It was fair to wonder how the Cavaliers were going to score at a high level going into Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Cleveland exploded for 112 points in Game 5 but LeBron James and Kyrie Irving caught fire that night to the tune of 82 combined points. With defensive anchor Draymond Green returning for Golden State, Cleveland needed to find a weakness to exploit.
Luckily for them, they did.
The Cavaliers targeted Stephen Curry all game long, a strategy that paid off greatly. Curry's tendency to gamble and look for bailout calls had been a problem all series but his limitations as a defender were on full display in Game 6. It was one of the biggest reasons why the Warriors lost.
Curry's defense has been questioned many times, but he's typically not a liability. He's come a long way since his first years in the league to the point where he can hold his own on that end most of the time. He has fast hands and he competes, which goes a long way towards being a solid on-ball defender. The problem comes when he's forced to make quick decisions in plays involving others and when he tries to take shortcuts. The Cavaliers knew that and took advantage of him time and time again.
The Warriors were successful guarding James earlier in the series largely thanks to their ability to switch and do a solid job containing him one-on-one. That often happens even when Curry is the one who has to handle him, but it's not ideal to have him guard a much bigger opponent. To protect its best player, Golden State helps, which is understandable.
The problem is James is now anticipating where that help is coming from and finding the open man.
That switch is killing the Warriors but Curry getting taken advantage of in those situations is forgivable, since no point guard can guard James. There are bad habits Curry has accrued, however, that can make him a liability on defense at times even in lesser matchups. Essentially, he tries to be disruptive in situations that call for effort instead of an easy fix. That can manifest in two ways: he either reaches in or tries to draw charges in situations in which he would be better served playing defense.
Curry has a tendency to go for the big play. When it works -- and it has in past games -- it gives the Warriors a huge boost, as he gets stops on his own. If he forces a live ball turnover, they even get to run. Most of the time, the potential reward is worth the risk of a whistle or an open shot. In Games 4 and 6, however, Curry has found himself in early foul trouble because he failed to recognize how tightly the officials were calling the game. In Game 6 he fouled out because he couldn't control himself.
The bad habits don't stop at gambling, either. Sometimes he gets lost in the pick and roll. He either gets too jumpy trying to hedge or switch or he stays attached to his man when he should be helping on somebody else. Those are typically small mistakes but that's all a quality opponent like the Cavaliers need to get the entire defense off balance. In Game 6, the Warriors paid dearly for them.
It really was a terrible night for Curry on defense. His frustration was palpable. Every time he got scored on he tried to respond by being more aggressive. That led to fouls, which made him lose his focus. He's not typically that bad, as his gambles pay off occasionally and his hands often allow him to bother Irving and James when he's switched onto them. It's unlikely he struggles this badly in Game 7.
That's what the Warriors have to hope for, because the Cavaliers won't likely stop attacking him now after doing it for most of the series. The margin of error is minimal and lapses in focus and unnecessary risks that don't pay off are killers. Cleveland will test Curry on defense. That much is clear.
Everyone will be looking for the MVP to make his impact on offense on Sunday, to go on one of those shooting barrages that win games on their own. If he does that, it won't really matter how he performs in the other end. That's how dominant Curry at his best can be as a scorer.
If his body doesn't allow for a superhuman performance on offense, however, the Warriors will need him to tighten up his defense, play with discipline and leave behind the poor habits that plagued him in Game 6. That could be the difference between winning and losing the title.