When it comes to his offensive contributions, Stephen Curry’s impact extends far beyond the numbers that show up in the box score at the end of a game.
Although he finished Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals second to only Kevin Durant in scoring for the Warriors, there were several possessions in the first half in which his 3-point shooting created easy baskets for others. Curry wasn’t credited for assists in those situations because he didn’t actually touch the ball or make the pass, but the threat of his jump shot alone was enough to draw multiple defenders in his direction and create openings for his teammates to attack.
Sometimes the tactic of shading more toward Curry more than anyone else on the Warriors works for the defense. Curry converted 41.1 percent of his 3-point attempts in the regular season and led the NBA in 3-pointers made for the fifth consecutive season. It’s no surprise that trying to limit his open looks from the perimeter is a priority for the Cavaliers since his ability to make 3-pointers in volume can change any game in a hurry.
Just look at what happened in the second half of Game 2, when Curry’s four 3-pointers in the third quarter helped the Warriors outscore the Cavaliers by 13 points. However, when the Warriors have an advantage in transition with Durant pushing the pace, the decision can be the difference between the Cavaliers giving up a shot they make 40 percent of the time and one they make basically 100 percent of the time.
For example, watch how LeBron James and Kyrie Irving defend the following possession from the first quarter. Durant pushes the ball following a missed shot from Kyle Korver and Curry, who averaged 1.20 points per possession in transition during the season, beats him up the court and immediately makes himself available on the wing. A simple look in Curry’s direction when Durant crosses half court is enough to make James and Irving jump towards Curry out of fear, and Durant makes them pay with a dunk nobody can stop when he has that much momentum.
The Cavaliers should’ve been able to make the possession more difficult for the Warriors. Better communication would’ve helped them decide which one of them would pick up Curry and which one would pick up Durant. Then again, the Cavaliers were the NBA's worst team in transition defense in terms of points per possession (1.18) during the regular season, so maybe that play shouldn't be too surprising.
Even so, Curry’s willingness to make himself a target early in the possession without the ball in his hands forces the Cavaliers to account for him sooner than they normally would, and it sets Durant up perfectly for a scoring opportunity.
There was an even more blatant example of Curry’s gravity as a shooter a couple of minutes later, this time following a turnover by James. The Warriors had a four-on-three advantage with J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert acting as the last line of defense for the Cavaliers, and the result was incredibly similar. Not only did the defender you’d expect to stop the ball decide to close out on Curry, Durant sauntered into the lane for another uncontested dunk.
The problem? The Cavaliers learned from their mistakes in the second half and it resulted in this…
When Smith slides over to get in front of Durant, it leaves Irving having to decide between closing out on Curry or Klay Thompson. Either way, someone who makes around 44.0 percent of their catch-and-shoot 3-pointers is going to be left wide open, which puts Irving in a lose-lose situation. The Cavaliers would probably prefer Irving to close out on Curry, but the risk of Thompson getting an open 3-pointer and potentially breaking out of his postseason shooting slump is equally terrifying.
That’s why defending the Warriors can sometimes feel like an impossible task. Do what is fundamentally correct, and it can lead to an open 3-pointer from the scariest shooter in NBA history. But take that option away, and one of the scariest all-around scorers in NBA history will end up with the types of shots a player of his caliber should never get on a stage as bright as the NBA Finals.
Considering the Warriors scored a league-high 2,025 points in transition this season and ranked in the 96.6 percentile with 1.21 points per possession, the Cavaliers certainly aren’t the first team to not have an answer for Durant and Curry in transition.