Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry (30) gets around Portland Trail Blazers guard Seth Curry (31) during the first quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference Finals on May 14, 2019 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. (Chris Victorio | Special to S.F. Examiner)

Stephen Curry’s underrated defense plays big in playoffs

Curry helped shut down Portland’s dangerous backcourt of CJ McCollum and Dame Lillard

OAKLAND — Following an 18-point drubbing of the Trail Blazers, much of the talk surrounding Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals revolved around Portland’s defensive gameplan (or lack thereof) against Warriors point Guard Stephen Curry.

Scoring a game-high 36 points and striping nine 3-pointers, Curry left the Trail Blazers scratching their heads.

“I can’t remember, when he had 33 [points] in the second half [against Houston] were they trapping then?” Portland head coach Terry Stotts sarcastically said when he was questioned about his team’s defensive approach. “Yeah, we’ll look at that.”

While Curry lit up theTrail Blazers with his overwhelming offensive game, something that was overlooked was his defensive performance, which helped the Warriors keep Portland’s backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in check for most of the night.

“I thought he did really well,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “Those two guys are among the hardest guys in the league to guard.”

Heading into Game 1, Lillard and McCollum had averaged 28.4 and 25.6 points per game, respectively, throughout 12 games played this postseason.

Both players had increased their output but at least three points per game, in part, due to the devastating leg injury suffered by Jusuf Nurkic, their third-leading scorer.

Historically, Lillard and McCollum have found success against the Warriors as they’ve both mustered at least one 40-plus-point games facing the defending champions over the last two seasons.

“They’re both very very talented with the ball in their hands,” said Warriors guard Klay Thompson, who is regarded as one of the best two-way players in today’s NBA. “They can make every move in the book and [Lillard] has unlimited range.”

While Thompson was tasked with guarding Lillard, who has a knack for hitting deep, contested shots in the postseason, Curry became the primary defender on McCollum. He even spent some time in front of Lillard off of the switch.

“You saw it last series, too,” Thompson said. “He was embracing guarding [Chris Paul] and James Harden. Same thing here. He’s not afraid of the challenge.”

In Game 1, Curry and the rest of the Warriors defense was able to hold the Portland backcourt to just 36 combined points. They were also limited to a mere 35% shooting, including 30% from behind the 3-point line. Curry guarded McCollum for 31 possessions, and Lillard for nine, holding Lillard to just two points.

This postseason, Curry had received some criticism for his lackluster and uninspiring play on the offensive side of the court through the first 10 games of the playoffs. One thing that has gone relatively unnoticed, though, has been his steady defensive input.

With a 108.0 defensive rating, according to NBA.com, Curry has been better statistically than all Warriors starters, minus Draymond Green, who has posted a 107.8 rating.

According to Thompson, the Warriors would prefer Curry to save his energy for his patented offensive punch, but with a fifth NBA Finals bid on the line, they’ll take all the help that they can get.

“He knows that he has to be great defensively for us to be special,” Warriors guard Quinn Cook said. “Obviously he does what he does offensively but defensively is where he doesn’t get enough credit as well so he takes that challenge seriously.”

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