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Clash of the Point Gods: Golden State and Phoenix square up
Warriors heading into monumental matchup against Suns with some not-so-secret weapons
This is it. A titanic clash of the league’s two hottest teams through the first quarter of the regular season. The Golden State Warriors hold the NBA’s best record and have looked as good as they ever have. The Phoenix Suns haven’t lost a single game in over a month and they probably know any path to the Finals will go through Golden State this year.
On the injury front, the Warriors are still in the same boat as last game. In addition to the long-term absences, Andre Iguodala is still out with a sore knee, and Damion Lee is on excused personal absence as he enters the journey into parenthood.
Notably, Draymond Green seems to be trending towards playing, despite being a bit banged up after taking a hard fall in the previous game.
WHO: Golden State Warriors (18-2) at Phoenix Suns (17-3)
WHEN: Tuesday November 30, 2021 // 7:00pm (ish) PDT
WATCH: TNT, NBCSBA
In defense of Curry's defense
I generally don’t talk about a player’s individual defense as much - mostly because I’ve found it really difficult to track and discuss in a meaningfully accurate way. In a team sport like basketball, you can usually see what’s working and not working, but pinning those success and failures on any specific player can be tricky.
Of course, that doesn’t stop people from trying. I just deleted a long rant on all-in-one metrics, and will instead just post the thing that got me agitated:
Friend of the HQ, Joe Viray helpfully pointed out that many of the more widely accepted metrics paint Curry in a favorable light, and the entire downstream thread is full of people bashing spreadsheet nerds. So as a spreadsheet nerd that also thinks Curry is playing phenomenal defense so far this season, I feel a duty to spend a bit of time refuting the above tweet - and it’s a great prompt to dip our collective toes into an aspect of Curry’s game that is overshadowed by his incredible offense.
Now, whoever wrote that tweet isn’t taking questions, but some of the phrasing in there is weird. For example, the closing line:
…way less active with steals & deflections in passing lanes.
I don’t know exactly what data they’re looking at, but Curry is top 15 in the league in steals, and top 22 in deflections so far this season. Cleaning the Glass also shows him as strong in this area, with a steal rate that is in the top fifth of all players at his position. And then looking at Basketball Reference, we can see that Curry’s steal rate and block rate are both up above his career averages. In other words: he’s doing great.
One of the coolest things about the new iteration of Super Defense Steph Curry is the motivation behind it. For a team and player that are increasingly getting compared to Michael Jordan’s Bulls, I think it’s really important to note what Curry singled out as the driver for his defensive improvements: he saw that it was important in the playoffs:
"I knew, especially with a bigger guy in front of you, you can’t hold your space," Curry said. "Your only chance is to try to get a deflection or steal. It’s not a high percentage play at that point. So you fail. And then you get into sort of playoff situation, certain guys who are looking for that foul, you learn to be more disciplined on that front."
So he did. He learned to be more disciplined. His current foul rate of just 2.0 fouls per 36 minutes is tied for the lowest of his career (which he set last year). And he got stronger over the years. Curry didn’t just develop old man strength, he’s got the wisdom to match.
And the eyeball test confirms all of these things:
From a team perspective, having Curry as a plus defender is a wonderful luxury. Though common parlance seems to reserve the “two-way player” moniker for defensively-oriented players, Curry has transformed himself on that end enough to warrant some inclusion in any discussions of the Warriors strong defense.
From Cleaning the Glass, I’ve pulled the net defensive impact numbers. This is the next impact on opponent score (per 100 possessions) whenever that specific player is on the court. Again, team metric, but Curry has the second-best defensive rating, behind only Andre Iguodala.
Would a bad defender look like this?
So please. Don’t let people get away with saying Stephen Curry isn’t a good defender.
A war between point Gods
The Phoenix Suns came blasting into the NBA discussion last year. After signing Chris Paul to play alongside their promising young core of Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix went from an interesting young team to the Finals. And though internal improvements from Booker and Ayton played hugely important roles, it wouldn’t have been possible without Chris Paul.
Say what you will about his style of play…. actually, you know what? Let’s go ahead and Clockwork Orange some eyeballs, just in case some of our readers aren’t aware of the legacy here:
Like everyone else, Paul has been getting outplayed by Curry for years, but in this case, it feels like both sides take it a little more serious. A little personal, perhaps.
But this is a team sport, and Paul on a bad team wouldn’t be a concern. No, the reasons that the Suns are dangerous right now are as myriad as those CP3 transgressions in the video above.
The Suns aren’t really Paul’s team at all (though he does lead the team with 10 assists per game). Devin Booker heads the squad with a usage rate of 99% and leads the team in scoring with around 24 points per game. Interestingly, Paul is logging a career low on ball usage of just 29%, behind both Booker and quick point guard, Cameron Payne.
The basic blueprint here is fairly well established. Booker leads the scoring, with Paul and Payne helping with ball handling. Adding in a couple of legitimate rim runners in DeAndre Ayton and our old friend JaVale McGee, and you’ve got a full spectrum attack that’s good enough to land the Suns the 7th best offensive efficiency ranking.
But the Warriors have been well trained in this art. Stopping a heavy usage, ball dominant guard with a bevy of lethal threats running around the edges isn’t an entirely unfamiliar assignment for the Warriors.
Ayton may present a bit of a vertical challenge, but the Warriors have been strong in that regard all season, controlling about 52% of all rebounds - which is the third best in the NBA.
So while I expect to see lots of Curry winning the matchup against Paul, this game will also be very much about the other pieces. I’m still hoping to see Curry cook Paul a few times, just because it feels so right. That said, you know that the Suns are looking squarely at the Warriors, because they know most people don’t really believe in the power of the Suns just yet.
This will be a tight one. But if the Warriors don’t have a cold shooting night, and can stay reasonably tough on the boards, Golden State should be okay. Better than okay even.