SACRAMENTO — Steph Curry is much easier to track down after a press conference than he is coming off a screen. The Kings’ De’Aaron Fox, and the many others who have taken on this unwelcome defensive task before, can attest to that much.
The Golden State star typically takes his time heading down the hallway of whatever arena he’s in after games, presumably because he’s dog-tired from another evening of running figure-eights around the court — and defenders — as if he’s a balloon that’s hemorrhaging air. So when I caught up with Curry after Sacramento’s 126-123 win over the Warriors in their first round opener on Saturday night, with the expressed purpose of discussing Fox’s defense and the question of whether this run-him-ragged tactic would ultimately lead to the defending champs wearing these Kings down, Curry was quick to point out that there’s still a long ways to go here.
“I mean, I play the way I play and I’ve been playing that way for a long time,” Curry told The Athletic. “That’s part of the challenge of on-ball/off-ball (offense), and that type of stuff. When you get to the playoffs, all it’s about is ‘Who can sustain it for the longest to win four games?’ So that’s usually my advantage, but every series you’ve got to double down on what that looks like, no matter who’s guarding you.”
Fox won this first go-round against one of the game’s greats in spectacular fashion, scoring 29 of his 38 points in the second half while guarding Curry for much of the night along the way (and dishing out five assists). After his five postseason-less seasons in Sacramento, and with these Kings fans so ecstatic and electric to be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2006, Fox’s playoff debut was as impressive as they come.
True to his Mr. Clutch form, he had 15 of the Kings’ 35 points in the fourth quarter while continuing to make good on his October declaration that the stars were aligned for this sort of Kings renaissance. Curry, who was playing in his 135th playoff game, finished with 30 points (20 after halftime, with just two assists).
Their point guard battle was just a small part of this series’ overall picture, but it is arguably the most important matchup in this unprecedented clash between the NBA’s two Northern California teams. To put it simply, you can’t beat the Warriors if you don’t beat Curry. And the Kings, with Fox at the helm, did just that.
The question now, with Game 2 at the Golden 1 Center on Monday, is whether Fox is capable of carrying this sort of immense two-way load. Or, perhaps, might Curry’s one-of-a-kind attack ultimately break Fox’s spirit and, by proxy, the Kings’ hopes of lighting the beam beyond the first round.
Curry’s roadrunner technique has always been a sight to behold, but this early-third-quarter moment was even more remarkable because of the context. Here was Curry, the 35-year-old four-time champion who takes such pride in his ability to wear down his foes with his legs and his lungs, outrunning a fellow star player who was born a decade after him and who, by most accounts, is considered the fastest man in the NBA. This is what it means to get the Curry assignment.
Man, this isn’t right. Fox does a great job chasing Curry all over the court for like 15 seconds but needed to do it for 20. It is exhausting defending Steph pic.twitter.com/y1JQY0Y2Ta
— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) April 16, 2023
As Fox discussed afterward, Kings coach Mike Brown convinced him back in training camp that he needed to take his defense to a whole new level this season. The irony, of course, is that Brown spent his past six seasons pushing Curry to be his defensive best during his time alongside Steve Kerr on the Warriors staff. To Fox’s credit, he took Brown’s challenge personally back then and is making good on it more than ever now.
But he also just learned that playoff Curry is a different sort of basketball beast, the kind that requires inhumane amounts of defensive attention and energy for every nanosecond that he’s on the floor. Just ask Matthew Dellavedova.
Of all the defenders who have given it their best go against Curry on the playoff stage, the former Cavs guard who is a veteran voice on these Kings has the most famous tale of them all. His effort against Curry in the 2015 Finals was widely celebrated, even with the Warriors winning it all in six games. Yet the part that was always overlooked, and that former Cavs guard J.R. Smith highlighted in a recent podcast visit with J.J. Redick, is that Curry’s maniacal motor was such a challenge for Dellavedova that it put him in the hospital. As was reported at the time, he spent nearly a full day at the Cleveland Clinic between Games 3 and 4 dealing with severe cramps and dehydration. They used a stretcher to get him to the facility and administered IVs overnight — the whole works.
“I love Delly to death, but Delly almost died guarding Steph Curry,” Smith said of Dellavedova, who is out indefinitely at present with a broken finger. “No, (he) literally almost died. We have footage of this man in the ice tub (during the 2015 Finals), like literally to his neck trying to guard this man. It’s crazy.”
Fox, who mentioned Smith’s interview in his postgame press conference, surely understands it now.
“Did y’all see that clip of JR Smith, talking about Delly; Did y’all see that clip?” he began. “That s—‘s real. It’s real (laughs). I mean, obviously, you know, I didn’t guard Steph the entire game, but most of the first quarter, most of the fourth quarter, I guarded him. And yeah, um, that clip is real. Obviously my team wants me to do things offensively, but (Brown’s) not worried about what I can do offensively. He wants to see me be better defensively, and that’s something that I want to take the challenge of doing.
“I think we’ve all seen it in spurts, but I want to be able to do it throughout the course of the game. And playing 40 minutes, scoring 38 points is cool, but just trying to be as disruptive as possible while guarding if not the best player in the world, the best player ever, you know, jump-shot wise, to shoot a basketball, not just off the catch but off the dribble (is more important).”
Fox’s participation in the Curry admiration society continued from there.
“The guy is probably one of the craftiest players to ever touch a ball,” he continued. “Just to be able to just try to be disruptive for me, I think, is the biggest step. …I don’t care to prove (it) to anybody else, but I want to prove to myself that I can go out there and just try to hound some of the best guards in the league.”
Fox didn’t do this job alone. Kings guard Kevin Huerter helped, as did Davion Mitchell, Malik Monk and Harrison Barnes. When all else failed, Brown spent much of the second half using the box-and-one defense against his old team that, by his own admission, his current team had not practiced (by design). It was barely enough, with Curry missing that three-point attempt at the buzzer that could have tied it.
As Curry headed back to the team hotel for the night, he chuckled when told that Fox had highlighted Smith’s retelling of the old Dellavedova tale. Game recognize game, in other words, with more great games likely to come.
“I appreciate the compliment (from Fox), but it’s more so just about the way that I play,” Curry told The Athletic. “(Fox) was trying to pick up pretty high on most possessions, and I know that’s part of the strategy, to try to get me off the 3-point line and make me work. And he was coming back down the other end and hitting some big shots, so that’s the in-game kind of challenge that I love. And I’m sure he’s trying to accept the challenge.”
To say the least.
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(Top Photo: Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)