By Brian Sampson
When defenses match-up against Stephen Curry, they are given strict, explicit instructions to not allow him to get open. Whether that means switching screens, fighting through them, holding, grabbing, etc. However the gameplans differ, the goal remains the same; don’t allow him to get a shot off.
Yet, he continues to get open time and time again.
His off-ball movement is, perhaps, the most impressive aspect of his game. The way he weaves a web of confusion around defenders as he fights through hand-checks, goes around screens and slyly (legally) shoves the defender off him is an art form in and of itself. His poetry in motion causes the defense to remain in a state of paranoia, wondering when, not if, he will strike again. They’re constantly looking around, waiting for the greatest shooter of all time to exploit the tiniest crevice in their best laid defensive schemes.
Denver Nuggets’ defender Gary Harris knows this all too well. Here, he thinks he’s getting ready to defend floppy, a common NBA play where a lethal shooter starts under the basket and has the option of going either direction and running off screens. Because that’s what he’s anticipating, he’s guarding on the side and attempting to force Curry as high as possible. Curry, too, understands his opponents’ mindset and uses it to his advantage, slowly walking Harris down while using an arm-bar as leverage for his positioning. As soon as they get to the block, Harris is preparing for his man to continue toward the lane, but that’s when Curry has other plans:
Instead of putting his butt to the baseline like he would on floppy, he sets a wide base, uses his arm-bar to force Harris further toward the baseline and shoots back on top of the screen. That allows Jordan Bell to make contact on the pick and gives Curry a warm-up jumper that he calmly knocks down for three points. All because of his movement.
The Golden State Warriors do a terrific job of allowing their players to read and react to the defensive positioning. This ensures Curry’s movements aren’t prescribed or predictable and gives him more freedom to create his instant off-ball offense. It also makes the job of his teammates/screeners much easier, as they have general areas they are supposed to be, but can be flexible as he’s weaving around the court.
Peep this play for instance. Curry dribbles down toward the right wing while two of his teammates are setting up for a double-staggered ball screen. After the screens, one man is supposed to roll and the other pops to the top of the key, allowing Curry to choose between the two or take it himself for the score:
Jordan Bell’s man steps out to stop Curry so he drops a simple bounce pass back to him at the top of the key. However, Bell doesn’t like the shot for whatever reason, so he takes a meaningless dribble before tossing the ball to Draymond Green. That’s when Curry realizes his man has relaxed and decides to take advantage of it by quickly running back toward the ball and using Bell as a screener to get off an easy 17-footer. All because of movement.
Curry does a great job in that play of modeling two aspects he’s mastered; timing and change of speeds.
When teams try to play keep-away, as they so often do with him, he has to be extremely patient and choosy about when to make his cuts. With his head always on a swivel, he must take immediate action if the defender fails to live up to the same level of awareness. If for even a millisecond, the defense relaxes because the ball was swung to the other side of the floor or for whatever reason, he will make them pay.
The other elite characteristic of his off-ball movement is his ability to change directions and speeds quickly. His cuts come in tight, crisp formations closer resembling an ‘L’ instead of the lazy, loop ‘U’ cuts players typically make. This ensures his defender is constantly on their heels, never knowing where Curry is going. Also, his changing of speeds has less to do with moving very quickly or getting to a top speed in a short amount of time. Instead, it’s more vital he constantly changes his velocity to surprise the defense and continue the guessing game.
Here, after he drops the ball off to Zaza Pachulia, he slows down to lull his defender into a false sense of security before sprinting across the baseline:
This sudden increase in velocity left his man in his dust and the rest of Curry’s teammates recognized it. Klay Thompson immediately evacuates the corner and sets a pin-down screen to give him even more space, and Green subsequently hits the point guard in rhythm, giving Curry everything he needs to knock down the shot. All because of the movement.
Later in this game, the Warriors ran the same exact play where Curry cuts across the free throw line, before receiving a ball screen from Pachulia on the right wing:
Again, he doesn’t like what he sees after the screen so he tosses the ball to the top of the key where Green is patiently waiting. And, again, Jamal Murray is defending him so he uses the previous play to set himself up for another open look this time around. After Green catches the pass, Curry takes a couple steps toward the baseline and then uses his momentum to create separation between himself and Murray. Pachulia and Green are also reading the play, as Pachulia sets a pin-down screen and Green again hits Curry right in stride, allowing him to connect from distance. All because of movement.
Aside from his constant motion, his willingness to set screens for his teammates provides an excellent demonstration of his selflessness. As the best shooter in the world, he’s always had the focus from the defense, but when he’s used his body to set up open looks for his guys it only increased the open looks he has gotten.
He now uses his screening ability as a weapon for himself and Steve Kerr has masterfully designed plays around this screenwork:
After throwing the ball ahead to Thompson, Curry jogs up the court and acts as if he’s about to set a down screen so Andre Iguodala can receive the pass coming toward the top of the key. But not so fast! Iguodala completes a mini-circle and screens Curry’s man while he’s shooting off another pick from Pachulia near the elbow. As always, Green’s pass is right on time and the four-time All-Star splashes another trey. All because of movement.
Between Curry’s movement and Kerr’s designs, the rest of the NBA is in big trouble for a long time to come. But that’s nothing new for a team set to earn a trip to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season.
As the next wave of basketball talent begins to trickle into high school and college, they’re undoubtedly chucking deep shots yelling “Curry.” Hopefully, they’re also paying attention to the unexciting movement that comes before the glorious bucket. Every time he steps on the floor, he continues to prove an old adage true: Do the hard work first and the rest is easy.