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NBA Finals Game 3: Can the Raptors continue to box-and-one Stephen Curry? That depends on Klay Thompson

By Brad Botkin, CBS Sports

Somehow, the injury-ravaged Warriors, who are down Kevin Durant, Kevon Looney and possibly Klay Thompson, are five-point favorites over the Raptors in Game 3 of the Finals Wednesday night. There are only two reasons for this: Stephen Curry, who is apparently enough to warrant the biggest line of this series almost entirely on his own, and then to a lesser extent the fact that Wednesday’s game is in Oakland, where Oracle Arena is going to be registering on the Richter scale.

We’ll get into whether Curry can do enough damage with the kinds of defenses he’s going to see without his supporting scorer(s) alongside him, but either way, this is a massive swing game with the series tied 1-1. According to our SportsLine projections, which are based on the data of 10,000 simulations, the Warriors, having stolen home-court advantage with their Game 2 victory, currently have a 69% chance of winning the series. If they win Game 3, that number jumps to 82%. If they lose Game 3, it falls to 47%. That’s almost a 40% series-outcome swing on this one game.

Suffice it to say, this is a biggie.

Now let’s look at Curry, and how the defense Toronto deployed on him at the end of Game 2 played out, why it worked, and whether it’s something that the Raptors can, or will, go back to in Game 3.

A lot of casual NBA fans had never heard of a box-and-one defense before the Raptors pulled it out in Game 2 in the ultimate admission that Stephen Curry defies traditional basketball logic. A box-and-one is, in essence, exactly what it sounds like: A box of zone defenders stationed, roughly, at the four corners of the paint, and one defender playing man-to-man on the isolated scoring threat, that being Curry in this case.

Fred VanVleet drew the assignment of tracking Curry, and he was in his jersey. From a defensive principles standpoint, whoever is guarding Curry should ALWAYS be in his jersey and not looking to help off him, but that doesn’t always play as as it should. Guys get distracted off ball, running through screens, switching, helping a beaten teammate, any number of ways. When the coach says “we’re running a box-and-one, and, Fred, you’ve got Curry” it’s an explicit instruction to stay attached to the target with absolutely no regard for anyone or anything else. No confusion. No distractions.

From there, everywhere Curry moves he’s essentially getting double teamed — by VanVleet, and then the box defender whose quadrant he enters. All those screens the Warriors run Curry through in the paint? He’s now literally inside a box of four defenders with another one attached to his hip. A crowd is always around him.

The rub of this kind of defense is that you have one less help defender (he who is attached to the target), and the box defenders can’t usually match up with any one shooter because they’re covering a whole territory, not a particular man. That leaves open shots for pretty much anyone else who wants them. That’s why you only tend to see this “youth league” defense at lower levels, when there is only one player on the court who can hurt you. Under normal circumstances, you’d get torched running this defense in the NBA.

But these aren’t normal circumstances for the depleted Warriors. Once Klay Thompson went out of Game 2 late in the fourth quarter, Golden State didn’t have a single other threat Toronto was even remotely concerned with in relation to Curry. That’s when they went to the box-and-one, and it worked. The Warriors didn’t make a shot for five straight minutes because without Thompson or Durant out there, it was Quinn Cook and Andre Iguodala and DeMarcus Cousins having to launch up late-clock threes or penetrate into the teeth of the box after Curry couldn’t break free.

So now the question is: Will Toronto run more of this defense — which Curry called “janky” — in Game 3? Without Durant, I’d bet you’ll see it at least a little bit, particularly whenever Thompson is on the bench and Curry is out there alone. If Thompson isn’t able to play at all with his hamstring strain, Curry is going to see every kind of double-teaming, swarming, trapping defense the Raptors can draw up, probably including more box-and-one.

There are a ton of reasons the Warriors have to hope Thompson can go in Game 3. Without him and Durant as perimeter defenders, the Warriors can’t switch as much, and Curry will have to carry the weight that Thompson normally absorbs. But from an offensive standpoint, the Warriors just need threats at this point, anyone who can give the Raptors pause when it comes to throwing the sink at Curry. Even if Thompson is 60 or 70%, he still can’t be left as a shooter. He spaces the floor and occupies defenders at the very least. Maybe that keeps a little bit of the pack off Curry.

If Thompson can’t go, then those guys you just saw missing shots in that video are going to have to, well, make shots. They’re all capable. Cook, Iguodala, Cousins, even Draymond Green, Alfonzo McKinnie and Jonas Jerebko, all these guys are capable of making shots. But can they make them consistently enough to win an NBA Finals game? The Raptors will be happy to bet no.

They have statistical support for that belief, by the way, and it’s not just because of the box-and-one. Through the first two games of this series, the Warriors have a 114 offensive rating when both Curry and Thompson are on the court. When Thompson goes off and it’s just Curry, that rating drops to 96. The box-and-one was applied for only five minutes. The bottom line is Curry without Klay AND Durant has been an uphill climb, to say the least.

Will the Warriors rush Thompson back, with this in mind? If they were down 2-0, I would say yes, for sure. But do they feel like they bought themselves a game to play with by winning Game 2? That is dangerous territory thinking you can “play” with games in the NBA Finals, and certainly the Warriors would never use that terminology. But they may feel like they have some slack here, with the thinking being even if they lose Game 3 they can come back and tie the series with Durant and Thompson a healthier go for Game 4.

My gut? Thompson gives it a go in Game 3, if only to be a floor spacer who can occupy a defender and perhaps deter a little bit of the pressure that will be on Curry without him. Either way, you can bet Curry is going to be hounded like crazy. Whether that’s a box-and-one or just your standard double- and triple-teams, he’s got a lot on his plate Wednesday night.

Golden State is counting on the fact that Curry will be able to deconstruct any defense thrown at him with some notice to prepare, and Steve Kerr believes in his role players to make shots as much as any coach in the league. They better, because the Raptors are for sure going to throw some more “janky” stuff at Curry. If the Warriors aren’t better than they were in the last five minutes of Game 2 when the Curry clamps inevitably go down, they’re in trouble. Perhaps not just in this game, but the whole series.