NBA Draft

Steph Curry’s latest NBA playoff challenger Lakers’ Jarred Vanderbilt

SAN FRANCISCO – In Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on Tuesday, Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham quickly revealed his No. 1 defensive priority, which is the same for every team facing the Warriors since 2012.

Do not allow us to be defeated by Stephen Curry.

So here comes another “Steph Stopper,” someone ultra-serious about defending Curry in the playoffs. The ABS (Anybody But Steph) assignment went to Jarred Vanderbilt, an excellent defender. He did a tremendous job in Game 1, as Curry needed 25 shots to score 27 points.

Coming up Thursday night is Game 2, which means Round 2.

Curry, 35, typically gets better as the rounds pass. The NBA graveyard is filled with putative Steph Stoppers. Some might have shown well early in the playoffs, but only one can claim victory – and it comes with an asterisk.

The original was Matthew Dellavedova, then with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was followed by Andre Roberson of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Then came Patrick Beverley, who embraced the role with maniacal enthusiasm in multiple attempts with the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers. Next was Fred VanVleet of the Toronto Raptors, followed last postseason by Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies and Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics.

Smart took home the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year award a few weeks before being assigned to Curry in the 2022 NBA Finals. Curry took home the Finals MVP award after Golden State beat Boston in six.


The most recent assignment, in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs, went to a tag-team act, De’Aaron Fox and Davion Mitchell of the Sacramento Kings. They were in middle school when Curry entered the NBA in 2009. He averaged 33.7 points on 48.8-percent shooting from the field, including 37.8 percent from distance.

Only VanVleet and the Raptors, in the 2019 Finals, prevailed – and that largely was a function of devastating injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Curry was left to operate not only against VanVleet, but also myriad defenses devised by Toronto coach Nick Nurse, including box-and-one.

And now it’s Vanderbilt, who is the tallest (6-foot-8) and rangiest (7-foot-1 wingspan) yet to get the Curry assignment.

Curry’s 27 points came on 10-of-24 shooting from the field, including 6 of 13 from beyond the arc. He and the Warriors would take the 6 of 13 (46.2 percent) anytime, anyplace, any series. The 4-of-11 shooting inside the arc was alarming, as were Curry’s five turnovers.

Vanderbilt tried but failed to keep Curry from dropping 3-pointers on his head but succeeded in cutting off outside angles to force Curry into the paint, where 6-foot-11 Anthony Davis and his 7-foot-6 wingspan were lurking to provide help with defense worthy of the Louvre.

There was, for Curry, a lesson in the process.

“I respect how they are trying to guard us and where they are trying to push us on the floor,” Curry said after Game 1. “I’ve just got to make the right reads. I got my shot blocked, I think three or four times, trying to get little floaters off because [I] got one step too deep. And that’s just on adjustment that [I’ve] got to make.”

The numbers and the eye test indicate Curry was more bothered by Davis than Vanderbilt. Davis recorded two blocks in the first quarter, one in the third and another in the fourth. He got Curry twice, with LeBron James and Vanderbilt each sending away the Warriors star once. FAD (Fear of AD) not only discourages intrusions into the paint but also provides block opportunities for his teammates. In addition to Davis’ four rejections, James had three, Vanderbilt two and DeAngelo Russell one.

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Just as Golden State’s offense revolves around the skills of Curry, LA’s defense revolves around those of Davis. The presence of each is of remarkable benefit to teammates.

“I understand AD’s presence in the paint,” Curry said. “He has length, and the way they are trying to funnel us into the lane, we’ve got to be able to see the floor a little bit better. But you know, a long series.”

Vanderbilt, with an assist from Davis, won Round 1. He can consider himself, at least temporarily, a Steph Stopper. There have been a few who could make a similar claim.

The Lakers surely know this: Curry’s history is that he tends to get better with each round. 


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