You could see Steph Curry’s line from Game 1—36 points in 35 minutes, 12-for-23 from the field, and 9-for-15 from deep—as one of those playoff games where Steph simply couldn’t be stopped. It’s happened before. But Tuesday’s world-burning performance wasn’t a result of fate so much as it was faulty planning. Maybe Steph could’ve been stopped in Game 1, but we don’t know because Portland didn’t try to stop him.
The Blazers use drop defense on pick-and-roll coverage, Terry Stotts’s method of choice for some time now. It ignores the favorite strategy of modern defenses: switching. When the ball handler (let’s say Steph) loses his primary defender (Damian Lillard) coming off a screen on the perimeter, Portland reacts north-south instead of east-west. The big man (Enes Kanter) guarding the screener (Kevon Looney) doesn’t switch onto Steph as expected. Instead, Kanter drops back to hover loosely in the paint, and Lillard fights to get around the screen, and back to Curry. But that often leaves Curry wide-open for a moment, hence his nine 3s, which ties a career playoff high. Per ESPN Stats & Info, seven of those makes were uncontested. Seven!
Dropping steers the ball handler away from driving to the rim and can force less-efficient midrange attempts. The strategy can work with the right defenders—players long or large or tough enough to fight through picks (here’s textbook execution from Tony Parker)—against the right team, one that relies on scoring in the paint. Except none of that applies to Blazers-Warriors. No team drove to the rim less frequently than Golden State this season. The Warriors attempted the third-fewest field goals in the paint and made their midrange jumpers at the highest rate in the league. (Much of that is a credit to Kevin Durant, who was out for Game 1, but Curry and Klay Thompson are more than competent when they do inch inside the perimeter.)
Then there are Dame and Steph. Lillard doesn’t have the manpower to get past a screener in time, and Curry is possibly the deadliest 3-point shooter in history, wide open or not. It’s ill-advised to give Steph an inch, let alone a yard. Kanter can’t defend the arc well—as Curry said himself after the game, “We’ve played against Kanter before, and there are certain looks you can get”—but he can’t defend it at all stationed in paint.
”That was very poor execution defensively on our part,” Lillard said postgame. “Just having our bigs back that far; understanding the team we are playing against, they are not going to shoot midrange jumpers and try to attack the rim. If they see the opportunity to shoot a 3, they are going to tell you. They shoot it at a high clip. We’ve got to bring our guys up and run them off the line, and tonight, they were setting solid screens and coming off shooting practice shots. That’s the last thing we need if we want to have any chance to beat this team.”
The TL;DR for what Lillard said is this: know your opponent. To have a chance against the Warriors, the Blazers need to employ traps and get more men to be on their ball handlers, not fewer. Stotts should understand that his preferred pick-and-roll defense doesn’t work against the Warriors. Lillard does; other Blazers do.
“We let our stars get doubled, and let any other star go olly olly oxen free,” Evan Turner said after the loss. “It’s hard enough to get them to switch the pick-and-roll defense. That’s something I’ve been questioning for three years.” The Blazers’ dropping on Curry goes back further than Turner’s tenure with the team. Here’s Portland in 2014—note Andrew Bogut, former and current Warrior, immobilizing Lillard on a pick that leads to a wide-open 3 for Steph:
The pick-and-roll isn’t going away, and neither is Curry. Stotts has no choice but to adjust—and his players expect him to by Game 2—but changing an entire element of a defense mid-playoffs against the best team in the league sounds like a flight home for the Blazers either way.