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How the Celtics adjusted to the impossible task of guarding Stephen Curry

Curry torched the Celtics in the first quarter of Game 1, but some in-game adjustments helped turned the tide.

2022 NBA Finals - Boston Celtics v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Despite their comeback victory, the Boston Celtics got a taste of what it’s like to defend Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry in Game 1 of The NBA Finals.

The Greatest Shooter of All Time put up incredible numbers on Thursday night. Curry finished with 34 points, five rebounds, and five assists, but the number most people are paying attention to is his three-point shooting (obviously). He shot 7-of-14 from deep, torching the Celtics.

But while Curry is always going to get his shots up, Boston didn’t exactly do themselves any favors. The bright lights of The NBA Finals seemed to get to them early on, as they got lost several times in the first quarter trying to defend the flashy point guard. There were inexplicable lapses, a confusing lack of help, and questionable drop coverage.

That being said, Boston picked things up in the final period of the game. They outscored Golden State 40-16, and while their own elite three-point shooting played a huge part in that, they also managed to hold Curry to 2-of-6 shooting from the field. He only attempted one three throughout the entire fourth quarter.

In just one game of action, Celtics fans got the full experience. They saw a Boston squad that crumbled when faced with the best shooter in NBA history, and they saw a Celtics defense that was able to hold that same player to just one three-point attempt when it mattered most.

The Problems

Curry started off red-hot in the first quarter, draining six of his eight threes. And in true Celtics fashion, after Curry missed a wide-open three, they let him get a second look at the basket. Kevon Looney killed them on the glass in Game 1, and this is one of the primary reasons why Boston cannot allow that to happen. When they do, Curry gets second-chance looks. And he rarely misses twice.

Although Curry missed his first look on this play, Boston played awful defense. This was one of the major adjustments they made throughout the game. For the majority of the first half, Boston played drop coverage against Curry. Maybe this was because they trusted their defenders to fight over screens (which they did very well against the Miami Heat), but regardless, it didn’t work.

Here’s that drop coverage again. Jayson Tatum does a decent job of fighting over the screen, but a “decent job” isn’t good enough against Curry. Daniel Theis sags back and Curry nails a three.

From the get-go, it was clear that the Celtics still thought they were playing the Miami Heat. Though the Heat were the top three-point shooting team in the regular season, their postseason struggles allowed Boston to sag off and prioritize protecting the paint. Of Miami’s top-five shooters during the series in terms of volume, only one shot above 30% from deep (Gabe Vincent, 35.3%).

Marcus Smart made sure to let his teammates know that the Splash Brothers were different. “This isn’t the Heat series, you can’t start back, you have to start up,” Boston’s point guard explained.

But the drop coverage wasn’t even Boston’s biggest problem in the first quarter. Instead, it was a lack of focus. Three of Curry’s first-quarter threes came as a direct result of the Celtics getting completely lost. Whether it was a missed switch or a lack of help defense, Curry was making them pay for their defensive lapses.

The first mistake was after a screen in transition from Looney. Smart comes off the screen, sees Tatum in front of Curry, and expects him to pick him up rather than sticking with Draymond Green.

In a roundabout way, this issue was a result of Boston’s inexplicable pick-and-roll defense and falling in to a drop. If Horford was playing up on the ball, then someone would have been there to pick up Curry. Instead, Smart gets mixed up, ends up on Looney, and Curry nails the open three.

The second misstep Boston made in the first quarter was a lack of help, and once again, it was a Celtics star choosing to guard Green on the outside rather than helping on Curry. Smart gets screened, causing him to lose Curry for a brief moment. Brown is there, but instead of rotating over to help, he stays with Green, allowing Curry to nail a wide-open triple.

In Brown’s defense, it was a quick-hitter. Golden State was getting out in transition and Curry got the ball up within milliseconds of Looney setting the screen. Regardless, as soon as Brown saw Looney getting ready to screen Smart, he should have rotated over at least a bit to provide some help.

Lastly, the third mistake of the first quarter was similar to the first one: Just plain old miscommunication. Jordan Poole slips a screen, drawing two defenders. Derrick White and Payton Pritchard get confused who was supposed to stay with Curry, and it ended up being an open three (again).

White should have switched onto Curry, but that’s the benefit of the slip. Poole acted so quickly that White felt the need to stay with him and prevent an entry pass. Unfortunately, Pritchard thought they were switching, and the whole play fell apart.

So drop coverage and defensive mistakes were at the root of five of Curry’s six first-quarter threes. The sixth? Well, it was just Curry being Curry.

Did Grant Williams drop a little too far back? Yeah, sure. But as great as he’s been guarding the perimeter this postseason, asking him to guard the three while simultaneously preventing Curry from getting inside is a tall order.

However, while Curry’s onslaught of threes in the first is going to be the story that comes out of this game, what isn’t talked about is how well the Celtics guarded him throughout the rest of the contest. After the first, Curry only had 13 more points the rest of the way, shooting 1-for-6 from deep in the process.

That one three occurred, once again, due to Boston’s drop coverage. Williams cheats up a bit more than he was in the first half, but he still gave Curry too much space.

Giving Curry any room to work behind the arc line is a one-way ticket to three points. Robert Williams just sagged back for a moment too long, and Curry made him pay.

From that point on, however, Curry wouldn’t make another three.

The Adjustments

Curry went on to finish the game shooting 0-for-4 from beyond the arc, as the Celtics shored up their perimeter defense. And in a moment of vengeance, his first missed three came at the hands of Williams, who made sure not to drop back as he did on the previous three.

This is how Williams needs to be playing Curry on the three-point line. Will Curry be able to sneak by him on a pump-fake every once in a while? Absolutely. But taking away the three-point shot should be Boston’s top priority.

After that, these were the final three threes Curry attempted.

The first was good defense by Smart. He stuck with Curry, chased him around the court, and got a good contest off on the corner three.

The second was a wide-open shot. Did Curry push off on Brown? Maybe a little, but that doesn’t always get called. Not really a defensive lapse to note. The GOAT just missed one.

The third is where Boston’s defensive changes come into play. Curry still got a fairly open look, but it’s the way the Celtics defended the play that’s important to note here.

Compare these two plays.

In the first, Tatum gets screened, but Theis drops all the way back. Tatum does a solid job of getting around the pick, but his light contest isn’t enough to stop Curry from nailing the shot.

In the second clip, Tatum gets screened again, but Al Horford steps up. Instead of dropping back, Horford pressures Curry, giving Tatum time to get back into the play. Curry still gets a solid shot off due to the fact that he’s simply quicker than Horford, but that little bit of extra pressure goes a long way.

(Side note: This also could have been called a moving screen on Looney.)

But the area of Boston’s defense that didn’t get enough love was how they denied Curry from getting clean looks from behind the arc in the fourth quarter. He was seeking out the same looks he was getting in the first quarter, but the Celtics’ adjustments prevented it.

Curry doesn’t make the shot in the first clip, but he has free reign behind the arc. Williams sags all the way back to the free-throw line, allowing him to get an easy look from deep. Smart was left scrambling, trying to keep up with Curry.

In the second clip, Williams makes the adjustment. Instead of falling back, Williams presses up all the way to the three-point line. His presence (which was felt earlier in the game with the insane block) forces Curry to hesitate. By the time Williams is forced to drop back and cover the roll, White is back in the play, getting in Curry’s space and preventing the three.

Then, even when Curry made his shifty move to the paint, Williams was there to shut it down, notching his second block of the night on the superstar point guard.

Here’s another prime example of Boston’s adjustment out of drop coverage. Horford steps up to the three-point line, forcing him to drive into the paint. By the time Curry gets to his spot, he has two hands in his shooting space and ends up missing the floater.

Now, it’s important to note that Boston’s adjustments have their disadvantages, too. By ditching the drop coverage, the Celtics expose themselves to getting blitzed by Curry’s speed and craftiness. Curry is the best shooter of all time, but once he gets past his defender, he’s crafty with an array of pump fakes and floaters.

That’s (kind of) what happened here.

Now, the Celtics actually played solid defense in that clip. It wasn’t Horford’s fault that Curry scored, as he got back into position nicely. And despite getting cooked, it wasn’t White’s fault either. Curry just did what Curry does. He’s a future Hall of Famer for a reason.

The point is, stepping up on Curry instead of dropping back gives him more room to work on the drive. However, the Celtics should live with that over him shooting wide-open threes any day of the week.

Guarding the greatest shooter of all time is a journey, and the Celtics went through it in Game 1. He burned them in the first quarter, but by the time the game hit crunch time, they had adjusted their defense and were clamping down when they needed to.

Curry is going to bounce back. It’s crazy to say that someone is going to “bounce back” from a 34-point game, but he will. He’s going to continue to be an issue for Boston in this series. They’re just going to have to trust Ime Udoka to make the adjustments and trust their defense to execute.

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