Throughout the series, the Denver Nuggets have appeared to be committed to allowing any Golden State Warrior but Stephen Curry to beat them. Following Denver’s Game 2 loss George Karl said, “the game plan was to keep the ball out of Stephen Curry’s hands…” The Nuggets have fully committed to this strategy, and Stephen Curry has beaten them anyway.
NBA offenses are, or at least should be, designed to put players in situations that take advantage of their skill set, while defenses are designed to prevent these opportunities. Denver considers Curry the Warriors’ primary offensive threat and has adjusted accordingly, attempting to deny Curry any open attempts. What Denver has failed to realize is that Curry’s transcendent, all-time great shooting ability changes the definition of a “good shot.”
After penetrating off trapped pick and roll, Curry drives the lane, then kicks to the perimeter, forcing the Nuggets to rotate to cover an open Harrison Barnes in the left corner. Ty Lawson closes out, and Barnes passes to Bogut, who finds Curry in the corner. Wilson Chandler was in nearly perfect defensive position, and closes out well on Curry. Chandler takes a split-step to square himself so Curry cannot drive past him, but makes the fatal mistake of lowering his hand. Curry is known for his jump-shooting accuracy, but, along with his unlimited range and ability to shoot off the dribble, it is his lightning-quick release that separates him from the typical knockdown shooter. Chandler realizes Curry is about to shoot, and lunges to contest the shot.
Unlike most players, Stephen Curry is not bothered by contests. To disrupt Curry’s shot, a defender often has to literally block the ball. Curry knocks down a three-point attempt that against a normal shooter would be considered contested, moving him to 5-of-6 from the left corner for the series.
Leading to this made three-pointer, Curry drove right on Andre Miller, crossed back towards the middle of the court and pulled up. As soon as Curry gathered, Corey Brewer lunged to contest the shot. Denver has two men guarding Curry before the shot is released, once again appearing to deny Curry open opportunities.
Many point guards are heralded for their “court vision,” but for Curry, the term takes a different meaning. Curry is constantly aware of the position of defenders, and their ability to affect his jump shot. This spatial awareness, not the mere presence of defenders, often dictates whether Curry is “open” on a seemingly contested shot.
Again, two Nuggets are pressuring Curry, but neither can really affect the shot. As Ethan Sherwood Strauss explained, when defended by Lawson during the regular season, Curry would shoot without regard to the shorter Lawson’s defense.
This is likely not a shot Denver minds Curry taking, but by pulling up so far from the basket, Curry is able to take an uncontested, rhythm jump shot. Curry has made eight of his 26 attempts from 25 to 34 feet, according to NBA.com, compared to 12-of-8 from 20 to 24 feet. Though this may seem to be an inefficient shot, 8-of-26 from beyond the arc results in an adjusted field goal percentage of 51.9 percent, 1.3 percent better than the Warriors’ team adjusted field goal percentage during the regular season.
Denver has relied on longer forwards Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer to guard Curry for much of the series, but has been hesitant to fully commit to this strategy. In the first two games, Klay Thompson took advantage of Denver’s cross-matching of Iguodala on Curry and Lawson on Thompson by repeatedly scoring out of the mid-post, hitting jumpers over the shorter Lawson, and attacking the paint. In Games 3 and 4, Denver has avoided replicating this experience, instead allowing Lawson or Miller to defend Curry for significantly more minutes. Corey Brewer has defended Curry, but Denver likely fears that a Brewer, Iguodala line-up would compromise spacing to the point that defending both Curry and Thompson is not worth the offensive struggle.
Lawson and Miller, unfortunately for Denver, have been unable to slow Curry. Instead of running pick and rolls to draw extra defenders, Curry isolates against the slower Miller and shorter Lawson, often resulting in an open mid-range jumper. Mid-range jumpers are typically considered the worst field goal attempt for an offense, but again, Curry cannot be judged by normal standards. This series, Curry is shooting 54.5 percent on mid-range jumpers, according to nba.com, plenty efficient enough to justify the attempts.
On defense, Curry has generally defended either Lawson or Miller, meaning that even when Iguodala or Brewer is meant to defend Curry, by running in transition Curry is either able to dictate matchups or find open transition three-point attempts as Denver scrambles to switch.
While Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and other dynamic guards are redefining the point guard position, Stephen Curry has presented a dramatically different approach to being both a point guard and a scorer, and the Nuggets have yet to fully adapt.