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The Boston Celtics guide to surviving Steph Curry

Solving the Steph Curry enigma is impossible. Surviving him is a different, attainable story.

Golden City Warriors v Boston Celtics Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

With 1:53 to go in the second quarter of Saturday night’s game — which was played between the Boston Celtics and Steph Curry — all properties of matter, energy, and overall, physics shattered into clouds of blue and gold dust. It started when the aforementioned Curry went dancing with Grant Williams. They did what appeared to be a Paso Doble - Curry seemed to know the steps better than Williams. Struggling to keep up, young Grant simply threw himself in Curry’s general direction. He fouled Curry on a long two; not ideal, but not the worst case scenario given the fact that the shot Williams’ weight forced Curry to attempt was impossible.

For anyone else, that is.

If there’s one shot that encapsulates the sheer supremacy of Steph Curry’s shooting ability, it’s this. For one, he’s off-balance, which, for Curry, is still on balance. But then, you realize that he’s shooting the ball with his left hand. Yes, professional basketball players who happen to be right-handed are also very gifted with their left, but this gifted? Steph’s reaction shows that even he’s shocked — this is the same guy who, per the perfectly undoctored database that is the internet, makes a shot from the locker room tunnel at every home game, seemingly on his first try. But even this, he can hardly fathom.

So, yes, physics has been rendered futile. We now worship at the scientific alter of what will henceforth be known as Stephysics. Yes, you have to pound your chest and point toward the sky every single time you make a crumpled piece of paper into your wastebasket. No, you may not wear Nike.

Somehow, despite Curry’s 47-point performance that felt more impossible than freely roaming the Astral plane, the Celtics survived him. Boston won the game, 119-114, good for their sixth-straight victory, and in doing so, learned some lessons, those that could prove valuable down the line — for Boston and for other future foes of Curry’s. The following is a Steph Curry survival guide, a dos and don’ts list of how best (and how not) to approach containing him, given that you won’t stop, stifle, nor control him in any contest, no matter its import. The dude is averaging 39.9 points per game over his last 10 games, 9.8 more than the next player on the list. He’s unstoppable. The least you can do is try.

The Do’s

Swarm him, when appropriate

Unless you’re dealing with a hive of bees, a tornado, or a player on a team with multiple coherent offensive options, this tends to be a rule of thumb. If the opportunity presents itself, swarming Curry in order to force him into a difficult shot — if not a hopeless one — can work. With just a few seconds left in the first quarter, Steph looked to find a final shot and push the Warriors lead to double digits entering the second. But Jabari Parker and Marcus Smart rushed him outside the arc, forcing him to make a pass. He eventually gets the ball back after a cut, but the Celtics dive on him like an army of lions might a mouse.

Williams and Jayson Tatum hugging Curry’s body; Smart rotating back into position to cut off a skip pass to Jordan Poole, while Parker stays in the passing lane between Curry and Damion Lee; Romeo Langford keeping his back on Juan Toscano-Anderson until Curry is rising up for a shot. These are all proper spots for the Celtics to be in even if they were playing an opponent with more options to kick to. Though Draymond Green looks to be on an island, he hasn’t been shooting anywhere near a clip that would make him threatening with space, and Tatum is athletic enough that if Curry somehow was able to kick to Draymond, he could be back on the ball within a second.

On this next play, the Celtics are almost in a high 2-3 zone hybrid, one where no off-ball player is unaccounted for, but the player with the ball (Curry) is forced to escape the defense before he can even think to create any offense. Spoiler: he does not.

Later, down four in the fourth quarter, Tristan Thompson looks ready to be done in by a bit of Curry’s typical ball-handling wizardry when Tatum leaves Draymond to overwhelm Curry into a pass. He’s lanky enough to deflect it — possibly with his knee? — and Thompson snags the loose ball.

This swarming game is a dangerous one to play, particularly when facing a passer as gifted as Curry. Even when you think he can’t possibly have eyes on an open teammate, he seems to find them with a skip pass only he and a handful of other All-Stars could make. But the Celtics' length, coupled with their disciplined approach to remaining cognizant of their rotational responsibilities helped to stifle Curry, if only a couple of times. Those times are key when facing a player who scores close to 50 rolling out of bed.

Deny, deny, deny

Again: not easy. There are probably three players on the Celtics roster who can hug Curry’s body and stick with him if he is, non-ideally, able to make the catch. That would be Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. Smart carried the bulk of the task that is Steph Curry on Saturday; Jayson Tatum was as proficient a help defender as he’s been in recent memory; Jaylen Brown was hurt. The options were limited, and the results in aiming to deny him, slim. But when it worked...

Watch Kent Bazemore and Draymond Green. Both of them, painstakingly, are telegraphing where they want the ball to end up. Who can blame them? On practically every possession when he’s on the court, the Warriors are looking to get Steph Curry the ball. That, in essence, is perfect Stephysics. But here, Marcus Smart hardly gives him an inch. He’s hugging his back, chasing him as he cuts, and not overreacting when he fakes a cut into the lane after rounding the corner. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to see that Smart being a manic trailer can work, but for it to come against Steph is encouraging.

His defense is what forces Green to look elsewhere and find Wiggins, who gets a clean look. To his credit, Wiggins has been shooting the ball fairly well over his last 15 games — he’s shooting close to 46 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, 44 percent when he has the ball for less than two seconds, per NBA tracking data. But the Celtics will take him shooting an open three 11 times out of 10 as opposed to a Curry three, which the entire NBA will take negative-347 times out of 10, thank you very much.

Take away any and all space

This is an extension of sorts off of the last point, so I’ll keep it brief. If he does catch it — the less ideal outcome from the last “do” — do what Smart does here, both before the catch and after.

Smart is all-but face guarding Curry here; the ball could have been punted from TD Garden to New Guinea and Smart would still have his eyes glued to Steph’s chest. It’s what you have to do if you have any prayer of keeping Golden State’s all-time leading scorer from tacking more on to that record.

While face guarding, Smart fights over a decent, if too-high screen from Bazemore, falls off balance for half a second, and regains his composure and stance, taking away the early pull-up Curry definitely thought he’d have. Smart gives him a couple of legal hand-checks, stays close, and has his arm raised the moment Curry looks to be setting his feet and shoulders for a shot. There’s a reason Smart has been first-team All-Defense two years in a row. If Curry makes this shot, you live with it. You might even throw your hands up.

Which sort of leads us to...

The Don’ts

Lose him in transition

This was a death sentence from the moment Williams’ shot was blocked.

Losing Steph Curry on the break — or at the very least, not picking him up the second his team begins running in the other direction — is like giving Usain Bolt a head-start in a 100-meter race. What’s the point? Curry can go from a jog to a dead sprint, back to a jog, then to a leisurely stroll, and somehow, through all of those intermittent speeds, he’s beaten his defender.

And that layup is only worth two points. Fun fact: a three-pointer is worth more.

Apologies to Draymond Green, but if I’m an NBA player — reminder, I’m so not — I’m not nearly as worried about stopping him as he tries to push the ball from midcourt to the left haphazardously. Do you know who I am worried about finding and denying? The player who is scoring 1.25 points per possession in transition, and actually doesn’t get the ball in transition all that often per game, per Synergy. But when he does, he makes good on his opportunities. To not have a defender with eyes glued to Curry in a situation like this is akin to begging for him to take (and make) an open triple.

Another don’t that can fit into this category: don’t assume you know what Curry is going to do. In this next play, Curry subtly directs Andrew Wiggins to cut. If you watch Kemba, he looks like he’s anticipating that Curry will run to the corner after Wiggins runs toward the rim/baseline. Instead, Curry nudges Tatum, creates space, and almost taunts Kemba with how easy this shot is due to Walker’s poor reaction.

A general, unwavering rule: you don’t know what Curry is going to do. If you think you do, you don’t. I promise you: it’s best to hug him like a baby does a stuffed polar bear. Don’t let him make this whole shooting thing easier on himself.

Over-help, therefore discombobulating the defense as a whole

You might be wondering: is it actually possible to over help on Steph Curry? Arguably, no, but when it results in completely bungling all other defensive rotations and letting a capable shooter get an open look, it’s a mistake.

On this play, Curry drives, and the defense swarms. Fine! Until the breakdown that leads to a wide-open Kent Bazemore three.

Who’s to blame here might be worth an open-ended essay question. I’d be fine with Kemba jumping to help on Toscano-Anderson, though JTA is hardly in a position to score while standing beneath the backboard unless he wishes to pound his way through Payton Pritchard, which he’s capable of doing, but doesn’t tend to have a penchant for. Kemba’s help is iffy, but he does cut off JTA from any option to score. It’s Thompson’s failure to rotate that really leads to the Bazemore triple.

He’s far from nimble, so it may have resulted in a Bazemore drive had Thompson attempted to close out, but there’s absolutely no reason for him to leave Draymond Green on the wing to enter the already-crowded paint. His natural rotation would be to slide over to cut off either the pass to Bazemore or the ensuing shot. Instead, he kind of putters around in no man's land for a minute.

Look at the Sahara Desert’s worth of space between Bazemore and the next black jersey. This is — as eloquently I can put it — bad.

Is this worse?

It’s a very crafty slip-screen from JTA that leads to his wide-open layup off of a feed from Curry. Regardless, though, Semi Ojeleye overhelps, not really hedging, but all-but enforcing what would be better as a switch. He just forgets to tell Smart. As mentioned before and as written into stone years ago, Steph Curry will find his teammate if the opportunity presents itself. He’s the most threatening scorer in the NBA right now, but he’s just as threatening a passer. Don’t make it easier for him. He’s doing just fine on his own.

Give him an inch

The opposite of the related “do” that is titled “Take away any and all space.” It’s simple: Don’t give him any space.

The Celtics were, like, 15-percent blanketing, 85-percent too lenient when it came to coating Curry on Saturday; a good ratio, actually, considering that the rest of the league tends to tread more in the 8-percent/92-percent area.

Here, I understand what Smart is doing. He doesn’t raise his arm because he doesn’t want to foul Curry, who tends to find all sorts of ways to get fouled. Yet I’d rather Smart hit his arm on accident and force a tougher shot than what he gives up here.

That’s too much room, and by not putting a hand up, you’re taking nothing away. Merely inching closer to Curry with your body is not a deterrent. It’s not even a nuisance. It’s as natural to Curry as seeing his shadow on a sunny day. Three points, bartender, and in a second, I think I’ll have another. (He would, by the way, quite a few more. AND he drove home. This guy does it all.)

So, there you have it. You’re welcome, America. I solved Steph Curry.

No, no, I’m aware that there is no solving Steph Curry, nor are there any feasible hopes of containing him. At the very least, though, there are always chances to correct what was done horribly, and ways to further enforce what was done well. The Celtics didn’t ace their Stephysics midterm, but they didn’t fail it either. Perhaps that’s as good as it gets for now, but there’s definitely room to improve even more.

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