How to beat the Curry rules

ByEthan Sherwood Strauss ESPN logo
Thursday, June 11, 2015

TheCleveland Cavaliersare deploying their version of The Stephen Curry Rules in the NBA Finals, as noted by David Thorpe in this video. In Game 2 and for much of Game 3, Cleveland effectively took Curry out of the action, leaving the fate of theGolden State Warriorsup to teammateswho look overmatched so far. What are the Cavs doing? And what can a 67-win team do to fix this 2-1 series deficit before the collapse is final?

First, let's examine what the Cavs are doing to contain Curry:

Find Curry early

The Cavs don't apply full-court pressure on every possession because they like to keep Golden State guessing. Sometimes it's just Matthew Dellavedova, stepping in Curry's path on the after-basket inbounds. Sometimes it's James Jones, double-teaming Curry on the inbounds. On many possessions the rule seems to be "the nearest guy gets him," until his primary defender can join the party. These tactics have the benefit of slowing the Warriors down and letting Cleveland's defense get back for a few seconds. Golden State could potentially make the Cavs pay for sending so much help to one side of the court but has yet to organize effective counters.

Don't respect the dribble

Curry goofy-foots a lot of defenders who are used to a lifetime of blocking penetration into the lane. The instinct is to respect Curry's handle, fearing that he might penetrate. That outcome isn't so scary when Curry must finish a layup over someone like Timofey Mozgov or kick out to one of Golden State's deathly cold role players. The Cavs pressure Curry as best they can.

Step into Curry's space

These are directions for the primary and help defenders. The Cavs are crowding Curry, trying to get him on his heels, forcing him backward.

Aggressive pick-and-roll defense

The Cavs are also employing a panoply of pick-and-roll coverages. They lock and trail over the screen, chasing Curry with the guard, and have Mozgov step up to help if there's separation. They're switching off some screens that Tristan Thompson is involved in. They're putting two on the ball, double-teaming Curry and daring an open man to generate offense.

Daring someone else to beat them is key to the Cavs' plan. They're employing a strategy of Anyone But Curry (ABC). More completely, it's Anyone But Curry Or Thompson (ABCOT). This is the irony of the Finals so far. The Warriors, billed as a historically high-powered team, are getting guarded as though they have only two players. The Cavs, supposedly a one-man show, are guarded as though all their 3-point shooters are major threats.

So far, Cleveland's plan is working. Curry and Thompson have seen little daylight, and teammates who normally knock down open 3s are shanking them in this spotlight. Via SportVU player tracking, the Warriors have missed as many wide-open 3-pointers (27) as the Cavs have taken this series. The bricks have come mainly from Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green.

Green's struggles are especially damaging because he's the guy trusted to create offense when Curry gets trapped. Normally, he's quite good in these 4-on-3 situations, either shooting the wide-open 3 or driving and passing to the open man. Perhaps due to back spasms, perhaps due to nerves and perhaps due to luck, that shot just hasn't been falling in these playoffs or in this series.

That issue has been compounded by Green losing trust in the jumper and launching himself into the abyss that is Mozgov's verticality. Further compounding that problem isAndrew Bogut's continued struggle to find offense. He's languishing along the baseline, not running to the rim and bobbling passes. You get the sense that Green would do better rolling to the rim if he trusted that Bogut could catch and finish. Instead, Green is flying solo, driving into Russian territory with Napoleonic results.

This is quite a bleak picture. The Curry Rules have left the stage to teammates who are struggling to do things they've done all season.

How do the Warriors fix this? Here's how they can break free:

Play David Lee

It's come to this. Unlike many of his teammates right now, David Lee knows how to take advantage of open space in the lane. He is largely responsible for the first 30-point quarter the Warriors had this series, and he warrants at least some further involvement.

Be like Lee (Draymond at the 5)

Did Lee show the Warriors the light in his glorious second-half run in Game 3? It's possible he did, but he also might have taught the Warriors more lessons than simply, "Play David Lee more." He certainly demonstrated the benefits of Curry getting rid of the ball early, far from the hoop, so as to start a downhill attack.

Unlike the other Warrior bigs, Lee was decisive in the pick-and-roll, driving at the rim and making smart interior and exterior passes. Lee was the anti-Draymond in this series, but he also had an advantage: Lee's pick-and-roll explosion came in a super-small D'Antoni Knicks throwback look where he was acting as center. This setup caters to his offensive strengths, as he can slip behind a lumbering big and feast off the open space left behind. It was especially good for the Warriors because the 1-5 pick-and-roll pulled Mozgov, Cleveland's top lumberer, far from his rim-protecting responsibilities.

There's a tradeoff to this, of course. Having Lee as your offensive center is awesome. Having him as your defensive center? Not so much. At least the Warriors can mitigate some of that damage by making sure Iguodala guardsLeBron Jamesin those moments, or just making sure LeBron is off the floor for his nightly five seconds of rest.

There are good ways to deploy Lee, but Golden State might be wise to replicate what he does with another player. Yes, Draymond Green is struggling, but he could break out if used as a small-ball 5, running pick-and-roll with Curry. Off the high screen, Green doesn't need to worry about shooting the 3, just as Lee ignores the option in this situation. If timed right, the opposing center would trail Green, recovering from handling a screen far from the basket. Green will do better with Mozgov chasing him than with Mozgov standing between him and the hoop.

This look has the added benefit of not completely compromising the defense, as happens with Lee at center. It also has the benefit of having already worked in its 20 minutes of action this series. ESPN Stats & Information was kind enough to point out that LeBron is 2-of-14 from the field against the lineup that subs Iguodala in for Bogut while sliding Green to the 5. The Cavs as a team are 8-of-33 against this particular look. Perhaps due to Green's mighty struggles, the Warriors did not use this lineup in Game 3, except at the very end when they were intentionally fouling. While concerns over whether such a small lineup can rebound enough are valid, Dray-at-5 could be worth it for the other advantages it generates.


It might be time for the Warriors to fight fire with fire and isolate in the manner their opponent has. While Kerr is loath to run isolation basketball, there are reasons to favor it in this situation. For all the plaudits Dellavedova has received for his defense, he's guarding Curry with a great deal of help. In many instances, Cleveland's bigs are helping to contain Curry on screens, which often means he gets blitzed by a larger, longer Cavalier.

Curry's first shot of Game 3 could be the right idea. He dribbled at Dellavedova, stepped back and sank a trey. A non-passing possession is anathema to Golden State's style, but why pass when you have the advantage? Dellavedova, for all his good qualities, for all his diligence in crowding Curry's dribble, has blocked only two shots in the regular season and playoffs combined. Yes, contesting shots rarely results in a block, but paramount to the contest is the threat of a swat. Delly, due to his short wingspan, is a paper tiger when it comes to this. He'll rush up to the shooter and splay his arms like J.J. Redick, but he can do little to obstruct the ball's actual arc.

Stephen Curry is possibly the best isolation 3-point shooter ever. He is being guarded by a guy who can't block shots. Maybe it's time to greedily attack that mismatch. Curry certainly does that with gusto when Tristan Thompson switches onto him. It seems a bit odd to seek out that mismatch while rejecting the constant advantage against a smaller, less athletic player. This doesn't mean Curry should shoot every possession, of course. Just every other possession. Until he breaks Wilt Chamberlain's record. I kid.

It's difficult to project whether the Warriors will attempt breaking Cleveland's spell with either Draymond at the 5 or with Iso-Steph, but what's fairly certain is that adjustments are coming. Expect different substitution patterns, if not a different lineup. Expect LeBronto be covered differently, possibly pressured full court as Curry has been. The Warriors can't keep falling behind from the outset and can't keep scoring like a college team. To win this, they must find a way to get more involvement from their star and more participation from their role players. And quickly.

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