NBA

Steph Curry’s biggest postseason weakness

It feels silly to quibble with one of the best athletes on the planet, but that’s what I’m about to do because I haven’t written in a while and topics don’t grow on tweets.

I rewatched Game 1 yesterday, a necessary activity after hosting our family’s Easter party while the game was live. You know you’ve reached the dreaded status of “adult” when you’re too busy making sure you have enough food (and the food is on the correct serving dishes, in the correct areas of the kitchen), you’re unable to hide out from your family in a back room and watch whatever sporting events happen to be on like you did when you were a kid. I even put the game on in our back room, even though no one ventured back there all day. Just for old time’s sake.

Our guests left as the third quarter drew to a close, so I was able to watch every possession in the fourth as the Warriors built a lead and won by double-digits, just as I assumed they would all along. So yesterday I was more interested in closely examining those earlier quarters, when all I could do was check the score and watch a few possessions here and there on Sunday.

My final verdicts:

  • Golden State treated the first three quarters like a glorified scrimmage, before sighing and finally zeroing in on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum (who I’ve believed is a better player than Lillard since watching the two during last year’s Warriors-Blazers playoff series).
  • Kevin Durant looked perfectly healthy until suddenly he wasn’t (calf strain, and don’t be surprised if he misses multiple games).
  • Klay Thompson might really be as affected by the weather as he says he is, because it rained so much on Sunday that the A’s game was postponed next door, and he played like he was either under the weather or listened to a bunch of emo music on his way to the arena and in the locker room before the game.
  • I’m not sure what they’re expecting Zaza Pachulia to contribute in this series. Mix it up with Meyers Leonard? He doesn’t fit in unless Leonard is on the floor at the same time, and even then …
  • The chance to make up for his mistakes a year ago has consumed Draymond Green (one of the most valuable players in the league, in my opinion) since June. Also, the NBA may have finally realized that Green’s passion, and the visceral reactions he elicits from players, broadcasters and fans, is GOOD for the league. (I believe that’s why he isn’t getting T’d up for his over-the-top reactions after blocking shots, anyway.)
  • Steph Curry is way too careless with the ball in the playoffs.

Again, this last point sounds like nitpicking to such an extent that many will probably dismiss it as a ludicrous statement (which is no problem, as I’ve gotten used to that reaction after doing this for nearly a decade). Curry is one of the best athletes on the planet, was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in consecutive seasons and already owns a championship ring. And what the hell do I know?

Well, while Curry’s playoff “struggles” have been wildly overstated (25.7 ppg, 6.6 apg, 4.7 rpg on 44.5% shooting and 40.8% 3-point shooting in 59 games is pretty damned good), he’s a victim of his own regular season brilliance and that means he gets graded on an unfair curve. It comes with having your own shoe deal — even your shoes get judged harshly sometimes.

While it seems like the play where Curry couldn’t shake Kevin Love behind the 3-point line seemed to represent everything that fell apart for the reigning MVP in last year’s Finals, this play was undoubtedly the most infuriating of his career.

Curry’s failed behind-the-back pass to Thompson (Game 7)

That was one of four turnovers Curry committed in Game 7. He gave the ball away three times in the first quarter of the Warriors’ 121-109 Game 1 win over Portland, five overall. And there was one turnover that should’ve been, but wasn’t, when he threw an ill-advised skip pass to Durant. In an underrated display of coordination and athleticism, Durant ended up dunking the ball after doing a fantastic job corralling the pass along the sideline, with his back to the basket.

The numbers bear it out:

  • Per 36 minutes: Curry commits 3.3 turnovers per 36 minutes in the regular season compared to 3.6 turnovers during the playoffs (4.4 per/36 in the 2016 playoffs, 3.5 per/36 in the 2015-16 regular season).
  • Turnover percentage: Curry’s at 14.6% in the regular season for his career (12.9% in 2015-16 and 2016-17), but that rises to 15.2% during the playoffs (16.7% in the 2016 postseason, 18.2% on Sunday).

His postseason turnovers peaked last Spring, and his postseason assist percentage has dropped every Spring. His scoring has been on an upward trend in the playoffs during that time, which maybe explains some of this. Still, one would think his turnovers would go down if his focus has shifted slightly, from passing to scoring.

Many have blamed the officials for allowing more contact during the playoffs, something that anecdotally affects Curry more than anyone else because his game depends on rhythm and his physique shares very few similarities with the bodies of LeBron James or Marshawn Lynch. But most of the body-checks and jersey grabs Curry experiences happen either off the ball or while Curry is trying to score inside.

Let’s take the eye test into account, because without hot takes, websites like mine wouldn’t exist!

1. Isn’t it obvious that Curry’s problem definitely isn’t a lack of confidence in the playoffs? He almost seems too self-assured, as if he believes that the playoffs aren’t as different as everyone says, and he’s good enough to put on a show while avoiding turnovers just as easily as he does during a December game against the Kings. He doesn’t throw behind-the-back passes with great frequency, but those one-handed whip passes across the court are there just as often. More than anything, you just don’t feel the sense of urgency required for precise offensive play during the postseason from Curry at all times, and when his focus lapses it’s pretty easy to notice because he’s a superstar on the most talented team of this era.

2. Many turnovers are generated when players try to do things too quickly and make a move without considering the consequences. But Curry seems like he’s at his best when he’s in rhythm and making split-second decisions without much forethought. It seems like he gets into trouble most often when he tries to be too methodical in a halfcourt setting (like backing down Kyrie Irving, for example), gets stuck, and tries a pass that help defenders have ample time to anticipate. Curry’s odds of destroying his opponents seem to skyrocket when he’s at a full sprint, letting his own “Baby Faced Assassin” rhythm take over. (Can’t wait to read Marcus Thompson’s book, by the way. That’s a plug, Marcus, if you’re reading.)

With Durant almost certainly out for a game, if not longer, Curry will have the ball in his hands more often in the near future and finding his famous rhythm will be necessary for victory. If he keeps his foot on the gas and his turnover percentage around 14% (he was at 14.3% during the 2015 playoffs, his postseason zenith to this point), the Warriors should take a 2-0 lead back to Portland and be in full control of this series. Alright, alright … they can probably win even if he commits more turnovers than Steve Kerr would like, but cutting down on those unforced errors in the halfcourt would certainly make things easier.

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