BY DAVID THORPE
And then there were four. The Warriors host Game 1 of the Western conference finals Tuesday at 9 pm ET (ESPN) against the Blazers, while in the East the Raptors visit Milwaukee on Wednesday to take on the Bucks at 8:30 pm ET Wednesday (TNT).
A remarkable collection of superstars will be at work: Stephen Curry, possibly Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kawhi Leonard. David Thorpe’s remarkable basketball brain has also been at work, devising ways to stop them. We asked artist Mike McGrath Jr., to help David explain how he’d defend each of these superstars.
STOPPING STEPHEN CURRY*
*WHEN KEVIN DURANT IS NOT PLAYING
Doctors are reportedly going to examine Kevin Durant later this week to determine when he will be back on the court after being sidelined by a calf strain. Steve Kerr has said he is optimistic Durant will return during these playoffs. In his absence, David Thorpe sees opportunity for the Blazers to go all-in slowing Curry.
THE MISSION: Get the ball out of his hands; wear him down.
THE TRICK: Curry’s supporting cast isn’t what it once was: make them make plays and shots.
THE CRISIS: When Durant went out in Game 5 against Houston, Curry rediscovered his A game, as everyone should have expected. He’s a particularly marvelous offensive player. He showed against Houston that he still has that ability, and without Durant he’s capable of averaging 30+ points a game on efficient shooting. Don’t forget that the Warriors with Curry playing are 31-4 with KD inactive, since he first arrived three seasons ago.
THE TEAM PLAN: There is no sure way to stop Curry one-on-one for an entire game. He invented shooting from a mile away and doesn’t need more than an inch of space. However, his team is significantly less proficient than it was in the days before Durant, and this current version was teetering until Game 6 against Houston. Shaun Livingston has declined, Andre Iguodala has a sore knee, Draymond Green is often reticent to shoot, Klay Thompson has been inconsistent on both ends, and DeMarcus Cousins is out with a torn quad. So when Durant sits, the Blazers would do well to make Curry a passer.
Blitz (trap) him every time he uses a ball screen. Trap him at other times, too—on hard drives, coming off pin-downs. Try to have him deal with four arms as much as possible. Double him with his defender and the screener’s defender, on or off the ball. Rush a second defender to him when he’s driving. Sometimes send that second man to him early in the backcourt. There will be times he tries to beat both men, expending huge amounts of energy. Other times he’ll dish the ball to Green, an effective passer but less so when Durant isn’t around to finish.
The Blazers should empower defenders to leave their man open to double on Curry. Defenders on the non-Curry side of the floor will have to be ready to slide or race over toward Curry at all times, making Klay—or any Warrior other than Curry—the shooter.
The Cavs had a 2-1 lead in Curry’s first Finals, playing this style of defense. That Warriors team was better than this one. The Rockets did this often in game 6, and Curry didn’t score in the first half (then went bonkers and here we are). After the series ended, Iguodala said in the postgame interview, “our core … seems to always figure it out.” He’s right, but making them do so again against the pressure of a “threepeat” is the best idea when Durant is out of the game.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Without question, a fresh Curry can be the key to wins in Games 1 and 2 at home, and beating the Rockets in six helped a lot in that regard. Over time, though, forcing him to beat two men often or getting other Warriors to make big shots makes the Warriors less likely to ring up the Ws. In Cousins and Durant (calf), the Warriors didn’t just lose two starters, they lost two mega-talents. Now the pressure is on the other Warriors to do a lot more than they have been doing. This plan COULD fail hugely, as Iggy and Klay in particular stepped up mightily in Houston, but not doing this means Curry gets cooking and that never ends well for the opposition.
STOPPING STEPHEN CURRY*
*WHEN KEVIN DURANT IS PLAYING
As I told Henry Abbott and Don Skwar last week, I have no idea what to do with Curry when Durant is with him on the floor. Doubling Curry means that once he passes the ball, it’s 4-on-3, in favor of the Warriors, AND KD is one of those four! This offense is the best in NBA history for a reason. It often has two of the game’s greatest scorers on the court together. Both guys are unselfish, too: They’re willing screeners and cutters beyond their shooting and passing talents. No one has solved their offense when healthy in three seasons now. If Durant is healthy in most of the games … good luck!
STOPPING KEVIN DURANT
THE MISSION: Don’t let him catch the ball within 30 feet of the basket.
THE TRICK: Let him catch it beyond that range without working.
THE SURPRISE: Never send a second defender to him; fake and retreat back to the shooters.
THE INDIVIDUAL PLAN: Once Durant has the ball, there’s little defenses can do. He’s seen, and destroyed, every scheme out there. There has never been a player like Durant in NBA history, a 7-footer super skilled as a dribbler, shooter, and scorer, who is also so quick, agile, athletic, and hungry to score. The best way to slow him down is to not let him get near the ball—at least within his shooting range of about 30 feet (from there, he’s one dribble away from being well within his range). Defenders can extend their inside hand and foot into the passing lane from the ball handler to Durant, forcing him to maneuver quickly and purposefully to gain space to catch a pass. This requires energy and makes him operate from far out, again making him use extra energy to attack the basket or get into his pull-up jumpers. Extending that kind of denial too far makes it too easy for him to back-cut, a staple of the Warriors’ offense.
Playing his passing lane isn’t so new; still, it can help to wear him down and perhaps inhibit the passers from risking a pass to him. They might just choose to throw it somewhere else, a win for any defense. When Russell Westbrook played with Durant, we often saw him give up trying to get the ball to Durant, and attack himself, prompting questions about KD’s desire to work to get open. As he’ll be playing on a sore calf if he plays at all, it is worth testing Durant’s willingness to work to get open. Getting someone else to attack instead would be helpful. Al-Farouq Aminu, Rodney Hood, and Maurice Harkless are all long and nimble enough to take away easy catches for Durant and force him to play far away from the basket on many possessions.
THE HELP: The other defenders need to be ready to help WHEN HE DOES NOT HAVE THE BALL more than when he’s attacking. Bump his cuts; take away his backdoor cuts; provide “curl protection” when he uses off-ball screens. Make him work every possession to be a receiver. When he’s driving, force him to take 2-pointers and don’t leave wide-open shooters like Curry and Klay. Better to make Durant beat you with contested 2s after working relentlessly to get open.
THE BOTTOM LINE: There is no one on the Blazers who can shut down Durant when he’s at his best—we will see if his calf injury allows him to be. In fact that’s the case with any team on earth, with the possible exception of the Bucks (Giannis) or Raptors (Kawhi). More on that in two weeks. Until then, it’s a matter of making him initiate his possessions far from the basket and making him use screens and quick “V cuts” to get open. The hope is that by Game 4 and beyond, he’s largely operating on fumes.
STOPPING DAMIAN LILLARD
THE MISSION: Take away any clear look he might get at the rim, from any distance, and wear him down.
THE SURPRISE: When Lillard has the ball, guard him every second, over all 94 feet of the court, with multiple defenders of all sizes, and—like in the picture above—stay physically connected to him every second.
THE CRISIS: Lillard is a devastating “logo shooter” who seems to be directly plugged into his home crowd when he makes those shots. On the road, they still serve to lift his team. He simply must be hounded wherever he is and forced to do something OTHER than take those deep shots. They’re not worth four points officially, but the fans’ reaction lifts the team up like they are. And as these statistics show, he’s more effective late in the clock and after multiple dribbles. Lillard is weaponized every second of every possession.
THE INDIVIDUAL PLAN: Lillard is unlucky to be playing in the age of Stephen Curry and James Harden. He’s a similarly overwhelming offensive talent who will get publicity on those superstars’ scale for really the first time in his career, in his first conference finals. He has all the same tools as those two other players: brilliant handle, deep range, excellent passing, and maneuverability around ball screens to slither past big men or sidestep defenders and get a somewhat open 3-point shot.
In the Nuggets series, he appeared fatigued many times. Understandable—given the weight he carries. There’s a lesson for the Warriors; Denver guarded Lillard beginning around halfcourt. The Nuggets knew his impossibly deep shots had a powerful impact on the Blazers (and their fans when at home), so they tried to make those shots as tough as possible. The Warriors were finally willing to play a deep bench in Game 6 against the Rockets. And it stands to reason Steve Kerr will trust those guys more. In addition to Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala, Kerr should deploy a steady diet of small defenders like Quinn Cook and longer ones like Jonas Jerebko, Shaun Livingston, and Alfonzo McKinnie to hound Lillard every second he has the ball. That’s six men who will get some time trying to wear Lillard down and take away his brilliant deep shooting. All of them MUST STAY CONNECTED at all times with him. Follow him everywhere he dribbles, and chase him aggressively from behind when he beats his man. This is every bit as important as finding him all 94 feet. Curry can defend C.J. McCollum and, hopefully, save some energy.
THE HELP: The Warriors can mix in some traps off ball screens, but they risk letting Lillard be a shot creator for others while still getting his own shot. Earlier in games, when he’s fresher, trapping some is a smart move. When he tires, keep helpers “home” on their men, challenging Lillard to score one-on-one against that horde of different defenders. McCollum showed a new level of confidence against Denver, I’d help off him less, but not never—if McCollum is the only Blazer scoring efficiently, the Warriors will cruise.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Lillard is every bit the incredible scorer that the other three remaining playoff teams have. He’s not going to be shut down every game. But possession after possession, hounding him wherever he goes will serve the Warriors well.
STOPPING GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO
THE MISSION: Get him to post up, thus reducing his punishing attacks from the perimeter.
THE TRICK: Assign him a tiny defender, inviting him to post up so he can use his size advantage.
THE SURPRISE: Take him out of his most effective attacks and utilize well-timed help to frustrate him.
THE INDIVIDUAL PLAN: Giannis is a nightmare of length, speed, skill, and athleticism. He attacks relentlessly, leading the NBA in dunks. Most teams do their best to counter that with size; he faces defenders like 6-10 Al Horford, 6-7 Kawhi Leonard, and 6-9 Pascal Siakam. The problem with that strategy is that Giannis initiates most of his attack sequences from the perimeter and zooms past them. He’s faster than just about anyone his size. A smaller defender invites Giannis to post up, which is not his strength—according to Synergy Sports, he makes just .986 points per post-up, compared to 1.42 points as a cutter. Kyle Lowry lives for these assignments, he’s so tough to maneuver around and he will fight for every inch of space. Danny Green is a good option as well.
Once in the post, I would tell the defender to get even smaller. Sit low to the ground with a forearm or hand in his back, eyes focused on Giannis' midsection, waiting for his move to the middle of the paint. Ordinarily, the main advantage of getting low is having increased leverage to hold position. Also, there are steals to be had down low should he dribble. In this case, though, the primary advantage is in goading Giannis into one of his worst offensive skills: face-up shooting over a defender. If he turns to shoot, that's sure not a dunk! And about as poor an attempt as you can get him to take.
THE HELP: It’s quite likely he won't shoot over his defender. And here's where the Raptors can make some clever rules about helping. Never double-team before he dribbles or if he’s stationary dribbling—that makes it too easy for him to see what's happening. Instead, use his speed against him. When he makes a sudden move, rush the nearest player from behind. The quicker, smaller primary defender can prevent him from turning the corner on his first move, and once slowed, the second man arrives, ready to “muck up” all those spin moves and pivots that Giannis loves so much.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Giannis might be the best player in the world. He averages 27 points per game on 17 shots this postseason, which is a nightmare. He'll score plenty no matter what you do. But at this stage of his career, his post-up game is not elite. The more time he spends doing those things, the better.
STOPPING KAWHI LEONARD
THE MISSION: Don’t let him play bully ball with smaller and weaker defenders.
THE TRICK: Make him think he can out-physical his defender by putting the ball on the floor.
THE SURPRISE: Have multiple defenders ready to steal, harass, and disrupt his dribble.
THE CRISIS: Kawhi looks more like Michael Jordan than any player I’ve seen in the last twenty years of watching the playoffs; he has a good counter-move to anything a defense tries. He’s incredibly strong and an excellent outside threat, making 54 percent of his shots and scoring 32 points per game.
THE INDIVIDUAL PLAN: A lot of Kawhi’s points come from “dribble-pounding” his defender to preferred spots. He’s just such an overpowering, physical wing that he can get them where he wants to go, based on where he reads help is weakest. Once there, their only resort is to let him score or foul him, and he’s making 86 percent from the line. In short, he’s a wing version of Zach Randolph, a pure bucket getter who can beat his man in every possible way.
The best way to throw off a master bucket getter is to get him to start playing defense ... while he’s on offense! That’s done by gambling when he’s dribbling; Giannis Antetokounmpo is both long and quick enough to challenge his dribble, while Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon are quick and tough enough to harass his attacks. Quick-slide to a spot and try to knock the ball free, that’s the goal. Anticipation is key here, as is pure quickness. Most cat-quick guys get pulverized by Kawhi’s power game, so it’s important they don’t let him dictate. Constantly try to make a play on the ball, maybe goad him to push off and earn a foul. Or get him to spin away from that reach-in, enabling a quick double-team as his back turns for a moment on the spin. Either way, getting him to worry about what his defender is going to do beats having him dictate on his terms.
THE HELP: Kawhi has seen all sorts of help strategies, so he really can’t be surprised. However, if he’s maneuvering to protect his dribble against his own defender, it means he can’t be thinking about help until AFTER HE HAS SECURED THE DRIBBLE. Remember, Kawhi might play like a machine, but he is human: He gets only one conscious thought at a time, just like mere mortals. The moments to help are when his dribble is under stress. That’s when he’s vulnerable to being trapped. and those moments can perhaps get him to be even a little less aggressive later in the game. Just as some shooters start hesitating after a few misses, Kawhi may attack less after a few turnovers. It’s worthwhile to explore.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Kawhi has been one of the elite players this postseason, and he can make any defense look amateurish. If there is a way to make him uncomfortable, get him to lose the ball, and perhaps even lose a little confidence, it’s by attacking his dribble. There are risks to trying this but there can be good rewards too.
Later this week TrueHoop subscribers will receive Part 5 in Henry’s series on LeBron James and the double-edged sword of obsessive work habits.
Part 1 has a dude throwing a football 80 yards in his socks (and is public).
Part 4 is about chewing your fingernails, partying and hitting game-winners.
And here is a public post about the inner workings of the Lakers.