Steph Curry goes cold, gets locked up by Raptors' aggressive game plan

Steph Curry goes cold, gets locked up by Raptors' aggressive game plan

OAKLAND – Knocked down by the Raptors last month in Toronto and again Wednesday night in Oakland, the Warriors would like nothing more than to come back for a third chance soon as possible.

That can’t happen before May 30, when Game 1 of the NBA Finals is scheduled.

“I know if that were to happen,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after his team was blown out of Oracle Arena, 113-93, “we would be ready to play.”

Meanwhile, they have to recover and study and analyze the events of Wednesday night. There were several troubling signals, including low defensive intensity and mental errors at both ends, though none was more evident and enlightening than the defense the Raptors threw at Stephen Curry.

After watching Curry dribble, shoot and splash his way through defenses this season, it was striking to see him running into roadblocks and thickets of arms and hands, led by a rugged and redoubtable defender named Fred VanVleet.

Curry entered the game averaging 30.1 points per game, shooting 51.3 percent overall, and 50 percent from beyond the arc. He totaled 10 points, a season-low in games for which he was healthy throughout, on 3-of-12 shooting, 2-of-8 from deep.

“We just tried to make them uncomfortable, make them make plays they’re not used to making,” Van Vleet said. "Every team has their main guys, multiple playmakers, and we try to take it out of the playmakers’ hands and make others make all the plays. That was our game plan going in. We did a great job executing it."

VanVleet, who usually comes off the bench in the role of sixth man, started at point guard due to lineup change necessitated when Kawhi Leonard was ruled out before tipoff. Curry normally gets to cook Kyle Lowry, an All-Star offensive force but a mediocre defender vastly inferior to VanVleet in both pluck and technique.

With VanVleet in junkyard-dog mentality, Curry seemed to spend the evening searching for enough room to move, much less fire an uncontested shot.

“I didn’t really have rhythm,” Curry conceded, “for whatever reason.”

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Though VanVleet was the primary defender, he had help. Even when Curry was coming off screens, there wasn’t much room. He had a couple open looks, but any good defender knows any shooter harassed all night tends to miss even when we he gets some space.

“There are only two ways to guard Stephen,” said Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin, who conducted the postgame news conference because head coach Nick Nurse left immediately for a family matter. “The No. 1 way is to pray that he misses. No. 2 is to get a body on him and do not give him any open looks.”

Curry’s previous success against the Raptors – he was averaging 29.8 points against them for his career, his highest average against any opponent – has been largely a matter of taking advantage of Lowry, with VanVleet getting some spot duty.

The Raptors, however, may have found something with VanVleet in the starting lineup. One game does not a Steph Stopper make, but he clearly is an upgrade over the usual Raptors defenders.

This variation of man-to-man defense is especially effective given the frequent and assertive help from Toronto’s assembly line of lengthy wings.

Asked whether Curry’s poor performance was a result of Raptors defense or simply an off night, Kerr pointed to both.

“It’s always a combination,” Kerr said. “I’m sure we’ll look at the tape and we’ll see some shots that Steph would normally hit and we’ll also see excellent defense. Fred VanVleet picked him up full court and did a good job of getting into him.

“But it’s always a combination.”

[RELATED: Warriors' blowout loss to Raptors deserves long look in the mirror]

The combination worked exceptionally well for the Raptors. They gave Curry something to think about. They gave the Warriors something to think about.

They may have given a few other NBA teams something to consider.

A lot went wrong for the Warriors in this game, particularly their defensive lethargy. But if they see the Raptors again in May, VanVleet will have a nice audition video for the role of defending Curry.

Which doesn’t mean the Raptors would get the same results.

Warriors' defense on Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum has Blazers on brink

Warriors' defense on Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum has Blazers on brink

PORTLAND, Ore. -- As the Trail Blazers searched for a fourth-quarter spark Saturday night, CJ McCollum stepped to the free-throw line in an important spot.

The Blazers had just forced a turnover with 6:21 remaining in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, giving the career 83.9 percent free-throw shooter a chance to halt the Warriors’ second-half run and energize the Moda Center crowd.

After he was fouled on a 3-point attempt, McCollum made his first foul shot, but he missed the next two.

“I was locked in as could be, focused as I could be,” McCollum said after the Blazers’ 110-99 loss to the Warriors. “ … There’s no excuses. It’s on me.”

McCollum chased that second miss, and helped force a Warriors turnover. He found himself open in the right corner for a 3-pointer, but he missed that one, too. That shot could’ve cut Golden State’s lead to one. He missed all but one of five free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter, and four of six shots from the field.

McCollum didn’t say he was fatigued postgame, but those misses arguably represented the culmination of the Warriors’ relentless defensive pressure on him and fellow Blazers star Damian Lillard.  

In all three games of the best-of-seven series, the Warriors have won by throwing wave after wave of defenders at Lillard and McCollum. They have blitzed both players on pick-and-rolls, and employed plenty of off-ball help when one of the two manages to get in isolation.

The result? Lillard and McCollum have shot a combined 35.2 percent from the field, and turned the ball over 22 times, and the Blazers now face elimination from the NBA playoffs.

“You know, you go up against a wall of defense, sometimes it’s three defenders,” Lillard said. “It’s tough because you’re not always going to get a quality look, and then when you do get a quality look and don’t make it, that just kind of makes it worse.”

Both Lillard (27.6 field-goal percentage) and McCollum (35.5 percent) have shot worse in the second half than the first over the course of the series. Lillard, who reportedly is playing through separated ribs, admitted that this series is “definitely tiring” even though he has felt “fine enough” to play 40 minutes a night.

After a grueling seven-game NBA playoff second-round series with the Denver Nuggets, Lillard and McCollum each have averaged more than 38 minutes per game against the Warriors. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are playing heavy minutes on the other side, but Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Golden State has made it a point to throw “fresh bodies in there” against the Blazers duo defensively.

Twelve Warriors saw the floor Saturday night, and Golden State won the war of attrition.

“We just want to try to wear guys down over the course of 48 minutes,” Green said. “It’s not necessarily that he’s going to start the game gassed, but if you can just wear him down over the course of 48 minutes, that makes those shots as the game goes on a little bit tougher.”

[RELATED: Draymond believes locked-in Steph taking Dubs to 'different level']

The Warriors have contained Lillard and McCollum so far, and they are one win away from their fifth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. Still, Golden State knows it can't afford to relent against the duo. Kerr noted the Warriors fouled the two on a few 3-point attempts, and Green said Lillard is liable to get hot at any time.

In other words, that pressure isn’t going away. The Blazers will have to solve it if they’re going to make this a series, let alone make history and come back to advance to the Finals.

“That’s what elite defenses do,” McCollum said. “They make it difficult on you and try to get the other guys to beat you.”

How new, focused Draymond Green has put his stamp on Warriors-Blazers

How new, focused Draymond Green has put his stamp on Warriors-Blazers

PORTLAND, Ore. -- There are some fabulous restaurants in this town, and the Warriors ought to find two of the best for Draymond Green.

Put a crown on his head and treat him to a bountiful Sunday brunch. Then a trip to the spa. Offer a limo ride to the Oregon wine region to sample some of the state’s finest Pinot Noirs.

And then, if he wants, buy him the finest dinner available.

That might begin to sufficiently thank Green for his work Saturday night, leading the Warriors to a 110-99 victory over the Trail Blazers in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, and putting his signature on this game and doing the same on this series.

“I don’t even know what to say about Draymond,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr marveled afterward. “He was like a wrecking ball out there. He was destroying everything in his path. The pace that he was generating was incredible. And it just seemed like he never got tired.”

Green’s numbers bark out a triple-double: 20 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists. His other numbers whisper impact: Four steals, one block.

Yet the numbers barely begin to convey the way he dictated the action at both ends. He lifted the spirit and energy of his teammates while crushing any chance of the Blazers finding a path to victory.

All with barely a whimper of protest, much less the demonstrative conduct Green so often directs toward officials.

“I still like to pick and choose my spots,” Green said of his interaction with officials. “Sometimes I may take a tech, but that’s more mindful than just getting a tech. Sometimes I know like, all right, I need an energy boost, so maybe I’ll take one.

"But sometimes I’m not mindful and I’ll get a tech, and that will just kill the energy of our team. I’ve really been focused and locked in on that, and I realized I got to a point where I was doing more crying than playing. I’m sure it was disgusting to watch because I felt disgusting playing that way.

“I just wanted to lock back in on the game.”

The result is a new Draymond, and he’s even better than the Draymond of, well, last month.

“I just know he’s playing unbelievably well right now,” Kerr said. “He’s playing with force. He’s playing with discipline. He’s playing under control. He’s not letting anything bother him -- officials, bad shots, turnovers ... he’s just moving on to the next play.”

If it appears Green is playing at a different speed, faster than his teammates or the opposition, it’s because he usually is. He’s grabbing rebounds and taking off on a fast break, sometimes solo and sometimes with wing men. He’s defending the paint one second, and then closing out a perimeter shooter the next.

“It’s like he’s got eight eyeballs,” Stephen Curry said. “He sees everything and kind of knows what to say at the right time.”

Green is counseling Jordan Bell after the second-year forward botched a breakaway dunk attempt, consulting with Kerr on play calls and reads, listening to video coordinator James Laughlin’s suggestion about leading the reserves, feeding perfect dimes to his big men, dominating Portland’s big men and doing it without pausing to exhale.

With Kevin Durant out, along with DeMarcus Cousins, Green has taken it upon himself to seek an even higher level for his typical role of rock-ribbed leadership and boundless energy.

“My objective now is to win as many games right now as we possibly can to get those guys back,” Green said. “When we have Steph, Klay, KD and DeMarcus, I don’t need to play like that.

“As crazy as it sounds, somebody has to give up something when you have that many guys who are capable doing what they are doing. I take it upon myself to be the guy to give that up. I think I’m playing great right now, but I’m not the scorer that any of those four guys are.”

Green is bringing everything except his 3-point shot to this series -- and to this postseason. He’s shooting 52 percent from the field, with 9.7 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game. In this series, he’s shooting 54.3 percent, with 11.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists.

[RELATED: Mullin compares Draymond to Magic]

Those are but numbers, though, and using numbers to illustrate the way Green imposes himself on games is like using popularity to measure talent. He does things that transcend statistics.

On a night when Curry and Thompson combined to shoot 41.3 percent and Andre Iguodala played less than 18 minutes, one of the stars had to bear the burden. Green did. He deserves any reward he gets.