Stephen Curry entered this game averaging 18 points on 39.1 percent shooting against Utah in three games this season. Warriors coaches have a refrain when it comes to these kinds of stats: Sometimes Steph just misses. As in, the defense is ancillary when it comes to Curry's production. He'll loft it over whoever or whatever happens to be in his path. And there's some credence to that argument. With defenses keyed on his every move, Curry went until March 20 this season before finally suffering a blocked 3-pointer.
Curry's exploits don't actually exist in a vacuum, though. A well-executed defensive plan can tilt the odds from "death" to "survivable burn, thanks to a body cast." When healthy, the Jazz boast the ability to best curb basketball's most inexorable force. Simply put, Utah has the defensive talent well suited to switching screens on Curry.
And they deployed just that Wednesday night, sending waves of bigger defenders in Curry's direction whenever Golden State attempted to carve out space for its superstar. And Curry, in between incredible 3s, looked human at times.
There's another saying opposing coaches use when discussing Curry -- a cliché at this point: You have to make him work. And he was impressive, as per usual (31 points on 23 shots). The easy stuff wasn't allowed, though. When he drove away from that pressure, the imposing Rudy Gobert was there, draping the paint. Curry missed six shots in that area, the majority of which with Gobert's shadow threatening.
A seemingly exhausted Curry missed a 3-pointer, and ceded a turnover in crunch time of regulation. Utah's strategy had paid off, and the Jazz were well positioned to win -- that is, until Shaun Livingston saved the game out of the sky, and passed it back to Klay Thompson for a tying 3.
Golden State's savvy was on display in that play and in the one that followed. Down three, 24 seconds left, with the Jazz switching every screen, the Warriors opted to take advantage of Utah's intense focus on Curry. Thompson jogged up to Curry as though to set a pick, then suddenly veered away from the action, out into the clear. In slipping the screen, Thompson had gained an open opportunity to tie it up. "We knew they were going to switch so, it's tough to guard that slip when they're expecting a screen," Thompson said. "That's what we thought. Coach [Steve] Kerr drew up a great play."
Thompson missed the shot, but in getting that open, had drawn a help defender out to the perimeter. Livingston took advantage of the destabilized defense, snagging an offensive rebound and shoveling the ball back to Thompson for redemption. This attempt hit. "If I [missed again] I would have been sick with myself," Thompson said. The score was tied, thanks in large part to Curry's decoy threat. The Jazz had done a fantastic job pressuring Curry, right up until that point where the pressure betrayed them.
The next, final possession of regulation featured Golden State's defensive acumen -- Draymond Green's specifically. The Warriors wanted Green on whoever was taking Utah's final shot. The Jazz preferred targeting Curry on the final shot. If you watched the play, away from the ball, you could see Green and Curry in some nifty choreography. They made the Jazz think Curry was defending Utah guard Shelvin Mack, only to spring Green on Mack as he ran up to get the ball. Green said, "If you saw it, I was just playing center field waiting for whoever to go up because I switched with Steph. Coach Kerr told me, 'We want you on whoever's setting the pick.' " That plan worked out, as Green chased a frantic Mack away from the hoop, before finally snuffing his jumper.
It's notable that Golden State wanted Green guarding a point guard at the end, as he'd done yeoman's work for much of the game, defending Gobert. Green can do a little bit of everything in a pinch. Subjectively, he tends to do it best when it matters most.
The same can be said for a Golden State team that has had a penchant for closing out close games (28-2 in games that enter crunch time, according to NBA.com stats). It was more difficult Wednesday night, at altitude, on a back-to-back, getting to the team hotel at 2:45 a.m., lacking Andre Iguodala and Festus Ezeli. Good shots weren't easy to come by in a playoff atmosphere on the road. Win No. 68 was illustrative of the season Golden State has had, and a testament to its perseverance. Where other teams would falter, they tend to come through. The Warriors are often tested but almost never fail.