The Warriors' big-time, improbable stand
November, 4, 2012
By Kevin Arnovitz
LOS ANGELES -- Trailing 112-110 with the ball and 21.4 seconds remaining, the Los Angeles Clippers couldn't have asked for more favorable conditions. The Clippers had Chris Paul at the controls against Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, with forward David Lee covering Blake Griffin. No need for Gregg Popovich's whiteboard here. Just let Paul work his magic with Griffin against two guys who often get classified as matadors.
The odds seemed to tilt even greater in the Clippers' favor when the Warriors decided to switch on the Griffin pick. With total command of the court, Paul had Lee in his crosshairs. And if that weren't enough, the generously listed 6-foot-3, 185-pound Curry was now assigned to guard Griffin down on the right block.
Mismatch City. The kind of possession NBA teams dream of on Christmas Eve. The world's best point guard against a beleaguered big man, with the most imposing physical specimen in the league down in the post against a guard who could easily be mistaken for a scurvy victim.
This couldn't possibly be the way Warriors coach Mark Jackson drew up his defensive coverage.
"Truthfully, yes," Jackson insisted. "We had to find a way to contain [Paul], and great players make the adjustment. We tried something a little different and we had to trust our defensive principles. Just a great job by David on the perimeter and a great job by Steph. I thought he lost Blake for a second, but he recovered and kept a body on him."
Paul rejected Griffin's pick at the top of the floor, then dribbled right and attacked a backpedaling Lee. Paul reached the edge of the paint but that's where the incursion stopped, as Lee held his ground.
With 15 seconds still on the clock, a patient Paul realized there was plenty of time to try again. So he backed out and returned to his launching pad just outside the 3-point arc. Lee followed Paul to the top of the floor, then got into a defensive crouch, arms extended outward.
"The No. 1 thing I didn't want to do was give up a 3-point shot for the loss," Lee said. "I wanted to force [Paul] to drive and I know he likes to go right so I wanted to make him go left and force him back into my help."
Defending Paul in this situation is a multitasking nightmare. Lee had to simultaneously guard against the 3-pointer, but also be swift enough to funnel Paul left when he stepped on the gas.
"I was thinking about raising up for the 3," Paul said. "But he gave me the lane and I drove."
This is where the logic behind the Warriors' decision to switch begins to make some sense. The best-case scenario for the Clippers in this situation would be a clean 3-point attempt. Lee might not be fleet-footed, but he's taller than Curry and, therefore, tougher to shoot over.
"It was tough," Lee said. "I just tried to stay close enough to him that he would maybe be a little discouraged by my arm and try to go by me rather than pull up. In a situation like that, he's pretty much in control, but I just did my best."
Paul wasn't surprised by the switch, and made it abundantly clear after the game that the coverage in that situation is immaterial to him -- switch, trap, hedge, assault. In Paul's world, he always has the advantage, particularly against this Warriors' duo.
"You think I care which one of them guards me?" Paul said. "Come on, now. Stephen Curry? All-defense, huh? Psshhhh ... Come on, now."
While Paul and Lee were performing their dance, Curry had to contend with Griffin on the block, but Curry figured this was Paul's game to win or lose.
"In a normal situation, [Griffin] would've been trying to post me up," Curry said. "But in the fourth quarter, with 10 seconds left and CP has the ball, he's going to make the play. So it's my job to just box out if there's a shot."
Ultimately, Curry's instincts were correct, but Paul allowed for the possibility that he'd dish the ball to his power forward, who had a seven-inch and 80-pound advantage over the diminutive guard.
"I was about to drop [the ball] off to Blake, but I saw the layup," Paul said.
It was a shot Paul has taken countless times, a floater in the lane off his right foot. The ball left Paul's right hand and fell just over the front lip of the rim and through the basket -- but not before Curry slid off Griffin, planted his feet in Paul's path, and drew the charge.
"I'm arm's length from Blake to make sure to keep him off the glass as best I can if there's a long jump shot," Curry said. "Once David forced CP to his left, I kind of read the play, read CP's eyes. Is he looking at Blake? Is he looking at the rim? He was looking at the rim to get a shot off. So then you're thinking about getting outside the restricted line to take the charge, and I was able to time it just right where [Paul] hadn't left his feet yet, but I was set up and ready to go."
Curry iced the game with a couple of free throws, as the Warriors prevailed 114-110, handing the Clippers their first loss of the season.
Was the defensive call that won it counter-intuitive by the Warriors? You bet. But the coverage worked, and Jackson praised Curry with his trademark superlative.
"Steph came up with a big-time charge, a big-time charge," Jackson said.