The hardest part about evaluating Stephen Curry's game is that it's nearly impossible to differentiate between him simply missing shots and the defense's impact on the outcome. However, whatever the case may be, the Cavaliers found success with something in the NBA Finals because Curry had his worst stretch of the season when the Warriors needed him most. After averaging a league-leading 30.1 points per game during the regular season, Curry scored less than 20 points in four games against the Cavaliers and was held under 45 percent shooting in all but two of the seven games.
There are a number of reasons why Curry struggled against Cleveland, but much of it can be traced back to the same defensive principles — switch nearly every matchup — the Warriors have dominated the league with over the last two seasons. It's a simple system in theory, but implementing it seamlessly hinges on having five players that are both capable and willing to switch onto opponents who make even the league's best 1-on-1 wing defenders crumble in fear.
That's why Tristan Thompson's versatility has become an integral part of the Cavs' success.
It's not just that Thompson held his own when matched up with Curry in the NBA Finals. It's that, other than LeBron James, Thompson was the most effective individual defender against the two-time MVP by keeping him under 35 percent shooting when he either switched onto him or defended him at the rim.
The Cavaliers had a clear plan for their bigs when they switched onto Curry. Rather than backing up or being stuck in no man's land, they extended themselves beyond the 3-point line to encourage him to put the ball on the floor. It worked, too, because Curry is more comfortable shooting 3-pointers off the dribble than midrange jumpers. He averaged 8.8 pull-up attempts per game during the regular season, 6.4 of which came from the 3-point line. That was relatively stable during the playoffs with him averaging 9.4 total pull-ups per game and 6.4 from the perimeter.
In other words: The only open shots Curry was getting against the Cavaliers in pick-and-rolls were deep 3-pointers or the type of looks he tends to shy away from — only 6.5 percent of Curry's shot attempts came from the midrange in the Finals as opposed to 12.5 percent in the regular season. Instead of taking those available midrange shots, Curry doubled down on 3-pointers with a high degree of difficulty and contested attempts near the basket.
Knowing Curry's propensity to pull-up for 3-pointers, Thompson played up on his shooting arm and forced him into help. The Cavaliers almost invited him to drive the lane if it meant he was turning down 3s. Notice, for example, how Thompson shrinks the court by cutting off the middle of the floor. When Curry does pull-up off the dribble, Thompson is in position to quickly get a hand in his face by keeping his arm close to Curry's elbow. It's a shot Curry has proven he can make, sure, but it's about as well as you can defend a Curry 3-pointer.
Here's a closer look at one of Thompson's many effective closeouts on Curry. Even at an angle, Thompson's standing reach meets Curry's hand at the highest point of his jump shot. That forced Curry to speed up his release even when he was able to catch Thompson off guard if he had any chance of shooting over him.
Remember: Thompson is 6-9 with a 7-1 wingspan. That's a significant height advantage against Curry. It's easy to see the difference between Thompson and Love in those situations, too, since Love's wingspan is two inches shorter. While Love did a commendable job on Curry in the Finals — Curry shot 5-for-9 when Love switched onto him over seven games — he's not nearly as nimble, which often put him in a precarious situation.
It doesn't help that Curry's confidence against Love versus Thompson was palpable. Just watch him put the moves on Love to set himself up for a 3-pointer in Game 5. Curry looks more like the person we saw in the regular season as opposed to the Finals.
Now compare that to this possession with Thompson chasing Curry both on and off ball for 20 seconds in Game 7:
Completely different story, right?
Based on Thompson's individual success, the solution should've been simple for the Warriors: When Love was in the game, put him, not Thompson, in more pick-and-rolls to force a switch that works in their favor. However, Love did well to either trap aggressively or chase Curry off the 3-point line in those situations, and Curry was more likely to drive into a crowded paint than pull-up from around the free throw line. That's where he was met by Thompson, who forced Curry into off-balanced floaters that didn't fall as often as they did in the regular season.
These possessions, for example, played right into Cleveland's game plan:
That's a simplistic way of looking at Love's defense on Curry — it more often than not did create open shots elsewhere; the Warriors just failed to make the Cavaliers pay — but it showcases Thompson's versatility as a switching big man who can also protect the rim against smaller lineups. That combination is a rarity in today's NBA, even though it's where the league is quickly heading.
Need more proof that Thompson changed the series with his defense? According to NBA.com, Curry scored 47 points in the 46 minutes (1.02 points per minute) Thompson was off the court in the Finals on 50 percent shooting. When Thompson was on the court, those numbers dipped significantly to 111 points in 199 minutes (0.56 points per minute) on 37.8 percent shooting.
Throw in the fact that the NBA Finals was decided by a cumulative score of four points with Thompson grabbing a whopping 27 offensive rebounds in the series, and there's no denying the big man's role in ending Cleveland's championship drought. There's a reason why Thompson prides himself on being a star in his role.