Celtics face a superstar dilemma they haven’t seen before in Steph Curry

"They're doing a pretty solid job for most of the game trying to take away the three."

Steph Curry Celtics
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry presents the Celtics with a unique defensive challenge. AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn

Before facing Warriors star Steph Curry in the Finals, the Celtics went through a bruising gauntlet of superstars in the Eastern Conference that included Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and — surprisingly the most difficult of the trio — Jimmy Butler.

Against all three of their Eastern Conference opponents, the Celtics found ways to contain the opposing superstar. Grant Williams bodied and bothered Durant, while the rest of the Celtics muscled the Nets out of the playoffs in four abrupt games. Antetokounmpo gave the Celtics everything they could handle, but the combination of Al Horford and Williams had some answers for the Bucks superstar, and — once again — the defense elsewhere kept the rest of the team in check. The entire team white-knuckled its way through a seven-game series against Butler.


But Steph Curry is a completely different challenge.

Antetokounmpo played like a bulldozer. Curry plays with explosive quickness and unparalleled precision. Butler played with force of will. Curry plays with force of gravity. The Celtics’ defense was the best in the NBA during the regular season and has remained elite throughout the playoffs, but even the Celtics are having trouble figuring out how to contain Curry.

Here’s a screenshot from Curry’s first field-goal attempt of the night — a layup, which Smart contested heavily. On this play, Horford jumped out high enough to coax Curry out of a 3-point attempt — notice that Horford has one foot above the 3-point line as Curry starts his drive.

However, the Celtics clearly placed an emphasis on having their guards and wings fight over screens, dropping their bigs back to prevent drives. That gave the Warriors plenty of clean looks out of the pick-and-roll, like this — one of the six 3-pointers Curry buried on Wednesday.

As you can see, Derrick White did everything in his power to make Curry miss, but Horford provided little resistance and Curry took advantage.

“I’m going to have to look at it on film a little bit more,” Horford said on Wednesday postgame. “In the game I felt like I wasn’t up enough as I needed to be, and Steph got some really clear looks there and really hurt us with that.”


It’s hard to disagree.

Again, in each instance, White or Smart pursued Curry around screens aggressively. But this is Steph Curry — arguably a top-10 player of all time, and inarguably the greatest shooter of all the time. Each of these looks is just too clean.

“They have a certain lineup with their length and size that you’re not going to really see many blitzes just because I don’t think it’s physically possible to run around as much as I do and how many screens we can throw at them,” Curry said on Thursday. “So they’re doing a pretty solid job for most of the game trying to take away the three, keeping bodies on bodies and stuff like that.

“In the fourth quarter, we started the fourth quarter first couple possessions with turnovers and we kind of got sped up a little bit. Then they were pretty smart in terms of who they were trying to come off of and clog driving lanes and send extra bodies and attention that honestly those patterns really don’t make sense, but they were just super aggressive across the board.”

One can’t help but wonder if Curry — who is shooting 48.6 percent from 3-point range in this series — believes the Celtics have done a “pretty solid job” on him because he enjoys all the extra space coming off screens against Horford.


The dilemma with Curry, though, is multi-faceted. Horford can certainly jump out higher, but that invites a switch, which is little better than a drop-and-recover scheme for the Celtics. Horford — for all the myriad great things he does on a basketball court — can’t contain Curry in isolation. Robert Williams can’t either. Curry is a uniquely flawless offensive talent that punishes bigs who have the audacity to try to defend him.

Curry hinted that the Warriors have an answer for the Celtics’ aggressive defense.

“Obviously, if we take care of the ball and settle in, it can set a totally different tone for the fourth quarter,” Curry said. “Then, obviously, offense and defense are connected. You have to get stops in order to maintain momentum down the stretch.

“In Game 1 and Game 3, we didn’t do that. It showed in terms of only getting, whatever, 16 points or something like that in the fourth quarter. We obviously know we’ve got to be better.”

The Celtics need to be better too. They are up 2-1 and have earned that distinction, but Curry can single-handedly win basketball games, and the fact that the Celtics have yet to demonstrate that they can slow him down is concerning before a pivotal Game 4.


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