2019 NBA Finals: Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors

Film Study: How Fred VanVleet, Raptors guarded Stephen Curry

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

TORONTO — Apparently, the Power of Procreation extends to the defensive end of the floor.

Fred VanVleet, the Toronto Raptors backup point guard who has shot 15-for-21 from 3-point range over the four games since his second child — Fred Jr. — was born, had some remarkable results in Game 1 of The Finals against Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.

The two-time Kia MVP scored just four points and shot 1-for-6 from the field when VanVleet was his defender, a matchup that went on for 33 possessions during Toronto’s 118-109 victory. On 47 possessions against other Toronto defenders, Curry scored 30 points.

The VanVleet-guarding-Curry numbers were similar to those from the one regular-season game that Curry played against the Raptors. In that Dec. 12, 20-point victory for Toronto, Curry scored just 10 points, and he had just four points on 39 possessions with VanVleet guarding him.

So is VanVleet the Curry stopper? Not really. He definitely deserves some of the credit for Curry’s lack of scoring on those specific possessions. He’s able to navigate screens better than most and he doesn’t lose track of Curry when he’s moving without the ball.

But defending Curry, as was the case with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the conference finals, is a five-man job for Toronto. And while Curry scored much more prolifically when other Raptors were defending him, a second look at the film from Game 1 makes it clear that VanVleet couldn’t have slowed him down without a lot of help from those same teammates.

A couple of mistakes

Just a few seconds after checking into the game for the first time, VanVleet actually lost Curry for a split second … and got away with it. After running a pick-and-roll out of the corner and drawing help from Marc Gasol, Curry gave up the ball and VanVleet got caught with his head turned the wrong way…

VanVleet loses Curry

Draymond Green found Curry relocating in the corner before VanVleet could recover, but Curry’s corner three rimmed out. It’s a shot he normally knocks down.

Late in the first half, VanVleet tried to pick Curry’s pocket in the backcourt…

VanVleet tries to get a steal

Curry avoided the steal and took off. Gasol tried to pick him up out at the 3-point line, but Curry drove past him and drew a foul. Because Gasol was guarding Curry for more time than VanVleet was, that possession got credited to the Raptors’ center, rather than the guy who made the mistake in the backcourt, in the matchup data.

It was Dentyne

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr quoted the movie “Hoosiers” before Game 1, talking about the height of the rims, etc. There was another scene in that movie in which coach Norman Dale, in instructing one of his players how to defend the other team’s leading scorer, says, “Think of him as chewing gum. By the end of the game, I want you to know what flavor he is.”

VanVleet seemed to have received similar instructions from Raptors coach Nick Nurse. And aside from the two mistakes noted above, VanVleet was able to stay in front of Curry when he wasn’t screened. And when Curry was off the ball, VanVleet didn’t lose his focus.

VanVleet chases Curry

He didn’t fall for Curry slipping a ball screen and, when he wasn’t screened himself, denied Curry the ball…

Curry tries to slip the screen

When Curry tried to get a quick-hitting pull-up via a screen from Kevon Looney midway through the third quarter, VanVleet faught over the screen to contest the shot from behind and Serge Ibaka stepped up to keep him from getting off a clean look…

VanVleet and Ibaka contest Curry's shot

Taking advantage

Of course, the Warriors, at times, used VanVleet’s reluctance to leave Curry to their advantage. Defending the champs is plugging one hole and creating a leak somewhere else.

Shooters make the best screeners, and late in the third quarter, Curry got Shaun Livingston a layup by setting a back-screen on Pascal Siakam, with VanVleet unwilling to leave his man…

Curry back-screen

Here’s the play in live action:

A couple of minutes later, VanVleet chased Curry around a double pin-down screen, Danny Green hedged out to help, and Green’s man (Alfonzo McKinnie) got a wide-open three in the opposite corner.

When Curry checked back in during the fourth quarter, he was triple-teamed when curling off another pin-down screen and had to give it up to Kevon Looney on a roll to the basket. The undersized Kyle Lowry fouled Looney, who made 1 of 2 free throws.

Help!

There were some occasions when the Warriors were able to take advantage of the Raptors’ help on Curry. But there were other occasions when that help was critical to the Raptors getting a stop.

Gasol forced two turnovers in the second quarter – with a deflection and by forcing a jump ball when he picked up Curry after VanVleet ran into a screen.

Lowry, meanwhile, was usually ready with help from wherever he was on the floor.

Midway through the second quarter, Draymond Green knocked VanVleet off the play in the backcourt. And when Kawhi Leonard stepped up to stop the ball, Curry got around him. But at the last second, Lowry helped off Andre Iguodala and contested Curry’s drive (getting away with a foul, perhaps)…

Later in the second quarter, Siakam picked up Curry after another Green screen in the backcourt. When Curry fed Green going downhill, Lowry helped off Iguodala again and drew a charge.

There’s a general principle in this league that you don’t help off the strong-side corner. But Lowry does it quite often.

It’s one reason why he’s drawn 15 charges in these playoffs (more than twice as many as any other player). It’s also a reason why the Raptors will sometimes get burned on wide-open, strong-side corner threes (like this one from George Hill when Lowry tried to draw a charge on Khris Middleton).

The Raptors want to protect the basket, first and foremost. And Nurse trusts his point guard to make the right decision in that regard.

“He’s a very instinctual player,” Nurse said of Lowry on Friday. “A lot of plays in the game out there, there are so many things going on that are more instinctual probably than they are some unbelievable design. So, yeah, we always say ‘know your personnel and if there’s a problem, try to go fix it.’ He’s really good at that. A really good problem solver on the help defenses.”

In regard to Lowry’s help off the corner, the “know your personnel” part could apply to the player with the ball, like when he drew a charge on Jayson Tatum (an inexperienced playmaker) in a big spot back in October.

It could also apply to the player that Lowry’s leaving alone in the corner. Iguodala is a 41 percent 3-point shooter from the corners, though not the most willing player to consistently let it fly off a kick-out.

It takes more than one

With VanVleet in the game and guarding Curry, Lowry is allowed to be more of an instinctual helper. And in 21 minutes with both Lowry and VanVleet on the floor in Game 1, the Warriors scored just 40 points on 46 offensive possessions.

With the two-point-guard lineup working for the Raptors, VanVleet never checked out after entering the game in either half. He played more than 33 minutes for the third straight game (after never playing that much in any of the Raptors first 16 playoff games), and in the 25.4 minutes that both he and Curry were on the floor, he was the Raptor guarding the two-time MVP, unless there was a cross-match in transition.

That will likely be the case again in Game 2 on Sunday (8 ET, ABC). And while VanVleet is the Raptors’ best option for defending Curry, he can’t do it alone.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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