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Steph Curry Is Cutting Through The Noise

At 12th on the list of NBA Finals scoring, Stephen Curry is one of the greatest Finals performers of all time — and this series has been a masterpiece. He started Game 1 by hitting six triples in the first quarter, tied for the most in playoff history since 1996-97, and he finished with 34 points. Three games later, he added a 43-point, 10-rebound effort, becoming the second guard ever to accomplish that in the Finals.1

Curry may be one of the best players in the league with the ball in his hands, largely due to the pull-up shooting that casts a wide shadow on the style of the league. And with the ball in his hands, Curry has been consistent throughout the series. The pick and roll is by far his most frequent play type, and he has run between 45 and 55 of the plays per 100 possessions throughout the series, according to Second Spectrum. He’s using his touches in consistently similar ways, taking between 11 and 13 pull-up jumpers in every game, and he’s been excellent on such shots, with an effective field-goal percentage of 65.32.

Of course, the Warriors lost Game 1 after Curry tied the first-quarter 3-point record. Yet they won Game 5, in which Curry didn’t make a triple — for the first time in his playoff career. Curry has been fantastic with the ball in his hands. The Warriors have just been better when it’s not. 

With his array of cuts across the court, Curry is used to spending time without the ball. During the regular season, he cut off the third-most number of off-ball screens of anyone in the NBA. In fact, he has been one of the league’s best and most frequent cutters for a long time. Per Second Spectrum, since the start of the player tracking era in 2013-14, Curry is one of 10 players with at least 10,000 cuts and is the only player with at least 6,000 cuts whose team averages at least 1 point per chance. He’s a deadly shooter — he’s also been among the best catch-and-shoot 3-point shooters over the same period, the menace that underpins all his abilities — but firing the ball in the hoop from distance is hardly the only way he sows havoc among defenders. 

He’s carried that cutting excellence into the Finals, leading the series in scoring efficiency off of cuts among players with at least 10 cuts. And the Warriors have been more successful when he’s cutting than when he runs any other play type.

Steph does the most when he doesn’t have the ball

Points per chance for the Golden State Warriors on actions initiated by Stephen Curry during the 2022 NBA Finals

Action Total number Per 100 poss. Points per chance
Off-ball cuts 62 16.802 1.241
Handoff 25 6.775 1.130
Isolation 31 8.401 1.074
Pick and roll 186 50.407 1.060

Source: Second Spectrum

Likely with that knowledge in mind, Curry went from 91 touches in Game 1, his sixth-most of the entire season (and the most of these playoffs), to 66 in Game 2, his 14th-fewest of the entire season. He was back to 89 touches in Game 4, but in Game 5, he recorded only 72.

Not all cuts are made equally, of course. Curry was the pindown king in the regular season, leading the league in total cuts off of those screens by a huge margin. A pindown screen sees the screener face the rim, and the cutter curls behind the screen to the arc, often for a 3-pointer. While pindowns constituted the majority of off-ball screens for Curry in Game 1 of the Finals, the Celtics regularly switched them to defang the cut and force Curry into attacking after receiving the ball rather than firing a catch-and-shoot jumper.

Curry can use that to his advantage by drifting to half court and allowing his teammates to play four-on-four with extra space. But more often, during Games 2 through 4, the Warriors responded by shifting the brunt of Curry’s off-ball screens to wide pindowns, which use more space on the court. The screener faces toward the rim in both screen types, but wide pindowns start from the corner and often see the cutter curling toward the rim instead of popping behind the arc. The Warriors have benefited from Curry’s alterations, averaging 1.5 points per chance when Curry cuts off a wide pindown versus 1.0 from pindowns.

Curry’s wide pindowns force defenders to guard him over longer distances. While pindowns are a useful way for the cutter to find open triples (and sometimes layups when circling back to the rim if defenders focus too much on taking away triples), wide pindowns appear better at leveraging the cutter’s gravity to unlock his teammates. Of Curry’s six pindowns that didn’t result in a touch for him, four ended in turnovers and two in misses; the Warriors have run 15 wide pindowns without Curry touching the ball, and they yielded 1.538 points per chance.

That’s not all the Warriors have changed to optimize Curry’s cuts. Draymond Green set five of the 15 off-ball screens for Curry in Game 1 — most of any player — and didn’t set any in Game 2. Instead, the ball was mostly in Green’s hands as Curry began his cuts, allowing their best passer to dice up the defense while their best cutter stretched it taut. Golden State didn’t commit to that setup in Game 3, going back to off-ball screens for Curry from Green (who set six of the 14 total). And then in Game 4, Green again set only one. In two wins over those four games, Green averaged 0.5 off-ball screens for Curry; in two losses, it was 5.5.

The Celtics have not idly watched their deaths by a thousand Curry cuts. They have adapted their defense for Curry off the ball, playing a step behind him both literally and figuratively. Early on in the series, they opted to switch Curry’s off-ball cuts. But such a defense can still open up seams for well-timed passes to the rim. As the series has gone on, Boston has opted instead to trail behind Curry as he cuts off-ball, closing the space behind his long cutting paths off wide pindowns. 

Trailing has been far more effective for Boston than switching in the Finals, yet it isn’t infallible. Trailing behind Curry may help defend the rim as he cuts past it after using wide pindowns, but the defensive approach opens up space ahead of him on the other side of the court. Curry’s wide pindowns beginning in one corner can transition into pindowns on the other side of the floor, forcing defenders to toggle between switching and trailing on a single play. Boston was one of the best teams in the regular season at defending off-ball cuts, allowing the fifth-fewest points per chance, according to Second Spectrum. But not even the Celtics’ defense can close all the holes created by a Curry cut.

When Boston tries to wall off Curry’s threes, his teammates find layups. When Boston focuses on the layups, Curry’s threes open back up. That cycle led to Game 5, as the Celtics opted to switch Curry’s cuts once more; Curry again used more pindowns than wide pindowns; Green even set more off-ball screens for Curry. The journey of both defense and offense trying to get a step ahead of one another had circled back to the start.

No matter how the Celtics have chased the Warriors — and their defenders physically chased Curry — the speedy star has found advantages. Sometimes Curry turned Boston’s defensive strengths into weaknesses. In Game 5, the Celtics defended a pindown well, trailing to dissuade a jumper without opening holes elsewhere. But Curry tossed the ball into the post and circled his cut from the arc back to the rim; because his defender was trailing, Curry found himself open for a layup, drawing free throws.

Curry’s work without the ball in his hands is a major reason for the Warriors 3-2 lead. Golden State and Boston have played tug of war in trying to control the game when Curry is cutting, shifting the styles of screens, the players setting them and the coverage. And much like Curry’s cuts themselves, the schematic dance between the teams has often ended up where it began. But Curry cuts through the noise. 

If you’re guarding a superstar, it’s only natural to feel a little relief and take a breather when he gives up the ball. But when you’re guarding Curry, that’s the moment when he becomes most dangerous. Even in Game 5, when Curry recorded his first zero-triple game of the playoffs, the team’s offense was incredible with Curry on the floor and miserable with him on the bench. It was a perfect example of Curry being far more than just a shooter — he’s a scorer who doesn’t even need to make shots to drive wins for his team.

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Footnotes

  1. Jerry West was the first.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.

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