Basketball

NBA Finals film breakdown: Why are the Celtics playing drop coverage on Steph Curry?


SAN FRANCISCO — Why is Boston in drop coverage?

It’s the question shouted from the rooftops after each game, just with more despair when the Warriors win.

The simple answer is that Celtics coach Ime Udoka’s approach throughout the playoffs has been to drop the screener’s man back on the opposing star’s pick-and-rolls, thereby limiting the need to execute backside defensive rotations as much as possible.

But there’s one problem Jaylen Brown astutely pointed out at practice Sunday.

“Steph Curry is really good, in case you guys haven’t noticed.”

Udoka has always sought to use his team’s defense to wear down the opponent throughout a game and series, enabling the Celtics to execute late and grind out the win. It worked against Milwaukee, kind of worked against Miami, and is coming up short in the aggregate in the finals against the team that has been outrunning opponents for years. The Celtics finally had to play a full 48 minutes in Game 4, and Curry saved his best for last.

But Udoka may still stick with drop for two reasons: It has (mostly) limited the rest of the Warriors, and because Boston’s defenders are getting better at executing the scheme. Marcus Smart and Derrick White, the two perimeter defenders spending most of the night guarding Curry, have figured out a few tricks to enhance Udoka’s strategy. Both have been great at spinning under the Warriors’ high ball screens at the right moments. They’ve also gotten away with grabbing Curry’s hip as he comes off the pick, keeping him off balance. Watch Smart’s arm in this play as Curry attacks Al Horford in a relatively high drop.

Jaylen Brown is also starting to use the spin-under move whenever he switches onto Curry, particularly when the screen is so high that even Curry can’t step straight into his shot before Horford comes up to deter it. Horford has recognized that if he drops diagonally, it gives Brown enough time to recover back to Curry. This, in effect, is a show and recover pick-and-roll coverage disguised as a drop.

Curry hit this shot, but Brown nearly got a finger on it.

Is that good coverage? Considering Udoka keeps harping on the number of 3s Curry is getting up, it’s probably not good enough. But watch Andrew Wiggins after the screen on that play. He’s not rolling, even though Boston has put two defenders on the ball. One of Horford or Smart would’ve had plenty of time to close out to Wiggins if Curry kicked the ball back to him for 3.

Should the Celtics have blitzed Curry on this play to force the ball out of his hands? Considering non-shooting threat Gary Payton II is in the opposite corner, perhaps this was the ideal moment for Boston to trust its ability to rotate during the ensuing four-on-three situation. Maybe there’s no pickup point that’s high enough in a drop coverage if Curry is going to shoot from 3 no matter what.

Horford and Robert Williams said they picked their starting point on their drops based on the level of the screen rather than any specific spot on the court. There were times it seemed they were looking to get to a spot on the elbow or the top of the arc to thwart a potential roll to the basket. But the Warriors’ screeners are so focused on clipping off Curry’s primary defender that they aren’t releasing on their rolls quickly, if at all. It’s hard to see how any deep drop in which the screener’s man isn’t “up to touch” on the screen is worthwhile.

“The whole thing is really just supporting the guy, the primary defender who’s guarding him,” Horford said. “Just be there to support them to make sure to give them enough time to be able to get them back squared. Easier said than done, but we’re just there to really load on them, and there’s not really a specific point.”

Udoka defended the Celtics’ scheme choice Sunday, saying Curry shot about 3-for-8 against what he deemed to be “drop coverage.” How is that possible? It’s tricky to classify the screener’s drop distance because a lot of the plays that could be considered “deep drops” (a few arms’ lengths from the screener) still have them up beyond the 3-point line. We all know the pickup points on Curry are the highest in NBA history. For example:

Because of that, there’s ample risk Curry uses all that room to drive past Horford or Williams. When the screener’s man can come out near half court and still be under the level of the screen, are they really “dropping” in a way that contains much space? It seems Udoka has decided that a loosely contested Curry 32-footer, relatively speaking, is the lesser of two evils.

After going through the tape, I counted maybe two Curry 3s he hit over poorly executed drop coverage in half-court situations. There were several others in which the Celtics pretty much executed their coverage as planned, but it didn’t matter.

“I think when you look at the overall numbers of him making 3s out of our touch, I think it’s very low,” Udoka said. “It’s a combination. It does get him in a rhythm, the fact that he’s getting some of those shots off, but then he’s moving in transition and relocating in some of those looks.”

Against a pull-up master like Curry, it’s especially important to disrupt his gather motion into his shot. Horford has always been good about extending one hand toward the ballhandler while remaining dropped back, whereas Williams is prone to keeping his arms down by his sides.

There were some shots in which Williams’ body was close enough to Curry’s, but his hands were out instead of forward, allowing Curry to hit the shot in his face as his own man closed in from behind. Curry barely feels his defender chasing him from behind, but the Celtics can at least affect his vision and rhythm — if only a microscopic bit — if the screener’s man can consistently extend their hand out in front while in some form of drop coverage. Horford did it well in the second clip in this video.

Of course, Curry hit the shot anyway. This was one of those “executed coverage as planned and it didn’t matter” plays.

Shots like this show why the Celtics’ guards are the key to allowing the drop scheme to work, not the big men. Maybe it’s on Smart and White to get over or spin directly under screens fast enough to get back to Curry before he shoots. The second play in the above clip was the closest a defender other than those two got to affecting Curry while chasing over the screen. Curry still hit the shot, and probably should’ve been given an and-1, too.

Horford did have some moments when he dropped too deep and Udoka had to implore him to come further up the floor. But there were some execution issues with the Celtics’ drop that went beyond these usual concerns, even when Williams’ compromised mobility in crunchtime allowed Curry to target him with relative ease. Sometimes, Williams reflexively hung back upon seeing his man standing on the 3-point line, because he’s used to sagging off a non-shooter to clog the lane. That doesn’t work against the Warriors. Curry and Klay Thompson are always flying toward any potential teammate who could screen them for a shot. Whenever the Warriors’ bigs are positioned near the ball, it’s often a warning sign indicating a tight dribble handoff for the Splash Bros is coming.

“It’s tough when you’re guarding his pick-and-roll. But just reading him, not necessarily the spots you want to be in,” Williams said. “You’re just trying to read him. You can’t give him too much space. You know you can’t press up on him too much.”

Each of Boston’s bigs is capable of guarding Curry on an island after switching in an emergency — at least if Williams’ knee is feeling good. But if the Celtics start switching Curry’s pick-and-rolls more frequently, he will dissect those matchups and find the right attacking move that opens their hips enough to shake them for stepback 3s. Maybe the Celtics’ defense can get enough stops on those plays to even out the inevitable transition sequences Curry is bound to punish. Plus, switching at least slows down the rest of the Warriors’ offensive flow.

No matter what scheme the Celtics choose to deploy on Curry, they can aid their efforts by tasking a third player with roaming off their man in advance to stand in the midrange area of the floor. That means the screener’s man can pressure Curry higher — whether they’re in a “drop” or outright switching — and feed him into the help. Jayson Tatum did that on one play in Game 4, allowing Boston to get a crucial stop. Boston can find ways to mix up the player who helps and how the rest of the team rotates on the back end. Horford and Grant Williams are capable of shading Curry into this third helper, though Curry is more than capable of dancing his way around all three defenders if the Celtics bigs angle him too much toward the middle.

All this is hard to do, which is why many Warriors opponents eventually give in to blitzing Curry or deploying hard show-and-recovers on the ball. The Celtics haven’t done either much because Udoka doesn’t want to burn his players out. There are benefits to making the Warriors put the ball in Draymond Green’s hands more, even if they yield four-on-three situations to do so. It’s possible to stay at home on his passing outlets and force him to take floaters he hasn’t been able to hit.

But Udoka continues to be reticent to send two defenders to Curry over the screen and open up chances for the Warriors’ screeners to make plays with a numbers advantage.

“We can mix it up there, being more physical, make some unders on him when he’s that high. We have been good as far as that,” Udoka said. “But the fact that he’s such a willing and good playmaker I think makes it tougher to go after him, as opposed to other guys who don’t want to get off the ball. He finds the guys in the pocket. Obviously, that’s when Draymond is at his best, making plays for others.”

If the Celtics switch Curry’s pick-and-rolls, they’ll fall victim to plays like one late in the third quarter, when Curry hit the gas to blow by Horford as soon as he switched out. At least the Celtics forced him inside the 3-point line, right? Nope. Curry kicked the ball out to Payton in the corner, then kept sprinting right behind him to get the ball back for a relocation 3. Curry’s drive-and-kicks often become give-and-goes to himself. (Tatum got a lot of 3s off similar plays earlier in the playoffs.)

“The instant you think that he’s not doing anything, the play is over for him, and that’s when you get beaten. That’s when you get burnt,” Smart said. “That’s when this mentality comes in and you’ve got to stay ready, you can’t give up, you’ve got to keep going.”

Ultimately, Udoka feels the Celtics’ defense on Curry is far from an existential crisis. To him, it’s not even the biggest reason the series is tied heading into Game 5. It’s Boston’s offensive stagnation, especially in crunchtime of Game 4, that has prevented them from winning the long game when their war of attrition against Curry does (barely) enough to put them in position to win.

“He’s having a successful series offensively,” Udoka said. “But if we are playing offense the right way, we’d be 3-1, at least, right now.”

(Photo of Stephen Curry, Jayson Tatum and Kevon Looney: Paul Rutherford / USA Today)





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