The Boston Celtics’ defense has slowed down every offensive superstar they’ve faced in these playoffs. Until they ran into Steph Curry.
According to Cleaning the Glass, seven teams have posted a defensive rating seven points below the league average or lower since 2003-04 (the earliest year of the database’s collection). That pantheonic list extends to eight when you change the filters to include this year’s Boston Celtics unit since the calendar changed to 2022.
The post-Jan. 1 version of this Celtics’ defense has statistically been the third-best defense of the last two decades. During the playoffs, they have only added to their legend by developing a reputation for specializing in superstar shutdowns.
Just look what they have done to the opposing team’s megastar in each of their last four series:
As the chart above shows, the Celtics have hindered the efficiency and overall offensive cohesion of every superstar they’ve faced, except…Steph Curry!
What’s going on? Are the Celtics letting this happen by design? Have the Warriors done a good job of scheming him open? Or is Steph Curry just a different beast entirely?
The Celtics’ plan for Steph Curry
After the first quarter of Game 1, many people were looking at Coach Ime Udoka sideways. Six Curry 3-pointers and approximately zero double teams faced.
However, that eruption was more the product of blown coverages than a wholesale gameplan malfunction. As the game continued, the first-year coach’s plan became clear: use drop coverage to avoid blitzing/trapping and surrendering automatic 4-on-3 advantages. Live with Curry burning you.
In hindsight, it makes sense. No matter how spectacular Curry is, he’s just one man. Contrary to public opinion, one man can’t win a series on his lonesome. Besides, they have the personnel to make it work. Robert Williams III and Al Horford are good drop bigs, and Derrick White and Marcus Smart are excellent screen navigators.
Here are two plays that illustrate the reasoning for this line of thinking:
Boston turned to this alignment frequently against the Heat, and to their credit, they had a ton of success with it. The problem here is that Steph Curry is not the Miami Heat.
How the Warriors counter
As we said, the Celtics have the roster to make this approach tenable. So, in response, the Warriors have added some extra wrinkles to afford their sharpshooting superstar some easier looks.
Smart and White have busted their butts fighting over screens and contesting Curry pull-ups from behind. However, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — while strong defenders in their own right — are not nearly as adept at navigating through screens. So, to exploit these weak points, the Warriors have been running an action before the primary pick and roll action to get one of these two switched onto Curry and force them to have to be the one to navigate the ball screen.
Here are three variations of this technique:
In the first clip, Andrew Wiggins screens White to force Tatum on Curry. From there, Golden State goes straight into a pick and roll featuring Tatum (a weaker screen navigator than White) as the point-of-attack defender.
In the second, Otto Porter Jr. ”ghosts” (a fake ball screen) to get Smart off of Curry and Brown on him. And like clockwork, this is immediately followed by a pick-and-roll.
In the third clip, the plot starts when Klay Thompson sets a screen to bait Boston into a Brown-Curry matchup. From there, the Warriors force Brown to labor through another screen courtesy of their trademark post split-action.
When they can’t get the matchup they want on Curry, Golden State is taking steps to add obstacles in the navigator’s path. On this play, Porter Jr. screens White, and then he immediately hits him with a re-screen following his handoff to Curry.
A different challenge
Three key variables differentiate Curry from the other superstars that Boston has exchanged blows with in previous series: his handle, shooting, and perpetual motion.
Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo are physical specimens, but their incredible length comes with the drawback of a looser handle. This dribbling mortality makes digs and stunts coming from off-ball defenders more effective. Meanwhile, Curry’s more compact stature affords him the wherewithal to maintain a tight dribble when venturing into the paint.
The Celtics are great at loading up their defense to attack weaker trespassers, so when they come across someone they can’t pickpocket, it takes the wind out of their sails a bit. Look how different a Curry drive against them looks compared to a Durant or Antetokounmpo one.
In the Miami and Milwaukee matchups, Boston also had the luxury of going under on ballscreens featuring Jimmy Butler and Antetokounmpo because of their less than stellar outside shooting. This enabled them to focus on taking away downhill penetration without needing to commit too much extra help.
Durant is an all-time marksman in his own right, but there is a stationary quality to his prestige. He’s not the type of player who will gallop into a dribble handoff action and immediately fire up a 30-footer (like Curry frequently does). He’s much more probing and methodical, which is highly effective but also gives the Celtics much more time to prepare for his scoring barrages.
This brings us to the last point. Curry never stops moving. This next clip actually ends in a block, but it exemplifies the unique challenge Curry’s movement presents for Boston (slowed down for observational purposes).
White does an excellent job of fighting over the screen and derailing the initial action. However, his accomplishment causes him to momentarily relax, and he’s a step slow on the ensuing Curry back cut. Luckily for White, Williams is there at the last second to erase the shot (Curry also lays it up from the wrong side), but the point still remains.
When going up against Curry, you can’t just stonewall him once and be finished. It takes multiple efforts to tame this dragon.
As with most questions in basketball, the answer to our original quandary lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, this is partially part of the Celtics’ blueprint. Yes, the Warriors have done a good job of putting him in good positions.
And yes, Steph Curry may just be something else entirely.