- In Steph Curry’s historic 2015-16 season, playoff teams found success crowding the injured All-Star on a switch with bigger defenders.
- The Rockets’ Clint Capela is one of the best switching big men in the NBA. How he fares against a gimpy Curry will help determine the Western Conference Finals.
Warriors. Rockets. The NBA Finals … er, Western Conference Finals begin on Monday in Houston. We’ll be breaking down various angles of the conference finals over the next few days, covering the ins and outs of the analytics, the X’s and O’s, and, of course, the action.
Let’s start here, with what I think is the biggest deciding factor in these conference finals: Curry vs. the switch.
Let me take you back. All the way back to 2015-16. The election had not yet happened, Kanye was releasing shoes and the Golden State Warriors were an unstoppable juggernaut that wound up winning an NBA record 73 games.
Steph Curry was something beyond reality that season. He hit 402 three-pointers, which may not last forever as the single-season record, but you might not be alive to see it fall. There was simply no way to solve the Warriors, all season long.
However, one thing that became a trend that season was the success teams had switching bigs onto Curry.
Tristan Thompson did as well as anyone that season against Curry, especially in the Finals:
Steven Adams’ ability to hang with Curry on a switch was a huge part of how the Thunder built their ill-fated 3-1 lead on Golden State:
The Cavaliers (who stuck Thompson on him) and Spurs found that while stopping Curry was impossible, the way to stop all great players is, you can effectively limit them by switching the big and crowding them out as far as they go. Curry may still hit the contested 3; he’s Curry. He may still drive by you and make you pay at the rim, but there’s a good chance you’ll have help behind you, and at least it’s not a 3.
Thing is, you have to have a certain type of big. Too short, and Curry will shoot right over him. Too slow, and Curry will get to his spots with ease.
Part of the reason Thompson and Adams had so much success was because Curry lacked his usual explosiveness due to the knee sprain he suffered in the first round vs. Houston that season. That injury opened the door for everything: the Thunder building a 3-1 lead, the Cavaliers’ comeback from down 3-1, the failed title, the call from Draymond Green to Kevin Durant after Game 7 of the Finals, everything.
For reference, Curry’s last made shot in isolation vs. a switch, via Synergy Sports, came in the second quarter of Game 5 vs. the Cavaliers. He wouldn’t hit another for the remainder of the series, including this infamous ill-fated sequence vs. Kevin Love:
In the 2016 playoffs, Curry averaged .944 points per possession on shots in isolation after the switch, compared to his absolutely preposterous 1.177 mark for the season overall. The following season, however, he scored 68 points on 56 such possessions, and this past season he was just as efficient. However, he was down to just 41 points on 36 possessions. He doesn’t have a single such possession the postseason yet.
So the questions become: How often will Curry face the switch? And will the Rockets’ Clint Capela be able to deter him at all?
CAPELA VS. CURRY
With Durant on board, Curry doesn’t have to create much on his own. None of the Warriors do. The system puts them in the best position to get and make high-quality looks. And now, instead of just forcing the switch and isolating, Curry can force that switch and make those bigs chase him around. When Curry does isolate, however, Capela has the ability to hang with him.
What’s difficult is determining when Capela plays good defense, and when Capela plays impactful defense. That is, does Capela force a miss here… or does Curry just miss?
However, Houston did force more of those situations than any other team vs. Curry this season. Of the 18 misses Curry had in isolations off switches, eight of them came vs. Houston this season, compared to just two of his 16 makes. That’s mostly on account of how switchable Houston’s defense is. The Rockets don’t have to drop Capela in pick-and-roll coverage. They can just switch everything.
These are the possessions the Rockets want. Curry, on a bad knee, trying to go against the 6-10 center with help inside.
Curry, on the other hand, is more likely to try to attack Nene in whatever minutes he provides. If Capela gets in foul trouble, you’re going to see a lot of this, which is a good look for Curry, despite it not going in:
Capela, for his part, was the only player to guard more than 100 off switches this season. The second-closest was 68 possessions, done by Julius Randle of the Lakers and Ryan Anderson, Capela’s teammate. Capela allowed just 95 points on 105 possessions defended.
If Curry wins this matchup, there’s nothing else the Rockets can do. If, on the other hand, the Rockets see the same kind of success as OKC and Cleveland did in 2016, there’s a real chance that means things are turning Houston’s way.