Inside the Nuggets’ blueprint to shut down Steph Curry: “You have to alter your defense”

Austin Rivers earned the Defensive Player of the Game chain following Tuesday night’s effort on Steph Curry, but he only earned the accolade because there weren’t four more of them.

Without Denver’s swarming defensive effort vs. Curry, the Nuggets never would’ve escaped San Francisco with a white-knuckle 89-86 win over the Warriors.

Defending Curry takes five players on a string, connected and communicating, operating in unison.

Beginning with Rivers but facing waves of defenders after him, Curry was limited to just 23 points on 6-of-16 shooting, including 5 of 14 from the 3-point line. He had more turnovers (six) than assists (four).

On the game’s defining sequence, an out-of-bounds play with the Warriors down three points and 2.4 seconds remaining, Curry never even touched the ball. The coverage was by design, and Andre Iguodala’s desperation 3-point heave didn’t even draw rim.

The win, against the best team in the NBA, coupled with the coverage on Curry, amounted to one of the best nights of the season for the Nuggets, though they nearly blew a 24-point halftime lead. That’s because starters Aaron Gordon (hamstring) and Monte Morris (knee) were both out, leaving Facu Campazzo and Rivers to harass the NBA’s all-time leading 3-point shooter.

Astute fans will note it was the same starting backcourt that dismantled the Blazers in the first round of last year’s playoffs.

The plan, in its simplest form, was to make Curry feel them.

“It’s never one person with a great player, and obviously, Steph is one of the greatest to ever do it,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Yes, you give Austin, Facu, Davon (Reed), different guys credit, Will (Barton), but it’s five guys really defending as one. We went over some things at shootaround today, some things that we normally don’t do, but as I told our players, when you’re guarding against a great team and a great player, you have to alter your defense. You can’t play him with the regular defense that we use most nights.”

The harassment began less than a minute into the game when Campazzo ripped the ball straight from Curry’s clutches. He had two more turnovers soon after. Collectively, the turnovers were the product of active hands, aggressive pick-and-roll coverage and the decision to take up residence in Curry’s orbit.

The same directive was applied to his shooting, his most lethal and unique skill. Again, there was Rivers hustling around screens to offer a rear challenge, an impressive contest from Zeke Nnaji after a switch and a concerted effort to rush him from all angles. Most importantly, he never looked comfortable. He never looked like Steph, the swaggering 3-point sniper known for busting defenses and breaking coverages.

Tired of the unrelenting resistance, Curry peeled off the 3-point line and finally found space in the lane for a layup with 2:10 left in the first half, his first basket of the game. By halftime, Curry was 0-of-5 from the 3-point line with a minus-17 plus/minus.

“We were really locked in,” said center Nikola Jokic, who praised his team’s connective tissue. Denver’s big men played up at the level of the screens, while their guards challenged Curry and made it physical for him.

It was the collective effort Malone had envisioned when laying out the blueprint at shootaround and the same one they’ll need Thursday night at home against these same Warriors. Barton, whose 21 points helped buttress Jokic’s 22-point, 18-rebound effort, was the most insightful on what that scheme entailed.

“I won’t try to dig too deep because we play these guys in a couple more days, but I’ll tell you the main thing was not to give him any open looks,” Barton said. “We all know how dangerous a shooter Steph is, so we can’t give him any easy ones when we know he’s going to make a couple hard ones, difficult ones anyway.”

All it took was one 3-pointer late in the third quarter, coincidentally the 3,000th of Curry’s career, for him to begin to percolate. As the fourth quarter carried on, and the Nuggets’ once-gigantic lead dwindled to one possession, Denver was just trying to hold on. Curry caught fire with four 3-pointers in the fourth, but his dagger never came. A Jokic block and a tenacious defensive effort on the game’s final in-bounds play helped preserve the win.

“Now the challenge is what?” Malone asked his team in the jubilant postgame locker room. “To go home and do it again.”

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