Boston Celtics have no solution for Stephen Curry

All these years, playoffs and individual games later, there is still no solution for Steph Curry, the most unique and transcendent basketball superstar in at least 25 years. On paper, his current opponent has a defense that should be able to make life less comfortable than most.

The Celtics are built to bypass much of the spontaneity that makes him and the Warriors so unique. In the first two games of these NBA Finals, they managed to do just that here and there, but Boston’s total work against the greatest shooter who ever lived leaves a little to be desired.

Looking for his first Finals MVP, Curry is averaging 31.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. He has six interceptions and four turnovers. His shot spreads are 45.7/46.2/81.8. When he’s been on the floor, Golden State’s offensive rating is 120.6. When he sits, he drops to 90.0, a number the Thunder can laugh at. This is all on a two game sample size, but it’s still ridiculous.

Unlike previous battles against Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler in the playoffs, Boston can’t rely on its elite individual defenders to get physical hits, challenge and induce isolation basketball. Curry demands more, often requiring (at least) two Celtics to work in tandem, whether it’s guarding a pick-and-roll or chasing Curry off screens on the weak side. Hindering its progress also requires a delicate balance – devoting too lots of energy to stop Curry and other warriors will blow a hole in the door you left ajar.

Here’s a look at how the Celtics are trying to keep the two-time MVP in check, and different ways Curry still manages to pull through.

Since the first quarter of Game 1, when it was hard to recognize a working defensive game plan, Boston has worked on a mix of covers, all depending on who is directly involved and who else is on the field. They switched, dropped, fought on screens, put their big hits, doubled smoothly and aggressively assisted non-shooters, running through several different defenders on Curry at the start of each game.

The goal is obvious, as Celtics coach Ime Udoka communicated after Game 2. “You just throw in extra bodies, depending on who was in certain places on the field,” he said. “We were picking who we wanted to double team with, who we wanted to disconnect with, and who was playing more traditional coverage. Just a few things to unbalance it.

Overall, Curry has had success no matter what’s in front of him, throwing ball screens at high volume with multiple dance partners, chasing mismatches and then steaming them off. “If I can get into those one-on-one matchups and be able to play and read the defense well, we can create a lot of good shots,” Curry said recently. “So we’ll see how it goes in the rest of the series, but it works.”

When those words were spoken, Curry was probably thinking of Al Horford. The Celtics don’t want Horford on an island against him for a variety of reasons. He’s not fast enough to stifle dribble penetration, and when Boston is small, the switches pull their best rim protector away from the basket, forcing help from Golden State’s deadly cutters.

Boston’s drops were touch but Derrick White and Marcus Smart did a decent job of getting Curry back on top. Here they stop after Klay Thompson decided to go after Payton Pritchard in the post. But keep an eye out for Nemanja Bjelica, who puts another screen on White as Thompson works the post and Horford comes down to help. Thompson isn’t known for his vision and the decision to shoot isn’t necessarily the worst, but it goes to show just how difficult it can be to stop Curry for full possession when the ball comes back to him after an early win.

Even when Curry is unmarked, the anxiety leading up to Golden State’s shot is palpable. If you play and get out of position, the pain will follow. Here Curry gets the switch on Horford and Smart responds by doubling him down. After almost stealing the ball, Horford faces Curry 30 feet from the basket, Jaylen Brown rushes for an interception, Jayson Tatum closes a little too hot on Thompson and Andrew Wiggins fouls on the edge. This is the type of mayhem these warriors love:

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Elsewhere, some of the out-of-bounds plays in Game 2 resulted in some curious Celtics decisions, where Horford found himself on Curry early on. At least one of them was a mistake made by Smart, where Horford had no choice but to step in and cover Curry after missing an obvious substitution, leading to four Celtics trying to stopping his training and Kevon Looney scoring a big open lay-up:

But that other example later in the third quarter doesn’t make much sense, with Horford and Rob Williams III covering Curry and Looney from the weak side. You can tell Boston is anticipating a screen that they can then change, but that still doesn’t explain how they’re paired from the start (Williams III on Curry is even less ideal). The result is a freebie for an offense that doesn’t need help:

Even though Curry is looking for a preferable target, Boston isn’t the best defense in the NBA by accident. Throughout the first half of Game 2, they did a pretty decent job before moving on to Curry – although they were lucky with Curry’s missing shots, he’s obviously capable of breaking through. Watch Grant Williams on this piece below.

Or Smart here:

Looking ahead, Boston still has a few cards to play (besides executing its game plan better than them). As effective as Williams III has been in helping his man (whether it be Wiggins, Looney or whoever) protect the paint, starting Grant Williams or White in his place makes it a bit simpler for how they want to defend. Boston can stay out of rotations, switch it up a bit more, and allow for cleaner games. The Celtics took a nine-point lead in the first quarter of Game 2 and unnecessary turnovers are the main reason they spit their advantage, so Udoka will likely keep the starting lineup in place for Game 3. early rosters is the most obvious change to make, should they fall behind in this series.

Big or small, the Celtics could also put Tatum on Curry and Smart on Green. All switch and crossover matches make primary assignments more tangential than they normally are, but in set half-court situations it puts a bit more length on Curry (useful when battling on screens to disturb it on top) and allows Smart to release the security. Green. If the Warriors go to their Curry-Green pick-and-roll (which Green got an and-1 in Game 2 against a down Horford), Boston can neutralize him with a switch.

Doing that forces Tatum to expend more energy than he otherwise would, but he’s also one of the few Celtics with the speed and foot length to keep Curry on the perimeter. Finals are tough for a reason.

Case in point: Just look at this possession, where Boston nails just about everything — from off-ball passing to Tatum’s assist on Green once Curry drives through Grant Williams — and isolates Curry against Brown with the clock running out. In the end it doesn’t matter.

Guarding Curry is not a play-to-play challenge. It’s half a second to half a second.

If Boston wants to win the title, it will have to live with its surreal shooting and control everything it can. That means limiting all mental errors, nailing every game, then avoiding turnovers and rushing shots at the other end to limit his opportunities on the open ground. All of this is much easier said than done. The curry is so good. And so far in these finals, against a defense accustomed to solving any problems they face, he remains unanswered.

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