The old SportsCenter adage on great scorers is, "You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him!" It's true. Great scorers will score, and a defense hopes to curb their efficiency as they do it.
In the case of Stephen Curry, containment might be less a goal than a painful concession. Because to contain Curry, you might have to break the entire defense's containment.
With his incredible shooting prowess, Curry changed the rules for guarding pick-and-rolls -- rules that pretty much apply only to him. Put more simply: He must be guarded differently than all who came before. Other players couldn't scare defenses with off-the-dribble 3s from 33 feet away.
What this means is, well, so many things. So many points, so many Vines. It also means that Curry has a shadow impact on the game regardless of how he's shooting on a given night. Stephen Curry, the scorer, might not show up in some Eastern Conference town on a random Tuesday in January. He might go 5-of-22 because that can happen to the best of shooters. Stephen Curry, the threat, will always show up. He will always be feared, always command attention, and always exact a pound of flesh from his foes. Shadow Curry is like the ghost in "The Sixth Man," a hand reliably, invisibly tilting the game in Golden State's favor.
For all his great early-season production, Curry's assists are down from last season (7.7 to 5.8). Golden State as a team is assisting at the same rate with Curry in games as they did last season, but Steph is getting fewer of those dimes. Some of that has to do with his increased scoring, and some of it has to do with that shadow impact. Teams want the ball out of Curry's hands and Golden State's coaches do not want Curry going it alone against double-teams, even if he might be tempted.
Steve Kerr's "everything comes out in the wash" axiom dictates that moving the ball is the best method against a defense fixated on stopping one thing. Right now, Curry leads the league in secondary "hockey" assists, according to the NBA's SportVu player-tracking data. While his raw assists are down, he has seen a bump (1.8 to 2.8) in this category. Shadow Curry tends to get teammate's assists in a certain situation called four-on-three.
Four-on-three doesn't sound like a fair fight because it's not. It's an enviable position for any offense and one Warriors watchers are quite familiar with. If a defense doesn't have the personnel to contain Curry with regular pick-and-roll defense, it might try trapping him with double-teams. Sometimes the traps are almost accidental, the product of bigs venturing out further than they're used to. In any event, the double-teams often lead to a four-on-three offensive advantage that Curry causes, but from which rarely receives an assist.
The situation usually calls for moving the ball over trying to make a specific play. Often, the play is made by Draymond Green, who has learned to thrive as the assist man in four-on-threes. Green, by the way, has flourished into quite the point forward, averaging six assists in this young season. In the above clip, you can see how quickly he reads and reacts to a situation he knows all too well.
"Experience is the greatest teacher," is a favorite phrase of Green's, a player who bests larger foes with his smarts. He has served as Curry's safety valve for some years now, and he only improves with practice. Watch how he drives and kicks like an atypical power forward.
The Warriors like this kind of setup where a double screen is set by Green, who serves as an open 3-point shooter or assist man, and Festus Ezeli, who dives to the rim. The defense must stretch out to chase Curry at the arc, before snapping back to contain Ezeli at the rack.
Even when Draymond isn't screening for Steph, he's attuned to offering help as the safety valve. In this pretty-looking flow of offense, he makes himself available, before sending a quick strike to Ezeli at the rim.
The story of Curry's shadow impact isn't just about Steph. It's an advantage augmented by smart teammates who know how to leverage what they have. Green in particular is a lethal opportunist. Look how he punishes Marc Gasol for stepping maybe a couple feet outside his comfort zone to contain Curry.
It doesn't get any easier for defenses when Ezeli takes a breather, either. Lineups with Green at center offer even more space for these four-on-threes.
Screen backs as money
Curry's shadow impact isn't confined to the four-on-three, of course. As Kerr has noted, the best shooters often make for the best screeners. Defenses tend to panic when Curry, normally the recipient of screens, sets them instead. Watch as he casually manifests this Klay Thompson 3 into existence. He doesn't even need to make contact on the pick. He just needs to amble over while gesticulating about the opportunity to Green and Thompson.
There's still plenty of growth potential in how Golden State might use these Curry backscreens. Possibilities are endless, and the Warriors have used the maneuver sparingly. There are still more nooks and niches for the shadow to seize.
This is one aspect in which Golden State, after a historically great season, can improve. Teams might prepare better for them, but the Warriors are also more aware of what they have now, and how to benefit from it. With his incandescent shooting, Steph Curry inspires an almost visceral fear from defenses. He's the rare 6-foot-3 man who casts a 40-foot-long shadow, darkening the days of defenders in its sway. And Golden State, game by game, gets smarter about how to exploit the fear of a man's shadow.