DON'T go crowning the Golden State Warriors just yet.
Or at least, that was supposed to be the driving point of this piece after some netizens seemed ready to hand the NBA championship to the Warriors after a great escape in Oklahoma City on Sunday, courtesy of Stephen Curry’s jaw-dropping 38-foot game winner.
It’s fair to point out that Kevin Durant was on the bench for most of the OT period, in a game that was mostly dominated by OKC. But plow through the stats, rewatch all the clips, and argue that the Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers, or whoever you think can beat the Warriors come the NBA playoffs when teams play a slower, more deliberate pace (true) and where each series goes down to which squad makes better adjustments (also true), yet there remains one important question:
What’s the plan on stopping Stephen Curry, though?
Curry has been having an incredible season. His mix of nasty handles and unbelievable range had him breaking records (specifically on three-pointers made as he’s on pace to make 407!) and rewriting history (his 32.9 player efficiency rating is an all-time high). But is he unstoppable?
NBA legend Oscar Robertson doesn’t think so. In an interview for ESPN’s Mike&Mike, the man fondly called the 'Big O' suggested, “If I've got a guy who's great shooting the ball outside, don't you want to extend your defense out a little bit?”
But in Curry’s example, how far are teams willing to go beyond the three-point arc to guard the league’s best shooter and leave plenty of space for the Warriors savvy cutters to exploit? Consider this stat: Curry has made 11-of-22 shots from 30 feet and beyond, a ridiculous 50-percent clip from far beyond the three point line.
And even before the OKC game, he’s made 35-of-52 from 28 to 50 feet, according to Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN. It’s not an anomaly, it’s not even luck. It’s absurd, yes, but in the basketball world being shaped by one Stephen Curry, it’s the new normal.
The next course of action, then, is to stay tight on Steph all game. But as top defenders like Chris Paul, Victor Oladipo, and others found out, it’s easier said than done. Curry’s worked hard on his handles and many ankles have been broken, plenty of highlights made because defenders tried to stay in Curry’s space, to no avail.
And get this: Curry has made more field goals at the rim (188 from inside 5 feet) than beyond the arc, with a 64.6% clip inside the paint — a rate that’s better than any forward or guard in the league. Only centers and dunk magnets like DeAndre Jordan, Hassan Whiteside, and Dwight Howard have a better field goal percentage than Curry’s.
Brandon Payne, Curry’s trainer, also explained to ESPN that this was the plan all along: Take away the three from Curry and he’d be more than happy to take you to the rack.
“If you get up tight on him, that's actually what we want you to do. We want you to get up tight on him because then it's going to open lanes to the basket when he plays off the high post,” he said.
Double teaming Curry when he gets hot sounds like a good plan, until you consider that he reads the defense at an equally elite level as his shooting, leading the league in hockey assists at 2.4 per game (the pass before the actual assist that leads to buckets).
Also note that the Warriors are loaded with willing passers like Draymond Green (the only forward in the Top 10 of assist leaders with 7.4 dimes per game), Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, and Iguodala — all aren’t too shy about scoring easy baskets when the opportunity presents itself as well.
This makes the Warriors not just the league’s top scoring team (115.3 points per game) but also the NBA’s most efficient offense (112.4 offensive rating) because their leader in Curry, an otherworldly scorer, is all the more willing to find the best scoring opportunity for his teammates. (Curry, by the way, is 10th in the league in assists with 6.6 a game.) And the rest of the Warriors are more than happy to reciprocate.
Why don’t teams attack Curry’s defense to tire him out, some might say. Well, Curry also happens to be one of the league leaders in steals with 2.1 a game. That’s better than reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard, mind you (although, Leonard remains the better defender overall). When Curry is on the floor, the Warriors are also 9.2 points better defensively.
Plus, when they unleash the Curry-Thompson-Green-Iguodala-Harrison Barnes lineup, the Warriors bring a one-of-a-kind versatility on both ends of the floor. In fact, this group put up an astounding offensive rating of 160.9 and an elite defensive rating of 90 early in the season, outscoring opponents by 81 points in 56 minutes of playing together and has earned the squad the moniker ‘small ball death squad.’
Crown the Warriors now then?
There might be smart reasons not to — like finding Curry’s weaknesses for example. The reigning MVP is at his worst when shooting from 15-19 feet, only making 39.7 percent. That’s not bad, just slightly lower than Paul George’s shooting clip (41.3), heck it’s even better than Kobe Bryant’s current field goal percentage (35). But taking away the three and packing the paint sounds like a good place to start.
Then again, the Warriors toy with a lot of misdirections and high screen action to open up, not just Curry, but the best scoring opportunity on each possession. There’s no question the Warriors are heavy title favorites, but much remains to be seen once the postseason kicks in.
What’s less in doubt is that with every game, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that there’s no better player in the league right now than Curry.
All stats from NBA.com/stats and basketball-reference.com as of March 2, 2016