An elite shooter and a deft passer with a sky-high basketball IQ, Stephen Curry is as hard to stop as anyone in the NBA.
Newly minted Coach of the Year George Karl struggled to do it during the Denver Nuggets’ first-round dismissal at the hands of Curry’s Golden State Warriors, as did hoops mastermind Gregg Popovich in the Spurs’ double-overtime win in Game 1 win on Monday.
But one time, one man did it. He stopped Curry cold. And maybe, just maybe, he holds the key to containing Golden State’s inexorable sharpshooter going forward.
On Nov. 25, 2008, Loyola (Md.) coach Jimmy Patsos had an idea. With his beat-up Greyhounds team on the road for the second night in a row and facing 24th-ranked Davidson, Patsos didn’t want to let Curry be the one to do him in. So he decided to just not let him touch the ball.
At that morning’s shootaround, Patsos, a longtime assistant under Gary Williams at Maryland, implemented a strategy to double- and triple-team Curry all night, whether he had the ball or not, effectively giving Davidson a game-long 4-on-3 power play.
As a result, Curry finished with zero points on 0-for-3 shooting, the only scoreless game of his college career. (Though Mike Krzyzewski and Duke did come close, holding Curry to five points during his freshman season.)
Even with Curry held scoreless, Loyola was blown out, 78-48.
Afterward, Patsos was panned for putting more of an emphasis on stopping Curry than he did on winning. But Patsos, now the head coach at Siena, defends the move to this day.
“I don’t live in regret, but I wasn’t doing that to be (a jerk),” Patsos told FOXSports.com Wednesday. “I was doing that because it was the only chance we had. … We were going to lose by 20 anyway, and we just didn’t do a good job (executing the plan).”
With more time to prepare, Patsos says, he would have had his players only double Curry when he had the ball, then scramble to cover other open players when Curry passed out of the traps. He was also counting on Curry to get flustered by all the attention and take bad shots, a part of the tactic that failed miserably.
“I told everybody he deserved a lot of credit for A) being patient and B) being smart,” Patsos said. “He didn’t take any bad shots. I needed him to take bad shots. And when he passed it, I needed people to miss shots because we were running around.
“When he didn’t score, he was making great decisions, and I don’t mean like throwing the ball to the guy right next to him because he was pissed. He was driving it a little and then kicking it across court to where we couldn’t really recover all the way.”
Patsos also said the plan was hatched not to make a mockery of the game, but out of respect for Curry, who had scored 44 against 14th-ranked Oklahoma earlier in the season and had dropped 39 on Florida Atlantic and head coach Mike Jarvis the night before the game against Loyola.
“(After scouting him), my 24-hour assessment was, ‘This guy’s going to be a really good pro; he’s a really good player,’ ” Patsos said. “I thought ‘lottery pick’ when I watched him. I wasn’t doing something that crazy against some guy who’s just good in the MAAC.”
That scouting report turned out to be more accurate than Patsos could have ever anticipated — and certainly more on-point than his game plan — and over the last four seasons, Curry has developed into a legitimate NBA star.
But these playoffs have been Curry’s true coming-out party.
In six games against Denver, Curry overcame the Nuggets’ physicality to average 24.3 points and 9.3 assists per game, and was responsible for his share of electric moments.
In Monday’s loss to the Spurs, Curry scored 44 points and had 11 assists. In the third quarter alone, Curry scored 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting, including 4 of 6 from 3.
Curry, who has gone scoreless four times in the NBA (having played less than 11 minutes in each of those games), has looked like the best player on the court in most of the games he’s played this postseason — enough so that Patsos doesn’t consider it a stretch to compare him to some of the all-time greats.
"I was at the Atlanta Hawks-Boston Celtics game when Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird went at it. I’ve seen guys dominate. I watched Ray Lewis dominate for the Baltimore Ravens for years. I’ve watched Gretzky. Sometimes when a guy’s going like that — what are you going to do?”
"I just think at the pro level — I mean, when he’s on fire like that, I don’t know. What do you do? I’ve seen Larry Bird get like that before. The only way Bird wasn’t scoring was to not let him catch it."
You could always try Patsos’ plan, I suppose. But if it didn’t help Loyola against Davidson, I’m not sure it’ll do much for Popovich and the Spurs, either.
Just look at what happened Wednesday night. The Spurs focused more of their defense on Curry and held him to 22 points on 7-of-20 shooting. Meanwhile, Curry’s backcourt partner, Klay Thompson, scored 34 points and made 8-of-9 3-pointers.
Even Patsos doesn’t know what the Spurs should do against Curry.
“I don’t know if you can totally shut a guy down like that (in the NBA) anyway,” Patsos said. “The game’s longer, they run better sets and they have better guys screening for him. I’d have to look at (the Spurs’) team more, but do you double him every time off a ball-screen? Maybe. You’ve just got to get the ball out of his hands.
“I think it’s going to be interesting to see what they do — maybe a variation (of my plan) . . . But you’ve got to count on him making bad plays and taking bad shots (for that to work). If he’s going to be willing to pass it every time, you won’t accomplish what you want. I learned that the hard way.”