Before facing Warriors star Steph Curry in the Finals, the Celtics went through a string of superstars in the Eastern Conference that included Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and – surprisingly the toughest of the trio – Jimmy Butler.
Against all three Eastern Conference opponents, the Celtics found ways to contain the opposing star. Grant Williams put on weight and annoyed Durant, while the rest of the Celtics knocked the Nets out of the playoffs in four abrupt games. Antetokounmpo gave the Celtics everything he could, but the combination of Al Horford and Williams had some answers for the Bucks superstar and – once again – the defense elsewhere kept the rest of the team in check. The entire team struggled over a seven-game series against Butler.
But Steph Curry is an entirely different challenge.
Antetokounmpo played like a tractor. Curry plays with explosive speed and unparalleled accuracy. Butler played with willpower. Curry plays with the force of gravity. The Celtics’ defense was the best in the NBA during the regular season and remained elite throughout the playoffs, but even the Celtics are having trouble figuring out how to contain Curry.
Here’s a screenshot of Curry’s first field goal attempt of the night – a layup, which Smart strongly contested. On this play, Horford jumped high enough to coax Curry out of a 3-point try – note that Horford is one foot above the 3-point line when Curry starts his play.
However, the Celtics clearly placed emphasis on having their guards and wingers fight for screens, leaving their bigs behind to avoid drives. That gave the Warriors plenty of clean pick-and-roll looks, like this one — one of six 3-pointers that Curry dunked on Wednesday.
As you can see, Derrick White did everything in his power to make Curry miss, but Horford offered little resistance and Curry took advantage.
“I’ll have to see that in the movie a little more,” Horford said on Wednesday after the game. “In the game, I felt like I wasn’t doing well enough like I needed to be, and Steph got some very clear looks and really hurt us with it.”
It’s hard to disagree.
Again, in each case, White or Smart pursued Curry across the screens aggressively. But this is Steph Curry – arguably one of the top 10 players of all time, and arguably the greatest marksman of all time. Each of these looks is very clean.
“They have a certain lineup with their length and size that you’re not really going to see a lot of blitzes just because I don’t think it’s physically possible to run as far as I do and how many screens we can throw at them,” Curry said Thursday. “So they’re doing a pretty solid job for most of the game trying to get all three out, keeping bodies on bodies and stuff like that.
“In the fourth quarter, we started the fourth quarter with two possessions with turnovers and we kind of sped up a little bit. So they were very smart in terms of who they were trying to get out and clog the driving lanes and send extra bodies and attention that honestly those standards really don’t make sense, but they were super aggressive overall.”
One can’t help but wonder if Curry – who is shooting 48.6 percent from 3-pointers this series – believes the Celtics did a “pretty solid job” with him because he enjoys all the extra space coming off the screens against Horford. .
The dilemma with Curry, however, is multifaceted. Horford can certainly jump higher, but that invites a change, which is little better than a takedown and recovery scheme for the Celtics. Horford – for all the countless good things he does on a basketball court – cannot contain Curry in isolation. Robert Williams can’t either. Curry is an exceptionally impeccable offensive talent who punishes the greats who have the audacity to try to defend him.
Curry hinted that the Warriors have an answer to the Celtics’ aggressive defense.
“Obviously, if we take care of the ball and settle in, that can set a whole different tone for the fourth quarter,” Curry said. “So obviously offense and defense are connected. You have to make stops to maintain momentum on the stretch.
“In Game 1 and Game 3, we didn’t do that. It showed itself in terms of only getting 16 points or so in the fourth quarter. Obviously we know we have to be better.”
The Celtics also need to be better. They’re up 2-1 and they’ve earned that distinction, but Curry can single-handedly win basketball games, and the fact that the Celtics still haven’t shown they can hold him back is worrying ahead of crucial Game 4.
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