SAN FRANCISCO — The thing about guarding Stephen Curry is that if a simple formula existed, someone would have done it by now. But year after year, game after game, possession after possession, the Warriors superstar manages to find just enough time and space to make life miserable for whoever tries to stop him.
During the regular season, the damage inflicted is not quite as glaring because Curry just moves on to his next city to humiliate his next victim. But over the course of a long, grueling NBA playoff series, when teams become both familiar with and sick of each other, the Curry conundrum truly stands out.
Fans don’t understand why their team isn’t doing something about him. The team insists that it is trying.
“Yeah, Steph Curry is pretty good, if you guys haven’t noticed,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “He can shoot the ball unbelievably. Even watching it, playing against it and even in the Finals, I feel like he’s taking it up a notch.”
Curry is averaging 34.3 points during these NBA Finals, and connecting on a blistering 49.1 percent of his 3-pointers. Boston’s success could hinge on lowering both of those figures, particularly the 3-point accuracy.
But it is not as if Golden State is simply pressing the repeat button and bopping the Celtics with the same plays over and over. In the Warriors’ 107-97 Game 4 win at TD Garden, for example, Curry connected on 7 of 14 3-pointers, and no two were identical.
“The way that he’s able to affect the game by being able to run around and play off the ball and get himself open, it’s just tough on a defender because you can’t take a break,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. “The instant you think that he’s not doing anything, the play is over for him, and that’s when you get beaten. That’s when you get burnt.”
The Celtics had the NBA’s top-ranked defense this season, and their switch-heavy scheme places great trust in each defender to eventually hold his ground in one-on-one situations. With Curry, of course, that becomes more complicated.
The Warriors have sought out screening actions that pull Boston’s big men into the fray. The Celtics have often deployed drop coverage, meaning that the big man drops below the screener to avoid having the ball handler blow by for a layup.
This can end in disaster against a shooter with Curry’s range, but the Celtics’ drop coverage has tended to come when he is already beyond the 3-point arc, sometimes as much as 10-15 feet away.
“We want them above the three-point line and at the three-point line, at the lowest,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “We’re leaving it up to our guards. A lot of responsibility where they want to pick him up in pressure and mix up his pickup point.”
In one sequence in Game 4, the Warriors set a screen for Curry about 10 feet beyond the arc. Celtics big man Al Horford shuffled into drop coverage just beyond the 3-point line and briefly offered strong resistance there, but Curry simply jabbed, stepped back, and drilled a shot from about five feet past the line.
“The whole thing is really just supporting the primary defender who’s guarding him,” Horford said. “Marcus, Derrick [White], Payton [Pritchard], whoever happens to be guarding him at that time. Just be there to support them to make sure to give them enough time to be able to get them back squared. Easier said than done, but we’re just there to really load on them, and there’s not really a specific point.”
Curry is incredibly crafty, too. On one Game 4 play, he was about 10 feet inside midcourt, guarded closely by White, when he held out his arm and pointed to where Draymond Green should pass the ball. White briefly glanced in that direction, only to find out there was no one there. But that millisecond was all Curry needed to slice to the right arc and find an opening for a 3.
During another, he danced through the lane and appeared to have a chance at a floater before finding a wide open Gary Payton II in the left corner. The Celtics’ defense paused, seeming to assume that Payton would simply attempt the wide open shot. Instead, Curry sprinted to him, got the ball back, and drained it himself.
“The thing he does well obviously is once he gets off the ball, the movement, that’s different,” Udoka said. “Doesn’t just stop. And they all are hunting shots for him, as you saw when we switched a little bit.”
Udoka pointed out that the Celtics have not swarmed Curry with as many bodies as they used to slow down Nets star Kevin Durant in the opening-round series. And that’s due in large part to Curry’s playmaking skills and the other personnel on the floor.
Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole are explosive scorers, and Green is an elite playmaker for a big man. Plus, the 6-foot-2 Curry is about eight inches shorter than Durant, so the Celtics believe their length on the perimeter can be more disruptive.
“He’s made some tough shots, no doubt,” Udoka said. “[But] I think the numbers look like they are skewed when he hits some of the other ones out of transition or miscommunication, as opposed to us in our regular touch defense.”