For all the commendable defense that Jarred Vanderbilt and the rest of the Lakers played on Stephen Curry in Game 1, it could argued that Warriors coach Steve Kerr was actually the one who limited Curry’s scoring impact the most.
Curry still wound up with 27 points on six 3-pointers. But it all came early and late, with a huge drought in between as Curry made just one shot over a 26-minute period that spanned the entire second and third quarters.
During that time, and really for almost the entirety of the game, Kerr used Curry in his standard off-ball role, running his random routes through mazes of screens in a state of perpetual motion. Indeed, Curry is one of the best, most instinctive off-ball movers we’ve ever seen, and the Warriors are designed around the gravity he creates and the vacuums of scoring space it affords everyone else, not to mention Curry’s all-time ability to catch-and-shoot.
The problem with this is sometimes it can be hard to get the ball to Curry if he doesn’t break free on the first few actions and the shot clock starts dwindling. It’s easier to hold and bump Curry off ball; officials are not as quick to blow the whistle as they are when contact happens on ball, if they even see the contact at all.
But mostly, running Curry off ball, for all the success he and the Warriors have had doing so, leaves him at the mercy of the system-generated space even when he does receive it. If the ball and player movement, and the screens being set for Curry, don’t break him loose of his defender, or defenders, then he ends up catching the ball in cramped quarters without much opportunity to separate.
Take this play, for instance.
Vanderbilt is glued to Curry from the start. That Curry is going to come up for a handoff is predictable from this set (defenses are more hip to all of Golden State movement than they were in their heyday). Vanderbilt is a long, physical, athletic defender who can and will fight over the top of screens and close the little bit of initial space achieved by Curry as he trails the play — as he does here, ultimately leaving the 6-foot-3 Curry sandwiched between a 6-foot-8 Vanderbilt and a 6-foot-10 Anthony Davis with no room for recourse.
Generally speaking, this was the way of it for Curry over his two-quarter drought of Game 1. He sprung free now and again and missed some shots he normally makes, but it was a struggle to separate off screens as the Lakers were draped to him, ready to thwart the scouted routes and cut off Curry’s path to the ball, often by top-locking him. As a result, Curry touched the ball just 74 total times in Game 1, per NBA.com tracking, his lowest number of the playoffs.
This is when Warriors fans, despite all the success this team and system has enjoyed, get frustrated with Kerr, when he stubbornly sticks to his equitable offensive ethos — content to allow lesser players to dictate the fate of even crucial possessions rather than doing what seems blatantly obvious: Put the ball in Curry’s hands from the start, erasing the possibility of him not breaking free off a screen and more or less sitting the possession out.
From there, run high pick-and-roll and let his best player, who just so happens to be the most lethal pick-and-roll threat in NBA history, either cook up his own buckets or draw a double team that generates the type of 4-on-3 possessions the Warriors have feasted on over the years.
Despite Curry’s ability to virtually guarantee a great shot as an on-ball creator, Kerr saves his “give the ball to Steph and let him do his thing” offense for emergencies. Game 7 against the Kings was an emergency. That day, the Warriors ran a total of 20 pick-and-rolls and isolations for Curry, by far the most they ran in any single game of that series. He scored 50 points.
More importantly, the Warriors beat the Kings by 20 that game, their biggest winning margin of the series and more than double the margin of their Game 4 and 5 wins combined. On-ball Curry was just too much.
Indeed, on-ball Curry was too much for the Lakers in Game 1, as well. The difference was, Kerr waited a bit too long to unleash it. Per Synergy tracking, Curry didn’t run a single high pick-and-roll over the second and third quarters. At the 9:38 mark of the fourth quarter, Curry finally did the most basic thing in the basketball world: He dribbled up, came around a Kevon Looney ball screen, and shot. This is what happened.
A few minutes later, Curry ran what Synergy logged as a high pick-and-roll, but really, after the screen did not amount to anything, it became an isolation — his first of the night, incidentally. Either way, the point is Curry had the ball in his hands with a live dribble and space to work, and again, here’s what happened (I encourage you to make sure your volume is up so you can hear Stan Van Gundy making the same point this entire article is devoted to making):
A few minutes later, Curry knocked down a 3-pointer to tie the game that was logged as a catch-and-shoot jumper, but the entire play was made, again, by Curry self-creating off the dribble in a spaced floor. First he works to get D’Angelo Russell switched onto him. He dances on Russell into the paint, and then, when he gives the ball up, watch Russell motion to the ref that a travel should be called. In that split second where Russell loses defensive focus, Curry relocates behind the line and sticks it.
This is so much different than a typical catch-and-shoot where Curry starts off the ball and the defender is prepared to track him around screens. When he starts with the ball, creates his own space and momentum, and then makes a pass, the natural instinct for defenders is to let their guard down for just a brief moment. That’s all Curry needs to relocate into a shot.
Kerr isn’t wrong in not wanting to rely on Curry to consistently create dribble offense on his own. We have seen the postseason ceilings of this philosophy time and again. Trae Young with the Hawks. Luka Doncic with the Mavericks. James Harden with the Rockets. Damian Lillard with the Blazers.
When playoff defenses see particular actions over and over, they tend to eventually latch onto it like a virus. This is to say nothing of the energy drain on the guy tasked with both starting and finishing possessions all game long. A balance must be struck.
For Kerr and the Warriors, it’s about finding the right time to ditch the system, put the ball in Curry’s hands and turn him loose. Do it too early, and the Lakers adjust and/or Curry gets tired. Do it too late, like they did in Game 1, and you lose. Kerr waited until the last game of the series against Sacramento to pull the Curry card, and he got away with it. They got out of that series by the skin of their teeth.
This is a different series. The Lakers are a far more physical off-ball defense. Giving him a live dribble and either a pick or space to create is the surest way to maximize his impact. Pulling Davis out of the paint is a top Warriors priority, and Curry running pick-and-roll with Davis’ man is also the best way to do that.
Kerr knows all this. As such, it’s not a question of if he will put the ball in Curry’s hands and let him work. The question is: when he finally does, will it be too late?