What makes Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard so special? Their ability to carve up defenses off the dribble.
With the NBA emphasizing space more than ever, these two put tangible fear into the hearts of defenses every time they touch the rock. Neither guard needs more than a sliver of space to make teams pay, and the easiest way to create that space is via a screen.
Curry and Lillard both ranked among the NBA’s most dangerous pick-and-roll threats this season. They were two of the five high-volume threats (at least 300 possessions as the ball-handler) that generated at least 1.0 points per pick-and-roll possession, via Synergy Sports. (Un)Surprisingly, Lillard (1.08) and Curry (1.02) ranked first and second.
These are the show-runners. Slowing them down in space was on the top of their team’s defensive game plans heading into Tuesday’s Game 1, because “duh.”
It’s safe to say that the Golden State Warriors did a much better job of that than the Portland Trail Blazers did, winning Game 1 with relative ease (116-94), mostly because they were a lot more proactive with their defense against Lillard than the Blazers were with Curry.
It was odd to see such a contrast in coverage for such similar players.
lillard’s airspace denied
The Warriors weren’t playing any games with Lillard, so their plan was pretty simple: Force literally anyone else to make plays.
Whether it was a simple pick-and-roll or a dribble-handoff from the wing, the Warriors trapped just about action involving Lillard.
During the early goings, Lillard obliged. He made the correct reads, hitting his bigs and putting them in advantageous situations. Unfortunately, they mostly proved incapable of taking advantage of the numbers game. There appears to be a stark difference between Draymond Green and, say, Zach Collins in short-roll looks.
Above, the Blazers go with a simple 1-5 pick-and-roll against Shaun Livingston and Kevon Looney. Looney shows high on the screen to take away a potential pull-up triple while Livingston recovers. The play essentially turns into a trap, and the correct read is made to Collins at the free throw line. He makes a clean catch, takes a dribble and forces up an odd push shot against Green.
It’s a miss by a big man with pretty decent shooting touch.
The shot itself isn’t a huge problem, but the tunnel vision was. Green rotating down should be a flashing red sign that says “HIT THE CORNER.” It appears that Collins didn’t even consider the geometry on the floor. A swing to the corner could lead to either an open shot there or, if Livingston panics, turn into an extra pass back to Lillard for a shot or an isolation against Looney.
With the Warriors consistently mixing in traps and high hedges, there wasn’t much room for Lillard to work with. He attempted splitting those screens like he did in the previous round against the Denver Nuggets, but to limited success. An effort was made to start pulling up earlier after the screen, but those looks weren’t clean, either.
Here, Lillard and Enes Kanter hook up for a two-man dance 35 feet from the hoop. Against most teams, putting that kind of strain on the defense will create havoc. For the Warriors, particularly Andre Iguodala and Looney, it’s right in their wheelhouse.
Iguodala is slightly caught on the screen, giving Lillard a little breathing room. But he would have more space if Looney isn’t there to deter a drive or easier look. Instead of allowing the Warriors to close more ground and reset, Lillard chucks the shot. He’s obviously good enough to make it from that distance, but he isn’t able to waltz into the shot like he did against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first round.
In all, the Warriors were able to limit Lillard to 19 points, well below his regular season and postseason averages. More importantly, they were able to limit the pressure Lillard put on the defense. He only registered 12 shot attempts, five of them coming from deep.
That, plus an off-night from CJ McCollum (17 points on 19 shots) pretty much spelled death for the Blazers.
no resistance for curry
While Lillard was being defended like a bad argument on Twitter, Curry was oddly treated like a non-shooter.
It wasn’t from a lack of respect, rather an abundance of fear. The Blazers wanted no parts of their big men being embarrassed on an island with Curry, so they elected to drop their bigs. That’s a problem in and of itself.
A “drop” scheme doesn’t work without perimeter defenders that can consistently fight over screens and stay attached to the ball-handler. Lillard and McCollum do not fit that bill. You’re practically gifting the greatest shooter ever a plethora of practice shots. Making the issue worse was how freakin’ far the Blazers dropped their bigs.
It would be one thing if they were stationed slightly above the free throw line. That would still be too much space for Curry, but it’d be OK in a traditional sense.
Oh, no, no, no. Just look at this mess:
The Warriors love setting early drag screens in (semi) transition. That way, Curry is getting a screen the second he crosses half court. While he is getting freed, Kanter is chilling at the top of the key. As Curry readies himself for the shot, Kanter is actually dropping to the free throw line in preparation of a drive that isn’t coming.
Before he can register what’s actually happening, the ball is already halfway home.
Collins was a little better than Kanter in Game 1, but he didn’t play high enough either. He hovered around the free throw line, allowing Curry to drill some easy shots off the bounce. He finished with a game-high 36 points, including a 9-of-15 clip from three.
That’s a preposterous level of efficiency, but that’s the kind of night Curry can have when you give him that much space to work with.
The Warriors are probably safe rolling out the same game plan. They’ll trap Lillard and trust that the Blazers’ big men can’t take advantage of 4-on-3s; Trust that McCollum won’t be able to shake free against Klay Thompson if the ball finds its way to him.
In short, the Warriors are firmly in the driver’s seat here.
If the Blazers have any hope of making this series competitive, they need to take away Curry’s airspace. They may not have to show as high as the Warriors did against their star, but they need to make Curry uncomfortable.
Mixing in some traps are fine, especially if it forces Green to be more of a downhill scorer. In those situations, the Blazers will need to stay attached to Thompson and zone up the rest of the floor.
They have to do something differently. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine this series going longer than four games.
Stats are accurate through games played on May 15th
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.