When two football teams with great quarterbacks play each other, TV networks put their faces next to each other in a graphic and celebrate the “matchup,” even though the two players will never be on the field at the same time. For the past three years, there’s been a similar dynamic between LeBron James and Steph Curry, the two most famous faces of the two franchises that serve as the NBA’s current duopoly. We pit them against each other, even though logic stands that the two will rarely ever wind up guarding each other.
But something odd has happened in these Finals: In critical situations, the Cavs have sought to force Curry to guard James, just as they have in the past three. But the Warriors are allowing the mismatch to take place—and James, who has scorched everybody in his path all series long, has struggled to score when getting his (allegedly) most favorable matchup.
According to NBA.com/Stats, James has had 26 possessions with Curry as his primary defender in the first three games of the Finals, almost nine per game. These possessions have come primarily toward the ends of games, when James methodically slows the offense, points at Curry’s man, and calls for a screen, at which point the Warriors’ switching defense demands Curry switch onto James. In the 26 times this has happened, James has zero points. He’s taken five shots, missing all five, and he’s never been fouled in the act of shooting. This from a player averaging 37.7 points in the Finals—but, apparently, zero against Golden State’s worst defender.
Curry’s defensive reputation is complicated. He rarely faces the best players on opposing teams and much prefers to gamble for steals rather than defending players straight up. But that’s what he should be doing as part of this Warriors team, alongside the long arms of Kevin Durant, the defensive genius of Draymond Green, and the perimeter locksmanship of Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson. Curry is probably a little underrated because we don’t want to think of the baby-faced gunner as being an intimidating defensive presence, but still, he is generally the worst defender on the floor for the Warriors. When the other team has the ball, Golden State wants to hide Curry so he can preserve his energy, stay out of foul trouble, and keep launching 3s at the other end.
And when the other team has LeBron James, Golden State definitely wants to hide Curry. James is a dynamic playmaker who has 7 inches and 60 pounds on Curry. He routinely breaks down the best defensive players in the league and should easily be able to attack the weakest Warriors. Presumably, James can back Curry down for a bucket, use his first step and muscle to power past him, or simply shoot over the teensy superstar.
As such, the Warriors used to go to great lengths to avoid the Curry-LeBron matchup. Ahead of last year’s Finals, Mike Prada of SB Nation addressed the premise of Curry guarding LeBron in a pick-and-roll with a simple “not happening.” BBallBreakdown examined several of the schemes Golden State cooked up to deal with Cleveland’s attempts to get Curry to switch onto LeBron—most of which did not involve Curry serving as LeBron’s primary defender. Here’s one possession from Game 6 of the 2016 Finals when everything broke down and Curry ended up one-on-one with LeBron—it went poorly:
But this year, Golden State has often chosen to switch every screen on defense and live with the results, even if that means Curry will wind up guarding somebody he shouldn’t. During the Western Conference finals against Houston, Curry acknowledged that the Rockets were likely going to attack him “on every single play,” and Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said that going after Curry was “obviously one of our things we like to do.” James Harden scored 51 points in 87 possessions with Curry as his primary defender, hitting six 3s and 15 free throws.
The Cavs are trying to do the same thing. In the final minutes of these Finals games, they are actively hunting the Curry mismatch.
Here’s where I have to admit the NBA.com/Stats data from earlier is a little wonky. There have definitely been several possessions when the Cavs got the Curry switch and LeBron scored, but Curry wasn’t credited as the primary defender—like this and-1 bucket from Game 1, when James blew by Curry and got fouled by help defender Kevon Looney, or this dunk from Game 1, when James blew by Curry and dunked over Kevin Durant.
But on almost every possession, the Cavs are having James go at Curry, with relatively little to show for it. In Game 1, James attacked the Curry mismatch on 10 of 12 possessions from the three-minute mark of the fourth quarter to the two-minute mark of overtime. (On the other two, the Cavs faked like they were hunting the Curry switch, but attacked the Warriors defense before the switch could be made.) With Game 3 in the balance, James attacked the Curry mismatch on back-to-back possessions with under two minutes to go. James scored on just two of the 10 possessions in Game 1 and neither of the two in Game 3. Meanwhile, the Warriors put these games out of reach, essentially clinching the Finals in those moments.
How is this happening? Is the greatest LeBron stopper a scrawny 6-foot-3 shooter? Is LeBron just choking in the clutch? Let’s look at some of these key possessions:
Steph Isn’t Working Alone
When James starts to go to work on Curry, he’s not exactly going one-on-one against the little guy. Here, it looks more like he’s going one-on-five:
When James picks out his mark, the Warriors’ four other defenders know that their weakest link is about to get tested. They also know that their defensive assignments are significantly less dangerous than James. So when Curry stares down a man he absolutely cannot guard, eight other eyes stare with his.
The most obvious way for James to beat Curry would be backing him down. But since most of James’s possessions start with the ball at the top of the key, that means he needs a quality three or four seconds with Curry on his back, all headed into a sea of help defense. Here, that results in a double-team and an awkward 17-footer.
Driving on Curry doesn’t mean hitting a layup over Curry; it means hitting a layup over Durant, whose arms are like regular arms with yardsticks taped to the end.
Golden State’s non-Curry defenders are truly incredible, and when Curry is on LeBron, they’re on LeBron too.
James’s Teammates Are Letting Him Down
But what else is new? The Warriors’ strategy this series has essentially been a gamble that James’s unguarded teammates are less dangerous than James, and it’s working. His teammates are getting wide-open looks, James is giving them the ball, and they are missing.
The most common result of James’s possessions against Curry is a pass—by which I mean, the most common result of James’s possessions against Curry is a missed shot by one of his teammates. Here’s Jeff Green!
James got the Curry mismatch on the final possession of regulation in Game 1, and Golden State completely locked in on James. With the game on the line, all five players watched the ball—allowing George Hill to cut freely to the hoop. James made the pass to Hill, one that could have won Cleveland the game.
But Thompson fouled Hill, and Hill famously missed a go-ahead free throw, and then J.R. Smith did what J.R. Smith did.
Some have criticized LeBron for passing there, but I’d rather have a wide-open layup or two free throws than James attacking a player with four help defenders lying in wait. The Cavs lost, though, so it feels like James shouldn’t have passed. Blame him if you must, but Cleveland’s failures are reminders that LeBron’s teammates are tremendous disappointments.
The Matchup Slows Down LeBron
When James has Curry on him, he begins to probe, trying to figure out what move will cause a reaction from Golden State’s defense that will give Cleveland the path of least resistance. If James drives to the right, X shooter will become open. If he drives to the left, Y shooter (who is a worse shooter than X shooter) comes open. But if the defense collapses on him, Z shooter (who is the best of the three) becomes open for a hockey assist. It looks like a college offense attacking a zone defense.
Here, James posts Curry and spins to his right. Should he have spun to his left? Probably. But doing so draws Green, who abandons Tristan Thompson in the post; James passes to Thompson, who horribly mucks everything up.
With Curry on him, James takes a step back and thinks about what advantage he can create. But James is at his greatest when he just attacks, unleashing his physical force on the person in front of him and seeing what happens next. James is a tsunami of a basketball player. When guarded by Curry in this series, each possession has become a chess match, a clinical search for the greatest weakness to exploit. But when you’ve convinced a tsunami to sit down at a table for a game of chess, you’ve already won.