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Ball Don't Lie

Spurs won’t really change how they defend Stephen Curry, which is scary, but sound

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Tony Parker can't believe how quickly Stephen Curry can get hot. (Getty Images)

After the San Antonio Spurs escaped with a thrilling, final-possession, double-overtime Game 1 win over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night, there's been one question on all of our minds: What the heck are the Spurs going to do differently to stop Stephen Curry, who went Human Torch for 44 points on 18 for 35 shooting against a very good Spurs defense that finished tied for third in the league in defensive efficiency this season.

"We've got to do a better job with him," Spurs legend Tim Duncan said, according to ESPN.com's J.A. Adande. (Thanks for the inside scoop, Tim.)

"We'd like to figure out how to hold Curry below 40," Popovich said, according to Adande. "We've got about 10 phone calls out to people asking for suggestions. He's unbelievable. Unbelievable."

And yet, the answer out of San Antonio's Wednesday shootaround didn't sound like a sweeping, revolutionary change.

There'll be some "new wrinkles," according to San Antonio Express-News beat stalwart Jeff McDonald, but for the most part, the second verse will be the same as the first, as Spurs guard Danny Green said:

“We’ve come up with more questions, a couple solutions,” Green said. “We won’t know if they work until tonight.”

Asked if he believed the impetus behind Curry’s big night was the guard simply hitting tough shots or the Spurs’ defensive breakdowns, Green answered, “A little bit of both.”

“Once a guy like that gets a rhythm, regardless of how tough the shot is, there’s a pretty good chance of it going in. We want to do a better job of keeping him out of rhythm.”

It'll be very interesting to see what the "wrinkles" that Gregg Popovich and his coaching staff have developed look like. In re-watching Game 1 possession by possession to take a closer look at how the Spurs defended Curry, it didn't seem like any one on-ball defender — primarily starting point guard Tony Parker, who's expected to get the call once again, but also backup Cory Joseph, shooting guard Green and small forward Kawhi Leonard — got particularly roasted. Instead, it looked more like A) the Golden State offense took advantage of various one-on-one mismatches away from Curry and B) Curry can be really, really, ridiculously, terrifyingly good.

For the bulk of the first quarter, the Spurs let Parker take Curry one-on-one, save for the odd cross-match in transition, and it didn't work out too badly for them, as Curry scored four points on 2 for 6 shooting. But while Parker worked hard to stay with Curry around on- and off-ball screens, the relatively slow start had less to do with suffocating defense on Curry than with the Warriors preferring to exploit more advantageous matchups, like forcing switches that put the 6-foot-2 Parker on the 6-foot-7 Klay Thompson or 6-foot-8 Harrison Barnes, or feeding reserve scorer Carl Landry when he's one-on-one on the left block against DeJuan Blair. The strategy worked pretty well, as Golden State shot 57.1 percent from the floor with eight assists on 12 made baskets, hanging 28 first-quarter points on the regular season's third-stingiest defense and holding a three-point lead after 12 minutes.

The same was true at the start of the second quarter, when Parker got a breather and backup Cory Joseph received the assignment of trailing Curry around the floor. Like Parker, Joseph was attentive on and off the ball, working hard to faceguard Curry and track him around screens ... except for one high pick where Bogut splattered him and Tim Duncan never came above the foul line, leaving Steph open for an easy 3-pointer. For that 5:19 stretch, Golden State was largely content to work other matchups, some (Landry-on-Blair, Barnes-on-Matt Bonner) more attractive than others (Jack isolating on Gary Neal), and outscored San Antonio 11-8.

Parker again did a pretty solid job over the final 6:41 of the half, staying close enough to Curry on off-ball movement to avoid granting wide-open looks, getting enough help from his teammates (notably Duncan and Boris Diaw on the back side of pick-and-rolls) to keep Curry from springing loose and, a couple of times, just finding themselves lucky, like when Curry missed an open layup after darting past Duncan's pick-and-roll help to the rim, or was just a bit off line when firing a straight-on 3 after Bogut had gotten enough of Parker to create some daylight in front of Duncan at the free-throw line.

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He missed this, surprisingly. (Screencap via Synergy Sports)

At halftime, the Spurs had done about as good a job as they could've hoped on Curry, holding him to 10 points on 4 for 10 shooting and mitigating his five assists with four turnovers. While they had to be frustrated that Curry's teammates had shot 60 percent from the floor and opened a four-point halftime lead, they had to feel decent about slowing down Round 1's most explosive scorer (non-Kevin Durant division) with little more than a pair of relatively unheralded on-ball defenders.

But then ... y'know ... that third quarter.

Once Steph really got cooking, there really wasn't anything anyone could do — Parker and Green both got some, as did Bonner on a couple of doubles. So did Leonard, who I thought might get Curry duty from Jump Street but who had instead started on Thompson and picked up Curry just three times earlier in the game — once in the first quarter on a switch prompted by a 1-2 pick-and-roll that put Parker on Thompson, resulted in an iso and an easy layup, once in the second quarter, looking to stop the ball in transition, and once early in the third, after a Duncan turnover about 2 1/2 minutes in and after Steph had made his first three shots of the quarter in ridiculous fashion.

On that play, Leonard got low and tried to use his stance and wingspan to corral Curry, but a stiff Bogut screen took Kawhi out of the play about 35 feet away from the hoop and gave Curry the chance to build up a head of steam going at a step-slow Duncan. As soon as the two were even, just inside the free-throw line, it was over; Bonner took a step to his left to cut off an anticipated Curry drive, but the guard promptly whipped a one-handed feed to Green, Bonner's man, for an easy dunk.

Later, after Curry's shoes started flaming, Leonard returned to the assignment on several consecutive possessions, and the results weren't great:

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Leonard's length might give the Spurs the best shot of slowing Curry. (Getty Images)

• After a Danny Green 3-pointer just before the midway point of the quarter, Leonard crouched to meet Curry just inside half court. Curry immediately recognized and lofted a lob to Barnes, who was guarded by Parker on the left block. Bonner did well to rush over and double Barnes on the catch, but the rookie did better to fight through the trap and feed fellow rookie Green in the paint, who drew Duncan's attention before making a quick pass to Bogut for an easy dunk.

• After another Green 3 less than a minute later, Leonard again singled up Curry and Curry again found Barnes defended by Parker. This time, Barnes and Parker are were in the right corner with no double in sight, so Barnes blows past the point guard, takes a run at the rim and finishes with a dunk.

• After a Parker miss on the next possession, Leonard again went to Curry and Curry again fed Barnes on Parker, this time in the left corner. Bonner raced over, Barnes skipped a cross-court pass to the right corner for Draymond Green, who kicked to Thompson on the right wing for a wide-open 3. He missed, but it's the kind of look Golden State will take any day of the week. (Also, Thompson followed his shot and got a layup, which Golden State will also take any day of the week.)

When Leonard took a rest at the 4:31 mark, Danny Green picked up Barnes, Gary Neal picked up Thompson and Parker got back on the ball. The Warriors promptly returned to their standard operating procedure, putting Curry on the ball in high screen-and-rolls with either Bogut or Ezeli, and daring Duncan to come above the free-throw line/chance Curry driving past him or hang back/open midrange room.

When Parker took a seat and Joseph came back into the game with 2:30 left in the quarter, the plan of attack stayed the same, until Curry reached a state of fire at which he didn't need no stinkin' picks, preferring to shake Joseph with the sheer violence of his own dribble. It worked really well, really well — Curry scored 14 points on 6 for 8 shooting over those final 4 1/2 minutes, giving him 22 in the quarter and pushing the Warriors' lead to 12 points at the end of three.

Things got better in the fourth and beyond — well, really, how could they get any worse than they were in the third? — thanks to the combination of more Leonard more often, more minutes making Curry more tired, and less Thompson giving the Warriors fewer options.

Leonard picked Curry back up with just under eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, pushing him left and influencing Curry into a contested 3-pointer that missed. Whether due to matchup, fatigue or sideline design, Curry moved off-ball for the following three possessions, with Jack running the show defended by Parker up top. As they had earlier in the game, the Warriors looked to exploit the Parker matchup, but it backfired on them, with Jack high pick-and-rolls resulting in two missed jumpers and a turnover, creating a string of stops that helped give the Spurs a glimmer of hope of coming back.

Jackson did make a nice adjustment just before the midway point of the fourth, with the Warriors pulling Bogut out of the middle, loading up the left side of the floor and posting Jack on Parker at the right elbow as Curry dribbled high on the right wing against Leonard. The clear-out opened up the right wing and baseline for Curry — you can see Jack waving him on, telling him to drive through — and created a path for Curry to use his quickness to get past Leonard for a layup.

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'Come on over here, Steph.' (Screencap via Synergy Sports)

They did the same thing on the next possession, only they reversed the side of the floor, getting another blow-by and easy deuce, and tried it again on the next possession, going back to the right-side clearout. This time, though, Parker and Duncan were a step quicker in their slides to take away the baseline, cutting off penetration; still, Curry made the proper play, kicking to the corner and trigger a ball swing that would've resulted in an open 3 if Barnes had shot off the catch rather than hesitating, taking one dribble inside the arc and firing a jumper (that missed anyway).

On the next possession, Parker returned to on-ball responsibility, and again, the Warriors looked to attack him in the pick-and-roll, returning to the 1-2 look they showed earlier in the game, only this time it was Jack rather than the sitting Thompson who set the screen. The initial action went nowhere, but when Jack recovered to give a stalled Curry help, Leonard overpursued, opening a driving lane for Jack that led to two free throws. On the following trip, Leonard returned to on-ball duty, but another screen from Jack switched Curry onto Parker, whom Curry drove past to set up a dump-off layup that Draymond Green missed — at that point, Curry and his teammates all seemed to be losing some of the crispness and shot-making skill that helped build their massive early lead.

Thompson picked up his sixth personal foul at the 3:57 mark of the fourth quarter, and that wound up looming large — now, with Curry tied from having played virtually the entire game to that point and the bigger, stronger Leonard defending him possession by possession, the early-game Thompson-on-Parker mismatches that Golden State exploited so well would no longer be available.

It's unclear whether an iso-happy Jack would have looked to those anyway, but not having them — and, more generally, another ace shot-maker and another rangy defender — around definitely hurt down the stretch. Curry scored just six points on 2 for 9 shooting over the game's final 14 minutes, while Leonard taking the defensive reins without fear of cross-match/post-up reprisals gave Parker free rein to run wild offensively, as the All-Star scored 16 points on 7 for 11 shooting from that point on.

Obviously, Curry's gifted enough to pop off against any defender at any time in any situation, and fatigue clearly played a major role as well, but it's worth noting that Curry didn't shoot as effectively during the regular season with Thompson off the floor (39.7 percent from the floor, 40.4 percent from 3) as he did when they played together (46.3 percent on both 2-pointers and 3s). While his field-goal percentage has been strong in non-Thompson minutes this postseason, his 3-point accuracy has dipped by more than 10 percent without Thompson on the court to both draw attention and punish opponents for putting their top wing defender on Curry.

So, basically, all the Spurs need is to feel safe is for Thompson to get himself in foul trouble again, for Barnes to stop hitting shots, for Leonard to be able to spend more time away from the wings and on the point, for their point guards to keep fighting over screens, for Duncan to be a step faster in his coverages, for Curry not to hit another 22-points-in-12-minutes groove, for Curry to get tired and for that to not take 58 minutes this time.

From there, it should all be easy.

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