers need to talk more. Too often, Livingston was able to slip screens while Curry dribbled the ball up the floor, leading to wide-open layups. For the second consecutive game, Golden State’s bigs feasted in the paint. The Cavs have struggled on defense all season, finishing 29th overall in defensive efficiency, so it’s no surprise that they’d do so against the league’s best offense. But giving up easy layups is a mistake that can be avoided by making a commitment. “We have to do a better job of communicating,” Tristan Thompson said. “We have to have our head on a swivel for the entire 24 seconds and give maximum effort.”
The fact that Andre Iguodala is still sidelined creates even more incentive to trap, since the Warriors have one fewer playmaker who can attack a rotating defense. Iguodala was used more as an on-ball screener to counterattack to traps. Durant would be, too. But the Warriors aren’t going to run a Durant-Curry pick-and-roll every single time down the court. It’s just not part of their identity, no matter how lethal it is. If the Cavaliers start trapping instead of switching, expect the Warriors to respond by running Curry through off-ball screens, which would create a new set of problems, or allow Curry to attack without ever setting a screen.
None of these options are good. The Cavaliers trapped last season when they had Kyrie Irving and still lost in five games. Their supporting cast is one year older now, and the young trade-deadline additions haven’t stepped up. The odds are that nothing will work. But they need to try something.