Truth be told, of all the star players in the 2017 NBA Finals, the one who probably struggles the most in this Cavs-Warriors matchup is Stephen Curry.
The Golden Boy for the Warriors was the toast of the town for two years, and made a historic and quite frankly reality-redefining run in winning the first unanimous MVP last season. He shattered records for not only actual 3-point shooting, but for the thought of what was even conceivably possible for 3-point shooting. His team won the most games in a single season with 73. Everything was great.
And then he slipped on Donatas Motiejunas' back sweat in the first round vs the Rockets, sprained his MCL, and everything changed.
Curry wasn't the same in last year's Finals. That's pretty clear from any analysis of him. But it wasn't just the injury that derailed last year's magical run and sent it careening into a ditch like a wayward behind-the-back pass. The Cavaliers present problems for Curry. From Tristan Thompson's length and mobility, to J.R. Smith's agility, to the overwhelming presence of LeBron James, the Cavaliers have weapons to throw at Curry, specifically. Now, of course, this year, the Warriors have Kevin Durant, and that may very well be the difference.
But a healthy Curry will still face challenges vs. the Cavs, and the Cavs will still face a tough battle in containing one of the most explosive scorers the NBA has ever seen. Here's a brief overview of what the Cavs will throw at Curry, which is basically "the kitchen sink."
BUMP HIM AND MAKE HIM A PASSER
The Warriors don't -- or at least haven't yet -- run a lot of pick and roll with Curry. They use him off-ball, and keep the ball moving constantly where it eventually finds a quality look from a great scorer. It's what makes them great. But when Curry's in the pick and roll, it's obviously incredible dangerous. He can pull up with range from anywhere.
When they do run pick and roll with Curry (and they almost certainly will at times, perhaps even a lot if he gets it going), the Cavs can't afford to drop the screener's man and send the guard over the top, Curry will launch. So they switch a lot. It's at that point that the big has to bump Curry to contain if he tries to get to the corner. The objective is always "make Curry pass." Not only does it keep a field goal attempt out of his hands, but Curry is a sloppy, mistake-prone passer. When he does something flashy, it looks supernatural, but a lot of the time, it's a turnover.
When crowded by a big, he can make mistakes, which is why he goes to his 3-pointer so often. Well, that and he makes it most of the time. But here's another one where Tristan Thompson can't connect on the bump, but he rushes Curry who makes a bad pass with defenders in traffic. Curry doesn't make safe passes very often.
And again, crowding him works. But watch here and see that Andre Iguodala is his outlet man. Curry will have Kevin Durant in this spot more often, and he's got be willing to make the quick pass out when he reads pressure from multiple defenders instead of trying to be a hero.
OVERPLAY THE TRIGGER HAND
The Cavs always shade to Curry's right shoulder when he isolates, looking to contest right on-ball for that quick 3-pointer. And there are times when it works. Watch how Thompson turns perpendicular to Curry to contest without fouling with his body.
And again, here's Love doing the same, overplaying to that shot.
But then, if Curry manages to shake Thompson, and he gets free, it can be bottoms.
Love stays with him here. Sometimes Steph is just gonna Steph.
And getting Thompson in space helps a lot.
This is also where Curry's health matters. Curry was constantly trying to knock down one of those big momentum 3-pointers in last year's Finals, especially as the series started to spiral out of control for Golden State, desperate to do what had been so easy in the regular season.
But this clip is from this season. Irving overplays that shoulder, and Curry makes him pay for it by getting to the rim.
Curry is a phenomenal finisher, and if he takes what the defense gives him instead of forcing the step-back 3-pointer all the time, he can patiently tear the defense apart.
The Cavs have to be locked in, at all times. In the regular season this year, they were not, and the results were disastrous. Channing Frye, in particular, really struggles in these situations, which is party why he only played 33 minutes in the Finals last year.
Here Frye gets lost on an off-ball switch and the result is that LeBron is scrambled, giving up a foul on Curry, the worst of all worlds.
Likewise, here Frye goes under the screen on the greatest shooter of all time. "Bold move, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off."
The biggest threat that the Warriors bring is how they use Curry off-ball. They use him as a screener on action away from the ball, and that winds up causing miscommunication, like this one that gives Curry a wide open corner look.
The other nasty trick is to first screen for the player who will then screen for Curry. Here Tristan Thompson gets entangled in a Pachulia-Durant screen and has to recover, giving Curry space off the pick.
THE OFF BALL BALANCE
There is a line of thought that says the Warriors cost themselves by not simply putting the ball in Curry's hands more. They overcomplicate things. But the Cavaliers are much better at guarding those on-ball actions. Curry can still make them, but it's tougher vs. the Cavs than any other team, because of the presence of LeBron James and Tristan Thompson.
At the same time, having him move off-ball leaves him vulnerable to the holding and grabbing that goes on in a Finals series. And lest you think this is totally unfair to the Warriors, go back and watch how many times the off-ball screener is grabbing, holding, or moving constantly on Curry's man trying to chase him. It's a two-way street.
LeBron James also creates problems here. If James is the one closing, his length and athleticism can freeze Curry.
James blocked Curry several times in the Finals at the rim, and his presence bothers everyone, Curry included.
In the end, Curry can still make stuff like this happen:
To a degree, it's always going to be make-or-miss with Curry. The Cavs are also facing a set of challenges that simply may be out of their control. They have to stay attached and plugged in at all times on him, when they haven't been that way all year, even in the playoffs. They have to limit his 3s while deterring him at the rim. And they have to do all this without leaving Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson completely open.
Then again, when in doubt, the Cavs can always draw confidence from the fact that in the biggest moment, their biggest defensive weakness got the biggest stop in franchise history.
Curry has a chance at revenge, and is playing better than ever. If the Cavs slip, at all, Curry will have a chance to redeem himself for last year, and reclaim his spot as the toast of the NBA world.