OAKLAND — Stephen Curry positioned himself like a free safety for the opening tipoff against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night. He was the deepest Warrior on the defensive half of the court — ready to handle the ball for the team’s first play if Zaza Pachulia won the tip, and there to prevent an emergency should Oklahoma City gain possession.
Thunder center Steven Adams tapped the ball to teammate Carmelo Anthony, and the game was on.
Over the next four quarters of action, Curry would play 31:49 of the game’s 48 minutes. He’d be on the court for roughly 70 offensive possessions and 70 defensive possessions, and would take 14 shots, commit three fouls, make a steal and block a shot. Though it didn’t make the stat sheet, he would also jog, sprint, dribble, wriggle, feint, shove, kibbitz (including a conversation between a Thunder player and assistant coach), chew his mouthpiece and use his mouth to say his piece to the night’s officiating crew at Oracle Arena.
I watched all of it. As my colleague Grant Cohn took notes for his game story that night, I followed Curry’s every move — his drives, his screens, his efforts away from the ball, his defensive stances. I even watched him on the bench, where he sat between Warriors assistant Jarron Collins and center JaVale McGee with a towel draped over his head.
Like a lot of basketball fans, I tend to follow the ball when I watch a game. Not on Tuesday. I watched Steph Curry to get a better sense of one man’s — one famous, beloved man’s — night on the court.
Spoiler alert: This wasn’t a great night for my assignment, as it turns out. The Warriors, in the throes of a midseason slump, were trounced by the Thunder, 125-105. The game lacked intensity in the second half, and Curry sat for nearly all of the fourth quarter as his team failed to close the gap. What’s more, the Warriors looked out of synch and a bit listless. If I wanted to see Curry driving the engine of Golden State’s free-flowing system, I chose the wrong game. And yet patterns emerged.
Let’s dispense with defense first. It won’t take long.
Curry is never a candidate for the NBA All-Defensive Team, but his quick hands and next-level anticipation give him value at that end of the floor. It didn’t emerge much against the Thunder.
Oklahoma City more or less has 2½ scoring threats in supernatural athlete Russell Westbrook, smooth-as-silk Paul George and Adams banging down low. Warriors coach Steve Kerr wasn’t going to ask his two-time MVP to guard any of them.
Instead, Curry was matched to starting wing player Josh Heustis about 40-45 percent of the time, and alternately to either guard Alex Abrines or small forward Jerami Grant, each maybe 20-25 percent of the time. These guys tend to perch at the arc and stay out of the scorers’ way. It was a tame assignment for Curry, who logged his defensive minutes about halfway between his man and the key, seemingly ready to help if needed. Except he didn’t do very much of the latter, either — possibly because it frequently involved Westbrook roaring down the lane like an F-16. All in all, Curry did a lot of coasting on D.
His biggest contribution to holding down the Thunder’s scoring probably came about 90 seconds into the game, when he crowded Carmelo Anthony a little in the open court; Anthony stepped on Curry’s foot, twisted his ankle, and wound up going scoreless in six minutes of action.
Offensively, Curry was way more active. He had to be, because the tireless Westbrook was usually the man guarding him.
Curry frequently brought the ball upcourt against the Thunder, but not always; sometimes Draymond Green or Kevin Durant or Andre Iguodala would do the dribbling, and Curry would run to one of the corners along the baseline. It was typical of his varied usage under Kerr.
Earlier on Tuesday, at the Warriors’ practice facility in downtown Oakland, assistant coach Mike Brown told me that Curry’s genius lies in the fact that he’s equally deadly with and without the ball in his hands.
“It’s just hard to lock on and stop him, because he can get open in so many different ways,” Brown said.
Getting Curry involved is usually Priority No. 1 around here. According to NBA Advanced Statistics, he averages 81.6 touches (tied for 13th in the NBA), and 5.5 minutes of total ball possession (22nd) per game, though many players average more minutes. On this night, though, the Warriors tended to stagnate when Curry was off-ball. At times, he simply sat parked in the left or right corner and watched passively. Another symptom of their current malaise.
When Curry acted more like a point guard, though, things got interesting. His route was unpredictable. Sometimes he dribbled to the left side of the half-court, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the middle. Whichever way he started, a cascade of screens often followed.
The pick-and-roll play is prevalent in the NBA right now, and the Warriors do some of that. But they get much more creative, frequently setting multiple screens for Curry or Klay Thompson on a single possession.
“Now, it looks like we run a lot of ball screens, but throughout the course of the game we’re setting pindowns (in the corners), we’re setting flares (with the screener’s back to the sideline), and a lot of that stuff is just Steve (Kerr) showing film, talking to our guys, preaching,” Brown told me. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a small-on-small screen. … Because the more you can do that, sooner or later it’s gonna cause confusion.”
What’s easy to overlook if you’re not watching for it is that Curry is doing much of the screening. That doesn’t seem like a sensible plan for the lightest, and arguably most valuable, player on the court. But it’s part of what makes Curry thrive. Because it’s easy for defenders to get momentarily lost on a screen, and the screener himself might be the beneficiary.
“He’ll make it look like he’s doing something for his teammate — but it’s really for him,” Brown said of Curry.
Those NBA stats tell us that Curry runs an average of 2.5 miles per game, 13th in the league and just ahead of Thompson (2.49) and Durant (2.37) in slightly fewer minutes. Here’s a single third-quarter possession to give you an idea of how complex his weaving can get:
After the Thunder missed a free throw, Curry ran down the court to the right corner. Westbrook set up loosely between Curry and the basket. Curry took a step into him, then sprinted out to the deep right bend of the 3-point arc, where center Kevon Looney was waiting to set a screen. Westbrook trailed along. Curry curled around Looney, cut toward the basket and accepted a pass from Iguodala. Steven Adams was waiting at the free-throw line, Westbrook followed the ball and Alex Abrines came off of Iguodala a bit to join the hunt; Curry had occupied three defenders. He stopped, took a step back, gained separation as Westbrook sped by him and threw to Looney, who had rolled to the hoop. Adams alertly saw the pass, tipped it and chased the ball to the baseline, flipping it high in the air behind him as he sailed out of bounds. Looney leapt and caught it, and passed out to Curry, who was just right of the top of the arc. Curry let Westbrook run by him once again and quick-launched a 3-point attempt. It hit the back of the iron.
That play epitomized the Warriors’ night. Frequently, they executed plays just as they’d been drawn up, only to brick an open shot.
Oh, and they turned the ball over 25 times against the Thunder. Curry was part of the problem. He threw a pass out of bounds in the first quarter after Green had slipped a screen and was en route to the basket, and he started a half-speed break in the second quarter, only to toss an ill-advised, no-look pass that was intercepted by OKC’s Patrick Patterson.
“They’re obviously a very athletic, long team,” Curry said after the loss. “And if you kind of just take the driving lanes and funnel yourself into traffic, it’s hard to make the right play out of that. … A tough night in that department. We keep talking about it, and eventually we’re gonna figure it out.”
They didn’t Tuesday night. But there will be more games, more minutes, more miles covered, more shots and more screens for Curry and his Warriors teammates. There always are.
You can columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.