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.