OAKLAND, Calif. -- On Monday night, the San Antonio Spurs tried everything to quell Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry. The result was Curry scoring 37 points in 28 minutes, then resting the fourth quarter as his team finished up a resounding 120-90 win. In three quarters, San Antonio looked wholly bedeviled by a player they'd beaten 13 out of the 16 prior meetings.
The Spurs had Tony Parker guard Curry, which looked more like an exercise in human sacrifice than a defensive tactic. After Curry torched Parker, other measures were explored. Patty Mills tried to keep pace, only to get hopelessly lost in the shadow of a Marreese Speights' screen. Jonathon Simmons attempted to press the reigning MVP full court, which just resulted in a longer highlight. Of course, NBA Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard took his turn, only to slip and spin into the wrong end of some viral content.
If Kawhi Leonard isn't the answer, that's some question. These days, Steph Curry is a riddle more confounding than a superglued Rubik's Cube. The Spurs, for all their historic defensive numbers, were sans solutions to a problem that plagues the league. Curry's game keeps growing, evolving ahead of defenses.
His numbers in these latest wins four wins, hyped games against playoff teams no less (Cavs, Bulls, Pacers, Spurs), have been staggering. In the past four contests, Curry scored 136 points in 127 minutes, and the Warriors outscored opponents by an incredible 115 in those minutes. After Monday's game, Curry appraised of his team, "No moment’s too big." He later tacked on, "It wasn’t always that way."
That's certainly true. Curry endured an epoch of Golden State misery that'll be a footnote in basketball history, but comprised years of his life. Even after the clouds cleared, the playoff-caliber Warriors were still a team mired in isolation basketball tactics that could be solved by the greater teams. In the Kerr era, the Warriors have embraced "ball movement and man movement," a process by which collective action can best the best defenses.
An example of this could be seen in Curry's highlight on Leonard. It was all set up by the threat of Curry cutting to the basket, something the Warriors have done diligently when played aggressively off the ball. After the game, Kerr explained, "If anybody overplays you, our guys are taught, just cut, cut back door, the next guy will fill the spot. Keep the ball moving. That was something that really was a point of emphasis when I played in San Antonio for Pop. That’s what they do."
Kerr said the approach also hearkens to his time as a player on the Bulls: "Went back to the Chicago days when I played, Phil [Jackson] and Tex [Winter] used to talk about, 'Go away from pressure. Don’t go into pressure.'"
So much of Golden State's offensive success is predicated on that "go away from pressure" motto. It's counterintuitive, as sports are supposedly a proving ground where you don't back down from a challenge. By this ethos, when guarded by the best defensive player (Leonard), the best offensive player should go right at him, to demonstrate dominance.
Golden State would prefer their superstar recalibrates the challenge. Though Curry can score efficiently in isolation situations, the Warriors are focused on conserving his energy, getting him the easiest attempts possible. When blanketed by a larger player like Leonard, he'll often move the ball and work through some screens, counting on the defense to destabilize. It works because Curry is great at this, and because the Warriors are replete with perceptive playmakers such as Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Andrew Bogut.
Perhaps that conservation of energy has allowed Curry to impact the game more defensively. On Monday, he was a ball hawk, raking five steals and helping to pressure Parker into a five-point performance. He and Green, who stoned LaMarcus Aldridge in the post, especially shined in a fantastic overall defensive effort for Golden State. The Spurs, normally exquisite in their execution, coughed the ball up 25 times.
This blowout victory isn't quite as decisive as the 34-point bloodbath in Cleveland, and likely tells us less about how a playoff series might go. For one, Tim Duncan did not play in this game. Also, a blowout at home means something far different than a blowout on the road.
The Spurs remain formidable, and can never be taken lightly. Still, this evening might tell us something about where these teams are right now. After the game, Manu Ginobili said, "At this point they're better than us. I'm not embarrassed to face it."
If that's so, then much of it is because the Warriors adopted San Antonio's tactics, working efficiently, together, to create the best possible opportunities. The old Warriors would just toss it to Curry and have him go to work. Now they move the ball side to side and take advantage of the openings Curry's presence scares out of opponents. If, "No moment’s too big" for the Warriors, then perhaps it's because they've overcome pressures by evading it.