Standing in front of his locker sporting a satisfied grin, Bulls forward Taj Gibson admitted that in his own best-case scenario, the Bulls would have been able to hold All-Star Stephen Curry to 20 points, more than four points fewer than his season average.
As it turns out, Gibson may need to increase his expectations of the Bulls' defense.
The Bulls held Curry, the NBA’s seventh-leading scorer, to five points on a season-worst 2-for-10 shooting in a dominating 103-83 win Wednesday night at the United Center, prompting at-times harsh critic Tom Thibodeau to admit that it was one of the team’s best defensive performances of the year.
“He’s such a tough cover,” Thibodeau said of Curry, whose previous season-low of five points occurred on Nov. 6 in a 13-point win. “If you give him any space at all, he’s got all the trick to get a shot off. A guy like that, you try to guard with your whole team and try to make him work. We were trying to trap him and everything else, and he had a couple good looks that he normally makes. But he’s a great player. They’re a very hard team to guard.”
The Warriors entered the United Center as the NBA’s 12th most efficient offense, 10th highest scoring offense and the team most capable of going off for 120-plus points in a moment’s notice. So Thibodeau was correct in his assessment of Curry, who also finished with five assists and five turnovers, and the Warriors. Except that his defense was up to the challenge, and then some.
Mark Jackson’s group made just 5 of 21 3-pointers, shot 36 percent from the field and grabbed just nine offensive rebounds on 54 missed shots. The Bulls pressured Curry, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala as soon as one of them brought the ball past the timeline, doubled whenever possible and rotated to near-perfection in order to slow down an offense that had averaged better than 105 points over their last eight games.
“That’s the way we like it,” said Jimmy Butler, who played suffocating defense on Thompson and Iguodala in his return from a two-game hiatus, “to take good players out of their game, make it frustrating for them.”
Much of the praise in the Bulls' locker room was rightfully directed at Kirk Hinrich, whose 25 minutes of defense on Curry were as good as any opposing point guard has shown against the Western Conference All-Star starter this year. In the first half Hinrich was credited with two steals – Curry committed four turnovers – but the deflections he caused, the number of times Curry was forced to pass out of a situation in which he wanted to attack or find a rolling big man, and the contests on Curry’s four shots were just as important...and won’t show up in the box score.
And to Thibodeau, that’s the beauty of Hinrich.
“You never can measure his true value if you go by statistics. If you go by what he’s doing for your team: setting the tone for the defense with his ball pressure, his hustle plays, first to the floor, running your team, the things he does, it really unites and inspires your team,” Thibodeau said. “And he plays to win, so I think it’s never lost on his teammates, and it’s certainly not lost on the coaches or the organization. We know how important he is and he’s been playing at a very high level. He’s a huge key for our team.”
Added Carlos Boozer: “Kirk did a great job of setting the tone, picking (Curry) up full-court. And obviously us, we were very aware when Steph had the ball: Crowd him, trap him, tried to make other guys make shots. But give the credit to Kirk. He set the tone for us tonight.”
And it was another intangible that Curry said slowed him down. Part of the Davidson product’s arsenal of offensive moves is a non-stop motor that moves in every direction around screens which, given the 24.5 points per game he averages, usually causes opponents to completely lose track of him.
“He always seems to keep a hand on you and never really gets beat where his help isn’t,” Curry said of Hinrich. “So he’s very consistent at funneling you to where they want you to go. Tonight it was difficult to get him off-balance and go the opposite way. It wasn’t our night from the beginning, and they just outplayed us.”
That tone was far different from the one Curry spoke with three weeks ago when he scored 34 points and handed out nine assists in the Warriors’ 102-87 win over the Bulls at Oracle Arena in Oakland.
The Warriors trailed by as many as 16 in the second quarter in that contest – they trailed by 11 at halftime tonight – but this time around Curry wasn’t able to help bring his team back. Instead, the Bulls’ frustrating defense swarmed him every chance they had and frustrated him to the point where in the second half he missed a point-blank layup and was off on a wide-open 3-pointer from the top of the arc, a spot where he’s shooting 44 percent from this season.
“Same team we played in Oakland, and we found a way to overcome a bad start and make things happen,” Curry said. “So obviously on the road it’s definitely harder. But the guys that are in their rotation are veteran guys that know how to play, and they made the right plays tonight. And we didn’t.”
And while D.J. Augustin has earned praise in Chicago for being a spark to the Bulls’ NBA-worst statistical offense, games like tonight prove there’s no replacement for veteran leadership and a defender who won’t quit. Hinrich managed to add nine points, four rebounds and three assists to his line, but it was the confidence of wanting to defend Curry that Gibson enjoyed most.
“As soon as the game started, (Hinrich) was not shy about guarding (Curry),” Gibson said. “He wanted to guard him. He was just trying to get in there and get deflections, whatever you could to try to alter his shot. Because when you go up against a guy like (Curry), you really can’t shut him off. You can only slow him down. He really was frustrated tonight. Hats off to Kirk, he did a great job.”