How LeBron James and the Lakers turned Stephen Curry against the Warriors in their fourth-quarter comeback

Stephen Curry is perhaps the greatest offensive player in NBA history. He’s a four-time champion, a two-time MVP and an all-time stylistic revolutionary. He just torched the Sacramento Kings for seven games in one of the best playoff series of his career, and for the better part of four games against the Los Angeles Lakers, he’s been just as good. But despite his many, many gifts, Curry has one glaring weakness. Stephen Curry is small.

He’s not Muggsy Bogues small, of course, and he’s bulked up considerably over the past several years. He is by no stretch of the imagination a defensive liability in a vacuum. Most of the time he’s actually quite good on that end of the floor, especially in a defense like Golden State’s, which is designed to cover for his vulnerabilities. But at that size, he has clear limits. Curry carries the entire shot-creating burden of Golden State’s offense. He runs roughly a mile-and-a-half per game on offense alone according to tracking data. If you stick a 6-foot-2 guard expending that much energy on one of the floor between the rim and a 6-foot-8 weapon of mass destruction on the other end of it in the fourth quarter, he’s going to look like pretty weak most of the time.

Back at his peak, this was a principle that LeBron James lived by. The best version of James was an apex predator, relentlessly seeking out the most favorable matchups late in games and turning them into roadkill. At this stage of his 20th season, he simply cannot be that player on a night-by-night basis anymore. But when the Lakers need him to most, James can still summon a version of his younger self for brief stretches. And boy, did the fourth quarter of Game 4 qualify.

The Lakers trailed by seven points with 12 minutes remaining. A victory was absolutely imperative. Not only would it give the Lakers a 3-1 series lead, but it would ensure that they would not need to win another game in San Francisco, where the Warriors went 33-8 in the regular season, in order to win the series. By his standards, James was having a relatively quiet series. He averaged just 22 points per game in the first three and was at 21 through three quarters in Game 4. 

And then he became the aggressor by spamming the same trick over and over and over again to create good shots for the Lakers: he used simple ball-screens to force Curry to defend him.

We’ll begin with the first play of the fourth quarter. D’Angelo Russell brings the ball up the court and quickly hands it to James. Lonnie Walker IV then cuts up from the paint to screen for James. This is the key to the entire plan. Curry is guarding Walker. By setting that screen, he forces Wiggins off of James, which, in turn, makes Curry pick him up. This is a basic “switch” on defense, a tactic designed for two like-sized players. Curry and Wiggins don’t qualify, and the thought of James driving on Curry so terrifies Wiggins that he is slow to trail Walker off of the screen in case he needs to offer help on the bigger threat. That was his mistake, as Walker drains an open 3-pointer.

Two possessions later, James needs to take a bit of a detour before he gets to Curry, stopping briefly on Klay Thompson before a second screen gets him his preferred matchup. This time, James attacks. Draymond Green is so afraid of the layup that he helps off of Anthony Davis. Green quickly recovers, but by the time he does, Davis is already into his spin move and has ideal post position. He flicks the ball through the rim out of Green’s reach to tie the game.

Later in the fourth quarter, the Lakers introduced a different wrinkle. Instead of bringing Curry to James as a ball-handler, they instead used James as a screener to create chaos off of the ball. On this play, both Curry and Wiggins initially play the James roll, which gives Walker the room to ease into a floater.

The ball doesn’t even need to go through the net for the strategy to be effective. James once again hits Walker for an open 3-pointer after this switch, but Walker couldn’t connect. It didn’t matter. Why? Because suddenly the 185-pound Curry was all alone under the basket trying to boxout the 250-pound James. James predictably pulled in the rebound and got fouled.

When the Lakers needed points the most, this was the tactic they turned to. With roughly 90 seconds remaining and Curry defending Austin Reaves, James called him up to the perimeter to screen for the switch. He drives on Curry, who has no chance defending him legally. So he fouls, and James makes his free throws to give the Lakers a 102-99 lead.

All told, James forced Curry to switch onto him eight times in the fourth quarter. The Lakers scored 11 of their 27 fourth-quarter points with this approach for an average of 1.375 points per 100 possessions. By comparison, the Sacramento Kings posted the most efficient regular-season offense in NBA history this season at 1.186 points per possession. That alone would qualify the play as a success, but the benefits of switch-hunting Curry are often most acutely felt on the other end of the floor.

Remember that enormous offensive burden we mentioned Curry has to carry? Well, it turns out, doing so while also having to play on-ball defense on almost every possession down the stretch is even harder. Curry played 42 minutes in Game 4. Eventually, even legends get tired. He was hardly bad offensively in the fourth quarter, but he shot just 4-of-11 from the floor and 1-of-4 from deep. There’s no telling what sort of difference an easier defensive assignment might’ve made, but it’s worth noting that James is not the only player who has used this strategy to tire out Curry.

In the 2018 playoffs, Curry was the primary defender of James Harden for just 17 minutes and 12 seconds across their seven-game series, according to tracking data. However, in that time, Harden managed to attempt 45 field goals, get to the line for 14 free throws and dish out 10 assists. Whenever Harden could get the Curry matchup, he attacked it. He only shot 42.2% against Curry… but Curry shot a pedestrian 47% from the field and 36% from 3-point range. Golden State needed Houston to miss 27 consecutive 3-pointers in Game 7 to finally squeak by the Rockets. Their overall plan worked.

James has faced Curry in the playoffs five times now. He’s long-since mastered the art of switch-hunting his nemesis. When he was younger and healthier, he frequently used the mismatch to collect easy dunks and layups. Those looks don’t come quite so easily as a 38-year-old playing with an injured foot, but a mismatch is still a mismatch. When James attacks Curry quickly, he still has a major advantage. When he does so slowly, Golden State’s defense bends toward him in ways he can take advantage of as a playmaker. And when he does so frequently enough, he renders arguably the greatest offensive player of all time mortal just long enough for his own team to pick up hard-fought victories.

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