The Cleveland Cavaliers have played non-shooting point guards thus far in the playoffs. They largely went under screens set for Atlanta’s Jeff Teague, Chicago’s Derrick Rose, and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas. They have focused more on walling off the paint and clogging sightlines and passing lanes with as many bodies as possible, leveraging the large lineups upon which they have been forced to rely with Kevin Love out. The shooting threats they have been most concerned with to this point have been those off the ball — like Kyle Korver and Mike Dunleavy — that require a set up in order to knock down shots.
Stephen Curry is a different animal, and that would be true no matter who the Cavs played before him. Curry may well be the best shooter ever, and he is almost certainly the best off-the-dribble shooter ever. His ballhandling is among the best in the league, with Kyrie Irving among his few equals, and he can pop off a jumper in the blink of an eye. He’s a brilliant passer to boot, and he is especially adept at flicking flashy-yet-functional behind the back passes. He’s really, really good; they don’t just give you the MVP.
Curry is the most talented of all the Golden State Warriors. What else do we need to know about this guy, and how can the Cavs slow him down? Glad you asked.
Where’d he come from?
Curry was born in Akron, though not at the same hospital as LeBron James, as has been widely reported.1 His father Dell was a fine NBA player in his own right, having spent 16 seasons in the league, including a decade with the Charlotte Hornets. The younger Curry goes by Steph, but he is named after his old man: his full name is Wardell Stephen Curry II.
Even as a pup, Curry foresaw a future in the NBA:
Steph grew up mostly in Charlotte, where Dell played for the Hornets. After spending seventh and eighth grade in Ontario (when his dad played for the Raptors), he returned to Charlotte for high school, where he led his team to three conference titles and three state playoff appearances. Steph hoped to attend Virginia Tech – where Dell played – but received only a walk-on offer. Rather than try to hack it as a walk-on at a big program, the three-star recruit accepted a scholarship offer from Davidson.
Curry has always been slight of build, but he immediately became a star for the Wildcats. He scored 32 points against Michigan in his second game as a freshman and averaged 21.5 points a game in his first season while shooting over 40 percent on three-pointers. He led Davidson to the Elite Eight as a sophomore, with his tenth-seeded Wildcats defeating No. 7 Gonzaga, No. 2 Georgetown, and No. 3 Wisconsin before falling to top-seeded Kansas. After a junior season in which he averaged 28.6 points, 5.6 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.5 steals per game, he declared for the NBA draft.
He showed enough promise for the Warriors to select him with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2009 draft. The Minnesota Timberwolves had both the No. 5 and 6 picks, and used both on non-Curry point guards: Ricky Rubio (who didn’t join the team until 2011) and Jonny Flynn (who is now playing in Italy). Eesh.
What’s he good at?
Shooting, shooting, shooting. Curry is among the league’s finest passers and ballhandlers, but shooting the rock is how he made his name – and lived up to it, as Dell Curry was a 40 percent three-point shooter for his career.
No matter how you look at it, Curry is one of the best in the league. He was the NBA’s most prolific three-point shooter this year, leading the league in makes and attempts, and he finished fourth in three-point percentage. He has yet to crack the 50/40/90 club, but he’s a good bet to get there one day. He shot .487/.443/.914 this year, though he has tailed off to a slightly more human .461/.437/.820 in the playoffs.
The thing that makes him so difficult to guard is his ability to hoist at any time from nearly anywhere on the court, be it off the dribble or off the catch. He shot 52.3 percent on pull up threes and 55.2 percent on step back threes this season,2 and has maintained strong numbers in the playoffs. He is shooting an absurd 92.3 percent on threes from the left corner in the postseason, although that comes with the related caveat of small sample size.3
As a dribbler, he isn’t quite as breathtaking as Kyrie, or if he is, it’s for different reasons. Whereas Kyrie’s moves are sudden, marked by explosive crossovers and drives into the lane, Curry’s are smooth, even nonchalant. He seems to float as he dribbles into the forecourt. He just needs a sliver of space to get his shot off, and he’s a whiz at creating those slivers, as he demonstrated while weaving through the Los Angeles Clippers in March.
He’s good operating off the ball, too. When another Warrior like Klay Thompson handles the rock, Curry knows how to run off screens for catch-and-shoot chances. He shot 48.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes4 in the regular season, trailing only Kyle Korver among players who took at least three such shots per game. He doesn’t run off screens terribly often – he did so on 8.8 percent of possessions this year – but he is deadly when he does. He was top-three in points per possession and eFG% in such situations.
He’s as good an offensive player as there is in the league, and the Cavs will be hard-pressed to slow him down.
What’s he bad at?
Not much, I’m sorry to say. He doesn’t grab many rebounds, but that’s hardly a priority for a point guard. He has improved as a defender, though it’s difficult to determine his impact on that end of the floor when he shares the floor with plus defenders like Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut. Five different five-man lineups featuring Curry played over 100 total minutes this season, and each boasted defensive ratings of 98.4 or lower; all ranked in the top 40 leaguewide.5 He isn’t the most athletic defender in the league, but he has quick hands (2.0 steals per game) and just knows how to play.
On offense, since he’s such a talented shooter, the thought may be to crowd him, body him, and force him to get to the rim. However, he can really finish in the lane – he shot 66.5 percent in the restricted area this season, better than bigs like Brook Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Serge Ibaka. Moreover, getting into the teeth of the defense allows him to kick out to open shooters or drop it off to big guys for bunnies.
Curry’s passing acumen and basketball IQ cannot be overstated. He assisted on nearly 36 percent of Golden State’s field goals when he was on the court, a top-12 mark. He turns the ball over a bit, but his 2.49/1 assist-to-turnover ratio was still 20th-best in the NBA. He’s up there with LeBron as a passer just as he is with Kyrie as a dribbler.
His biggest weakness as it relates to the Finals, if you believe in this sort of thing, is his lack of experience on such a stage. He has played in 34 playoff games in his career, 15 of which have come this season, and zero of which have been in the Finals. It would be a tremendous reach to say that he’ll struggle because of this. That also shows how much one has to reach to find a weakness in his game.
How can the Cavs handle him?
It will be fascinating to see how David Blatt approaches the Curry conundrum. As was said at the top, the Cavs have not faced a point guard in Curry’s stratosphere as a shooter. Kyrie Irving is hobbled, so Iman Shumpert would seem the smart bet to get the Curry assignment. That would have a trickle-down effect on the remaining matchups, and the Warriors provide precious few places to hide a subpar defender.
The Houston Rockets faced a similar challenge in the Western Conference Finals. With the bulldoggish Patrick Beverley out, they had to decide how to deploy Jason Terry, James Harden, and Trevor Ariza against Curry, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes.
It’s tempting to suggest that Houston sic Trevor Ariza on Curry, but the Warriors starting lineup offers no safe hiding places. Harrison Barnes can score over smaller players down low, and slotting Terry there means James Harden has to exhaust himself chasing Klay Thompson.
The Rockets’ situation holds similarities to that of the Cavs. While improved, Irving has never been a great defender – nor has Terry – and injuries have limited his mobility. Shumpert, like Ariza, is athletic and has a size advantage over Curry. Harden is one of the few in the league who shoulders as much responsibility as LeBron, and asking either to fully exert themselves on defense risks hurting their offense.
Say the Cavs slot Shump on Curry. Then what? Is LeBron really going to chase Klay Thompson around all those screens? Is Kyrie? Blatt didn’t wholly trust J.R. Smith to stay attached to Kyle Korver in the Atlanta series, and Thompson is at least as dangerous. Would the Cavs actually rely on Matthew Dellavedova to slow down one of the Splash Brothers?
There’s no easy fix, and you can be sure that the Cavs will throw multiple looks at Curry. Shumpert shadowed Korver against the Hawks, and taking away that shooting threat neutered some of Atlanta’s creativity. The Cavs could similarly put Shump on Thompson and take their chances with the remaining 4-on-4 game, but the notion of relying on Kyrie and Delly to contain Curry is the stuff nightmares are made of. LeBron may take the Curry challenge in crunch time, but it would be a surprise to see him do that for more than a few minutes per game.
Curry is one of the most unique talents in the game today, and perhaps ever. He’s that good. His combination of shooting volume and efficiency, combined with top of the line ballhandling and passing, makes for a near-impossible cover. He’s going to get his points, and he’ll have supernova stretches when it looks like he can’t miss. Every matchup on the floor will be crucial in these Finals, but no Warrior can flip the game on its head faster than Stephen Curry. We’ll soon see if the Cavs are up to the challenge.
I just hope that Kyrie is healthy, because seeing these two go head-to-head would be as good as it gets.
All stats per NBA.com
- LeBron was born at Akron City Hospital, and Curry at Akron General. [↩]
- These numbers come with some uncertainty; see my comments and those of Eddie Goldish in the comments section. [↩]
- He is 12-of-13 from that spot. [↩]
- Defined by NBA.com as “any jump shot outside of 10 feet where a player possessed the ball for 2 seconds or less and took no dribbles.” [↩]
- Among five-man lineups that played 100-plus minutes. [↩]