OAKLAND — When Stephen Curry gets going offensively, really going on one of those unconscious, red-hot, no-need-to-look-at-the-rim rolls of his, what he does for the Golden State Warriors leaves the world of hardwood and enters an entirely different, pixelated realm.
“A video game,” teammate Draymond Green said, smiling, when asked Wednesday about Curry at his MVP best. “Some of the things he's able to do on the court once he gets hot, it's like watching a video game.”
That's a game the Cleveland Cavaliers want no part of. They'll have their hands full coping with Curry over four to seven games of real-life basketball in the NBA Finals. Stopping him – check that, slowing him is their top priority if they wants to win the franchise's first-ever league championship.
That also happens to be among the most difficult tasks this long season, not just for this particular opponent
“Honest to God, I haven't seen anything,” Warriors' Andrew Bogut said when asked if he recalled any semi-successful tactics on Curry this season. “Physicality used to affect him. Running off screens, [Houston Rockets guard] Patrick Beverley used to be aggressiveness and in his grill at all times. But this season, the only times he's had bad games is when he's missed shots he usually makes.”
A quick review of Curry's poorest scoring performances this season uncovers eight games in which he scored fewer than 14 points. He shot 35.3 percent overall (30 of 85) and 34.1 percent from 3-point range (still better than nine teams from outside the arc).
And here's the part that ought to scare Cleveland: Golden State not only won all eight of those games, they won by an average scoring margin of 16.5 points.
The Cavaliers had mixed success against Curry during the season. He scored 23 points with 10 assists in a 112-94 victory Jan. 9 at Oracle Arena, a game in which LeBron James didn't play. In the rematch Feb. 26 at Cleveland, Curry was held to 18 points on 5-of-17 shooting with six assists in a 110-99 loss.
Just as the Warriors throw multiple defenders and looks at James in an attempt to mess with his rhythm, so the Cavaliers will mix up schemes and personnel in battling Curry. Point guard Kyrie Irving is his natural counterpart, but the SportVu player tracking data didn't paint a rosy picture of his work in the matchup. In 13 minutes over the two meetings this winter, Curry averaged 1.33 points per possession, compared to 0.81 against other Cavaliers defenders.
Irving's sore left knee raises an even bigger red flag over his suitability for Curry watch. As dangerous as the Warriors point guard is with his quick release and knack for thwarting double-teams against able-bodied foes, a man with a gimpy knee isn't the likely answer.
That suggests Iman Shumpert, the off guard who made his bones as a defender. Shumpert, at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, has the size to bother Curry if he can catch him. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers have to hope that whoever Irving does guard – Klay Thompson, for instance, or Harrison Barnes – isn't able to exploit a mismatch there.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters he expects Curry to get covered via cross-matching. “It usually happens in the playoffs when you have more time to prepare and you mix and match,” Kerr said. “You try different things and maybe try to throw the other team off balance a little bit. So we're preparing for some of that.”
Ron Adams, Kerr's assistant known for developing the defensive schemes, has seen a variety of methods used against Curry. He expects a tag team of individuals and then, in the fourth quarter, the possibility of LeBron James trying to smother Curry the way James did to the Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals.
TNT analyst Reggie Miller offered up some ideas for coping with Curry. “No. 1, you've got to be physical with him, and that's easier said than done in today's game,” he said in an guest appearance. “When I played, the Joe Dumars and Michael Coopers and Alvin Robertsons were able to hold, clinch – throw John Starks in there – so you had to create your own space. In today's flow, there's not a lot of holding because everything is predicated toward the offense. So you've got to be physical with him and try to hold him, especially when he's coming off those high screen-and-rolls.
“And you've got to have bigs that are able to move their feet two for three dribbles when he comes off to allow the defender who's guarding Steph to catch up. If you're able to do that, then you can have some type of success. But it's a challenge when a guy is that crafty coming off those screens.”
All of it is easier said than done against a guy who might be responsible for his own off nights more than the defense. As Bogut said, “I haven't seen anyone lock him up. I haven't seen anyone shut him down. I guess that's why he was the MVP – he was impossible to stop this season.”