NBA Finals: How the Celtics adjusted their defense on Stephen Curry, and what it means moving forward

Brad Botkin

Jun 4, 2022

Curry was held to just one 3-pointer over the final three quarters of Game 1

For the first 12 minutes of these 2022 NBA Finals, Stephen Curry looked like his old video-game self as he poured in six consecutive 3-pointers in a historic first quarter. I haven't combed the data, but having watched pretty much every minute of Curry's season, and career, I can virtually assure you that, excluding the All-Star game, he didn't splash anything close to six straight 3-pointers at any point in what was probably the worst shooting season of his life. These flurries that used to be routine are now fewer and farther between.

That's not to say Curry still can't torch you on a given night. He can. It's just to say that if you play disciplined, physical defense and track him with multiple switching defenders everywhere he moves, these days, you seem to have at least a marginally better chance of coming out alive.

But if you're going to give the guy wide-open looks? Forget about it. He's going to skewer you. That's what the Celtics did to open Game 1, completely losing track of Curry on two separate possessions as though he was some kind of fourth option. First, Jayson Tatum inexplicably drifted away from defending Curry to stay with Draymond Green. Then Payton Pritchard and Derrick White both stayed with Jordan Poole as Curry popped all alone behind the arc.

Pritchard clearly thought White was going to switch, which he was probably supposed to do. The Celtics switch everything, and White would be the preferred defender on Curry over Pritchard. These are the type of communication lapses Curry can, and often does, force as everyone is so paranoid trying to account not only for his whereabouts, but also all the other Golden State scoring threats that are constantly cutting their way into the open space created by devoting too much attention to Curry.

It's a tough balance. It's what makes Curry so difficult, if not damn near impossible, to defend at once on a micro and macro level. But this is the Finals. Difficult is part of the deal. Mistakes are going to happen, but leaving the greatest shooter to ever live entirely unattended cannot be one of them.

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The Celtics were also way too soft in their drop coverage against Curry during this early stretch. If you're not familiar with what drop coverage is, it's when the big man guarding the ball screener sags way back inside the 3-point line, a strategy normally reserved for bad shooters to whom you're willing to concede pull-up 3-pointers. Playing soft drop coverage against Curry is suicide. Look at how deep Robert Williams is sitting inside the 3-point line as Curry gets a ball screen at almost half court.

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Williams is giving Curry, the greatest pull-up shooter ever, about 20 feet of open space to come off the screen and fire, which he did. Curry missed, but a quick offensive rebound and pass right back to him created his first 3 of the game, and he was off and running.

Later in the quarter, it was Daniel Theis sagging back inside the 3-point line as Curry pulled up unencumbered for what was his sixth, and record-breaking, first-quarter triple.

Again, this is a tough balance. Press up too far on Curry and he beats the big man into the paint and causes a whole other string of issues. Blitz him and, after dragging two defenders out of the play, he finds the short roller for a 4-on-3 that in Game 1 led to multiple wide-open corner 3s and red-carpet dunks. Boston is aiming to split the difference, as Marcus Smart was captured breaking down in a fascinating mic'd up segment.

"This isn't the Heat series," Smart said. "We can't start back. You have to start up, especially if they're setting [the screen] so high. You start up and drop, because we're chasing. Now he goes down into the paint."