The Rockets are coming after Steph Curry. Through the first three games of their series against they Warriors, they have been committed to one idea that they seem to think will give them the best chance to win: use a pick to switch Curry onto the ballhandler on every offensive possession, and then wait for James Harden or Chris Paul to create a shot by taking Curry one-on-one.
This led to some irony in Game 3, when the Rockets found early offensive success following the Warriors’ attempts to counter the “dribble at Steph” plan. The Rockets began the game by getting a handful of impossibly easy buckets because the Warriors were desperate to keep Curry off the ball. Instead of letting the switch happen, the Warriors had Curry and the other defender trap the ball-handler before having Curry run back to the roll man. The strategy led to some awkward defensive possessions, and some easy money for Houston:
This isn’t good:
Neither is this:
After that last bucket, the Warriors called a timeout, and the broadcast caught Curry having a conversation with head coach Steve Kerr and assistant coach Mike Brown. During that conversation they seemed to happen upon a solution to the problem facing them: just let the Rockets do what they want.
Following the early timeout, the Warriors switched up their defensive scheme and spent the rest of the game mostly granting Houston’s wishes. If Harden wanted to be isolated against Curry every possession, he could have that. Curry, no longer forced to chase roll men, was allowed to settle into a defensive stance and play Harden straight up. The rest of the game featured a lot more possessions like this one, in which the Warriors simply let the Harden-Curry mismatch play out and stood tall against it:
The Rockets shot just 37 percent from the field following that timeout, and Harden scored nine points on the 16 possessions he was guarded by Curry.
The odd thing about the Rockets’ plan to force Curry to stand in front of James Harden over and over again is that I’m not sure it accomplishes what they think it accomplishes. The idea is not only to exploit Curry’s defensive limitations, but to tire him out so that he doesn’t have as much energy to score points on offense.
But standing there and watching Harden dribble for 15 seconds and then occasionally having to shuffle your feet doesn’t seem like it is all that tiring. Or at least it seems less tiring than chasing shooters along the baseline, or fighting through screens, or hedging and recovering on every pick and roll. Curry isn’t that bad of a defender, either. He’s certainly capable of riding Harden’s hip to the rim and funneling him towards a help defender, which is about all you can ask from anyone given the task of checking Harden.
And even if the plan works, even if Curry does get gassed and Harden gets to the rim at will, the Warriors still have Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson to lean on offensively. That’s the sort of luxury that only they enjoy, and it’s why their path to beating the Rockets is such a simple one. Just let the Rockets do their thing, and respond by doing your thing even better.
It doesn’t feel like it makes sense that the Rockets, the team getting precisely the match-ups they wants and whose schemes are unfolding without a hitch, are the ones with a 2-1 series deficit and a lot left to figure out. That’s the power of the Warriors, though. You can stake out whatever strategic high ground you’d like, and they’ll just go on soaring over your head.