BY DAVID THORPE
In his 2013 book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that we are all wrong about the most famous mismatch of all time. David may have been smaller, but he was more nimble, probably had better eyesight, and definitely had a sling:
It's one of the most feared weapons in the ancient world. The stone that comes from his sling has the stopping power equivalent to a bullet from a .45 caliber pistol. It's a serious weapon.
And second, there are many medical experts who believe that Goliath was suffering from acromegaly, which causes you to grow. Many giants have acromegaly, but it has a side effect which is, it causes restrictive sight. Goliath in the biblical story does, if you look closely, sound like a guy who can't see.
So here we have a big, lumbering guy weighed down with armor, who can't see much more than a few feet in front of his face, up against a kid running at him with a devastating weapon and a rock traveling with the stopping power of a .45 caliber handgun. That's not a story of an underdog and a favorite. David has a ton of advantages in that battle, they're just not obvious.
This is an NBA story. This league has long revered size and speed, in that order, but as we wrote a few weeks ago (talking about Mike Conley, De’Aaron Fox, and Jalen Suggs), the future might flip the two.
On Saturday, Stephen Curry and the Warriors will face this year’s almost-certain MVP, Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets. They will want to pay careful attention to what happened the last time Curry faced an MVP-candidate big man, which was Monday against Joel Embiid and the 76ers.
Daryl Morey is the executive who famously bet against size, when his Rockets experimented with a roster that had no starting center, instead using nimble players at all five positions. Now he runs Embiid’s 76ers, who melted down in crunch time simply because they had a slow-footed big man in the game.
The sling-wielding Stephen Curry slayed the giant Embiid.
Embiid destroyed the Warriors most of the night. Draymond Green has suggested that he might be the best defender in NBA history … and found himself having to foul Embiid intentionally to prevent rim attacks.
I noticed, though, that afterward Green quickly patted Embiid a few times—no need to get the giant and chiseled 7-1 center angry. Later, after another, harder foul, Green exploded. Not at Embiid, not at the referee, but at the coaching staff. The best defender in the world wanted help. That’s how good Embiid is.
But the same Warriors coaching staff had some ideas of their own about how to handle Embiid. I don’t need to see the Warriors’ game plan on paper to know what it was: “Put Embiid into ball screens, and make him pay.”
In “Rocky II,” Rocky’s trainer Mickey has his student, a champion boxer, try to catch an ordinary chicken. With her low center of gravity, the hen is everywhere, lickety-split. It barely matters how big or strong Rocky is. See where I am going here?
Curry danced past Embiid, into Embiid’s lair, and made an easy bucket.
Joel Embiid is a proud giant. Like most huge men, he hates looking silly, getting burned in the paint by someone half his size. Embiid would make sure it didn’t happen again, and it would cost the 76ers the game.
The way most teams roast opposing big men with ball screens is by making them choose between guarding the ball-handler—Curry—and the screener, who nowadays can often pop out to the 3-point line. It’s a double dilemma for a slow defender in the modern NBA: There’s more ground to cover than a decade ago, playing that far from the hoop. And, if you screw it up, now you’ll pay with an extra point.
But with Draymond Green and Kevon Looney, the Warriors simply don’t have sweet shooting big men. So they solve the threat a different way that Tom Haberstroh explored on TrueHoop earlier this week. Curry’s trainer Brandon Payne says:
He’s seeing a lot of different coverages defensively. Doubles, top-locking … I don’t think any of these coverages are having any success. He has many answers for everything now. He’s stronger, he’s able to initiate controllable contact around the rim now. He’s got an answer for everything.
Against the Warriors, it would be enough to get Embiid as the defender with the prime responsibility to account for Curry and take away his shot. Precisely what makes Embiid a superhero on offense, his size (without it he’d be very skilled, but nowhere near as valuable), proves to be his kryptonite.
Payne credits Curry’s extensive time off—with an injury, then a pandemic—with giving Curry time to increase his strength, which makes him more effective finishing at the rim. Given that he’s always been an elite ball handler, able to jet and twist from one spot to another in the blink of an eye, defenders have a hard time staying connected. He is scoring in the paint as much as ever. Curry will take whatever the defense gives.
The first 44 minutes of the game set the stage. Curry had learned a lot about how the 76ers would defend him, and he knew just what to do in response. With just over four minutes left, and the Sixers ahead by two, Curry went giant hunting.
He knew Embiid wouldn’t want the smaller man to blow by him to the rim again. He counted on it.
Embiid hung back as if Curry were a power forward from the 1980s, or a hen just set loose. I don’t know if you have time to watch the 600-odd 3s Curry has attempted this year, but it’s possible Curry has never been more open.
Right then, though no one knew it, the game was over.
Embiid was simply unwilling to chase Curry off the 3-point line.
The Warriors went up one, then Embiid looked to the bench as if to say “come up with another plan because this ain’t working and I’m not changing.” Instead, the 76ers didn’t change a thing.
Seconds later Curry did it again. This time Embiid just stared straight towards his basket on the other end, having no interest in seeing the anguished, masked faces of his coaches—or Curry’s celebration dance.
With two minutes left, and another screen, Embiid put on a show of moving toward Curry—but not enough to convince Curry, or anyone, that he was in position to contest.
“BANG” yelled ESPN’s Mike Breen.
Three ball screens, two minutes, and nine points from Curry turned the game. Instead of trailing, the Warriors could scarcely lose. With the Warriors needing just one more basket to close the game, up six with just over a minute to play, Sixers coach Doc Rivers seemed to call for a double team as Curry dribbled on the perimeter.
Who did Doc want to help George Hill on Curry? Embiid was guarding Looney, the least-threatening Warrior. Embiid was nowhere near up for the challenge. He left Looney but never got close enough to Curry to touch him. Not without 15 foot arms, anyway. Curry’s fourth 3 in three minutes, his 10th of the game, cemented the win.
“MOUSE IN THE HOUSE” and “mismatch!” have been routine phrases through basketball history. We are very used to the idea of a big player dominating a small defender. We are very used to the idea that Goliath is the favorite. It has long been a reason for coaches to bench Davids.
Rule changes, tactical shifts, pace, space, and 3s … the world is changing quickly. Now the giants must adjust. Joel Embiid is one of the two best big men in the world, but on a Monday night in Philadelphia, he was played off the floor by the smallest of guards. Only Doc Rivers didn’t actually take him off the court. He should have.
Remember the play where Green howled at Steve Kerr, wanting help on defense? Right then Kerr put Looney back into the game. Between that move and some smart doubling by the Warriors, Embiid didn’t score another point. Curry scored 14. The Warriors had an answer for Goliath. No one has an answer for Curry.
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