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How the Cavaliers shut down Stephen Curry

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Cleveland has perfected a formula to make the two-time MVP’s life miserable. These are the modern-day Jordan Rules.

It was just a year ago that Stephen Curry directed a terrifying demonstration of the Warriors’ beautiful game in Cleveland’s building. And that was after he said he hoped the visitor’s locker room still smelled like champagne from the victory that clinched the 2015 Finals.

At the time, the Warriors looked unbeatable and Curry was turning LeBron James into yesterday’s news. Four days later, the Cavaliers made David Blatt the most successful NBA coach to be fired during the season. The changing of the NBA’s guard seemed complete.

That was the last time Curry had fun against the Cavaliers.

Curry has played the Cavaliers eight times since that MLK Day beatdown. In the seven Finals games, his scoring average dropped seven points from his 2015-16 tally, he shot just 40 percent from the field, and he committed more turnovers than assists. When the Warriors most needed his usual magic, he couldn’t get a real shot off against Kevin Love.

Then, Curry looked invisible in a Christmas Day defeat, scoring just 15 points on 4-of-11 shooting while watching Kevin Durant trip over Richard Jefferson’s foot on Golden State’s last play.

Now, it’s the Warriors that are doing soul searching. Is Curry slumping? He rejects the premise, but “what’s wrong with Steph?” is the topic du jour, not “Do the Cavaliers actually like each other?”

As we prepare for the latest chapter in this burgeoning rivalry, let’s examine what the Cavaliers have done to make Curry miserable. Like the Pistons once did with Michael Jordan, the Cavaliers have created a special defensive strategy to neutralize the league’s most unique player.

These are The Steph Rules.

Face-guard Curry

One month after Curry’s MLK Day downpour, a grumpy Oscar Robertson went on ESPN’s Mike & Mike to denounce the league’s defensive strategies against Curry. Robertson’s words and tone were mocked incessantly (including by us), but he had a point. If Curry is so incredible at shooting three-pointers, why not do everything possible to make it difficult for him to do that?

That is the foundation of the Cavaliers’ strategy. Every team wants to contain Curry, but the Cavaliers take the concept to a logical extreme.

Starting in the Finals, whoever got switched onto Curry never took their eyes off him. Forget seeing man and ball. Forget help responsibilities. Their only job was to keep their eyes on Steph Curry.

The dogged pursuit worked: Curry averaged 11 fewer touches per game than he did in the regular season despite playing more minutes. When he did get the ball, he spent far more time dribbling to escape Cleveland’s pressure than getting rid of the ball with an open shot or well-timed pass. More than 55 percent of his shots came with at least one defender within four feet of him, compared to 47 percent in the regular season.

Credit the Cavaliers for working their asses off, but this was more than a triumph of effort. Curry is dangerous not just because of his individual shooting, but also because losing him sets off a chain reaction that causes the rest of the defense to panic and leaves everyone else open.

By devoting the lion’s share of its attention to patrolling Curry even at the expense of watching the other four Warriors, the Cavaliers’ defense reverse-engineered that effect. The other four Warriors could no longer rely on Curry to create the chaos they were used to exploiting.

This plan also simplified the Cavaliers’ jobs. Tell Kyrie Irving to process a lot of information at once, and he’s an awful defender. Tell Irving that his only job is to face-guard Curry, and he can hold his own more effectively.

Face-guard Curry, version 2.0

The summer addition of Kevin Durant threw a wrench into this strategy. Durant’s presence gave the Warriors the ideal outlet to punish teams for switching on Curry. Whereas many smaller or bigger players could guard Harrison Barnes if they must (or Draymond Green, or Andre Iguodala, or even Klay Thompson to some degree), nobody can guard Durant.

So the Cavaliers evolved their face-guarding strategy in the Christmas matchup. Instead of passing Curry off between assignments, they asked a single player to hunt Curry across the court. They didn’t even look at the rest of the action. Their only job was to glue themselves to Steph.

DeAndre Liggins was the first Curry spy. When he exited, Iman Shumpert took over the job. Together, they shadowed Curry through every off-ball screen. While the other four Cavaliers played defense, they played tag. Because of that, Curry only took 11 shots and finished with less than a fifth of the Warriors’ possessions in the game.

Pay attention to Liggins on these series of possessions.

Credit Liggins and Shumpert for never giving Curry an inch, but as in the Finals, the simplicity of their assignment made it easier to carry out. Because they took Curry out of the game, they again removed the cascading effect the Warriors’ offense creates. And because the Cavaliers didn’t have to switch, they removed another element of confusion the Warriors’ offense is designed to exploit. The consequence was that Durant went off against Cleveland’s single coverage, but that’s the risk the Cavaliers were willing to take to remove Curry from the equation.

Yet that was just one branch of the Warriors’ plan. There was another that was even more significant.

Rough Curry up

We forget that basketball players are human. Even they are prone to the limits of the human body and mind, especially when they’re not far removed from a knee injury. To supplement their schemes, the Cavaliers tossed in two doses of psychological warfare.

On defense, they grabbed Curry whenever possible. As soon as the ball swung to the other side, you usually saw a Cavaliers player stick their hands on Curry.

Are these fouls? Probably. But can the referees spot every single one of them? No. And that allowed the Cavaliers to stay with Curry while increasing the physical toll he took just to get open.

Speaking of taking a physical toll, watch Jefferson here.

Sneak attacks like this were common. Cavaliers players weren’t above sticking their hips out and bumping Curry on the baseline. Sometimes, the referees spotted this, but usually, their attention was focused elsewhere. The Cavaliers were also clever enough to not push so hard that the impediment of Curry’s movement is too obvious.

Pile plays like this up over 48 minutes, and Curry slowly wore down.

Wear Curry down on the other end

It’s no secret that the Cavaliers targeted Curry on defense in the NBA Finals. He wasn’t supposed to be guarding Irving for his dagger, after all.

That shot was the most noteworthy example of a relentless Cavaliers strategy. In response to the Warriors hiding Curry on J.R. Smith or Shumpert, the Cavaliers instructed that man to act as the screener in pick-and-rolls for either LeBron or Irving. That meant Curry was directly involved in a vast majority of the Cavaliers’ plays. He couldn’t conserve energy.

This also forced Curry and the Warriors to choose between the lesser of two evils. If Curry switched onto Irving or especially James, the Cavaliers licked their chops and attacked him.

If Curry hedged and recovered as if he was a normal big-man defender, the Cavaliers knew he’s not exactly a towering figure that would slow a freight train like LeBron down.

This approach works brilliantly on two levels. For one, while Curry is not as bad a defender as his biggest critics believe, he’s certainly the weak link on a great Warriors unit. He’s especially prone to reaching in and committing silly fouls, which forced the Warriors to remove him with foul trouble on a couple occasions.

But more importantly, defending all these pick-and-rolls is hard work, especially when LeBron is involved. It wears Curry down physically, and it’s also emotionally draining to be targeted as a weak link over and over again. Nobody likes being picked on.

Watch as Curry gets physically and mentally fatigued

It’s no accident that Curry posted worse numbers in the second half of Finals games than the first.

Stephen Curry in the Finals, by half

STAT FIRST HALF SECOND HALF DIFFERENCE
STAT FIRST HALF SECOND HALF DIFFERENCE
3PT% 41 39 -2
eFG% 54.4 52.2 -2.2
ORtg 107.4 99.3 -8.1
Net Rating 2.1 -7.7 -9.8
Stats via NBA.com/stats

It’s no accident that Curry shot horribly when the game was closest, except for the rare instances it was tied.

Steph Curry in the NBA Finals, by score margin

STAT 1-5 pts 6-10 pts 11-15 pts 16-20 pts More than 20 pts TIED
STAT 1-5 pts 6-10 pts 11-15 pts 16-20 pts More than 20 pts TIED
FG% 34 33.3 46.7 44.4 75 50
3Pt% 31.3 33.3 44.4 42.9 80 55.6
eFG% 44.7 42.4 60 61.1 70.8 100
TS% 46.7 49.3 63 73.3 73.8 101.4
Stats via NBA.com/stats

It’s no accident that Curry’s sharpest emotional outburst came at the end of Game 6, when the Cavaliers targeted him on defense the most.

It’s no accident that Curry’s turnover percentage was five points higher in the Finals than it was in the 2015-16 regular season.

And it’s no accident that Curry had nothing left when the Warriors needed him to score on Love.

So what’s the solution?

I’d look for a few changes:

  1. Get Curry on the ball more: Steve Kerr yearns for a utopia of ball and player movement, but Curry takes the majority of his physical punishment when he’s running off screens. Putting the ball in Curry’s hands more makes it harder for the Cavaliers to grab him without a whistle and lessens the amount of work he has to do just to get open. It may not lead to an equal-opportunity offense, but it will make life a lot easier for Curry. (It sounds like the Warriors have already begun to do this, judging from Curry’s performances since Christmas and the Warriors’ own rhetoric).
  2. Use Curry as a screener ... judiciously: If the Cavaliers are going to use a player to spy on Curry, that guy won’t be able to offer any help when Curry sets off-ball screens for other Warriors. Curry is a vicious screener, so if he properly nails a teammate’s man, they should be able to get open easily. But the Warriors need to be careful to not overuse this tactic and risk turning the unanimous MVP into a decoy.
  3. More pick-and-rolls with Durant screening for Curry: This was supposed to be the killer play that no team could guard, but it hasn’t quite developed that way. Durant, for all his strengths, is a weak screener who often slips before an advantage is gained. But if Durant and Curry can develop more chemistry, their collective power will force mismatches that both can exploit.
  4. More backcourt screens to get Curry’s man off him: If Liggins is going to pick up Curry for 94 feet, there’s no reason Draymond Green can’t also lay some wood on Curry’s man for 94 feet. With more space, Curry can get the transition looks he craves.
  5. Curry has to work harder: Trite, I know, but there were too many examples of Curry stopping his cuts once the Cavaliers put hands on him in the Finals. It’s tiring, but you make your own luck. Curry can’t let himself be overwhelmed by the Cavaliers’ physical tactics.
  6. Stay the course: The Warriors had a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in Cleveland’s building before blowing it. Durant took advantage of all the attention Cleveland paid to Curry and dominated. Repeating that sort of effort in Oracle and enough times down the road might be enough to win the title, anyway.

The problem is solvable, but it is a problem. Just as the Pistons once did with Jordan, the Cavaliers have developed the Steph Rules. Now, it’s on Steph and the Warriors to overcome them.