Warriors and Stephen Curry being forced to think outside the box-and-one

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During scenes in his Facebook documentary series “Stephen vs. The Game,” Warriors point guard Stephen Curry prominently wears a box-and-one hoodie.

Underneath the enlarged box-and-one graphic on the chest, there are small letters spelling out Curry’s real message: “Respect the game.”

Curry better make sure the sweatshirt is clean and easily accessible from his closet, because the Warriors expect that the league’s best shooter is going to have to break it out quite a bit this season.

“People are going to throw everything at Steph,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “That’ll be a big theme this season, and we’ve got to do a better job attacking what people are throwing at us. We will.”

Without secondary scorers as accomplished as Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson playing alongside Curry, and as the Warriors try to forge an offensive identity with a roster filled with youth and newcomers, opponents’ game plans are based solely on slowing the two-time MVP and three-time champion.

Dusting off what was once considered a dilapidated scheme, often used at lower levels of basketball, Toronto famously deployed the box-and-one defense against Curry in Games 2, 4 and 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals to win the championship.

Signs of slowing?

Comparing Warriors guard Stephen Curry’s career stats to his 2020-21 numbers.

Career

2020-21

Minutes

34.3

34.5

FGM

8.1

9.1

FGA

17.1

20.6

FG%

47.5

44.0

3P%

43.3

36.6

Points

23.6

28.8

Turnovers

3.1

3.5

Assists

6.6

6.2

As the stigma against zone defenses appears to be dissipating across the league, the box-and-one strategy is trending. Curry faced the defense in three straight recent games with mixed results, going for 38 points on 13-for-24 shooting against the Clippers on Jan. 8, scoring a season-low 11 points on a career-worst 2-for-16 shooting against Toronto on Jan. 10, and not finding a flow in a 7-for-17, 20-point performance against Indiana on Jan. 12.

“We call it the ‘janky defense,’ and eventually, you feel like you’ll be able to pick it apart,” said Curry, using the urban dictionary definition of janky meaning “old and dilapidated.” “Whether it’s me getting shots or somebody else on the weak side, we need a little bit of time to realize that it’s probably going to happen more than in years past and find some key sets and looks to create shots. I have to obviously help solve that puzzle by staying aggressive and not falling into what it’s supposed to do in taking me out of the game. That’ll be a work in progress.”

A box-and-one is a hybrid defense that uses both man-to-man and zone principles. One player is assigned to guard Curry man-to-man, and the other four defenders are responsible for zone defense in the half court’s four quadrants.

The player defending Curry can be especially aggressive as two teammates are nearby and quick to offer help, often as a double-team, if the original defender is beat off the dribble. The idea is to get the ball out of Curry’s hands, and he should be able to get the ball to the weakened middle of the court to exploit the holes in the backside zone.

On top of NBA players often eschewing the box-and-one defense — like many teams, the Warriors take pride in “taking the challenge of one-on-one defense” — opponents don’t have a ton of time to implement the system this season.

After truncated training camps, teams are rarely conducting road shootarounds, have shortened meeting time and have games piled on top of each other during the coronavirus pandemic. With limited practice time before facing the Warriors, Indiana head coach Nate Bjorkgren said he was drawing up the “gimmicky” defenses in the timeout huddles and relying on his players to communicate on the court.

“If you play a box-and-one defense, it should be three-on-two all day,” Kerr said. “If you get organized and get sharp, then there are going to be great shots. That’s what we have to do as a staff: help our players get organized and execute better against this kind of stuff.”

With scratches up and down his arms and blood dripping onto his jersey against Toronto, it was obvious that the Warriors’ offense is a work in progress that hasn’t quite mastered how to take advantage of all the attention drawn by Curry.

In the following days, his teammates started coming up with a variety of theories about how to help Curry. Although they all had different ideas, they all were based on the need to make quick, sharp decisions with the ball.

Backup center Kevon Looney said: “We have to find pockets for him to pass through after he strings out the play.”

Reserve swingman Damion Lee said the team will find a couple of sets that take advantage of the box-and-one defense: “We’ve got to swing the ball, take open shots after an easy pass, and keep confidence in each other.”

Said rookie center James Wiseman: “It’s about spacing. I’ve got to be an option for him to pass to and always be available.”

Andrew Wiggins, the Warriors’ No. 2 scoring option, said he needs to be more aggressive, attack the rim and find situations in which he can set screens for Curry: “Whether he has the ball or he’s off the ball, the opponent’s focus on him is crazy.”

Until the 2019 NBA Finals against the Raptors, Curry said he hadn’t seen the box-and-one defense since his high school days at Charlotte Christian or in college at Davidson.

In fact, zone defense wasn’t even allowed in the NBA until 2001-02.

By last season, however, 18 of 30 teams played at least 100 possessions of zone defense, according to Synergy play-type tracking. Just 10 teams used a zone that often in 2018-19 and there were only two teams to do it in 2017-18.

Despite his frustration with the attention he’s drawing, Curry went into Tuesday’s games averaging 28.2 points, trailing only Washington’s Bradley Beal (34.9) and Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant (30.6).

Curry leads the league with 11.2 3-point attempts per game and is fourth in field-goal attempts (20.6). He’s among the top 20 with 6.2 assists per game.

“It’s part of the challenge of being in this position,” Curry said. “Mentally and physically, you’ve got to be ready for that challenge and not let it keep you on your heels or lose your aggressiveness. It’s a challenge, and I’m ready to figure it out.”

Opposing coaches are taking note. Denver head coach Michael Malone, a Warriors assistant from 2011 through ’13, didn’t use a box-and-one defense against Curry on Thursday, because the “unselfish superstar” uses the scheme as a way to “empower his teammates.”

After showing his team personnel clips and breaking down the Warriors’ play dispersal, Malone explained to his players that they had to have both feet outside the 3-point arc when defending Curry.

“Listen, when he makes a shot, don’t look over at me and say, ‘I played good defense,’ when you didn’t,” Malone said. “He’s not your ordinary player. He’s a great player. … This is not a regular point guard. This guy is otherworldly in terms of his talents and shooting ability. You have to guard him with that in mind.”

Even the teams that choose to blitz and double-team Curry, instead of using a box-and-one or triangle-and-two defense, know that they can’t gap pin-downs and go under screens on Curry catch-and-shoot opportunities. When he gives up the ball, defenders cannot relax, because Curry is already moving to relocate and get separation for a secondary 3-point shot.

Among the Warriors’ 17-player roster, 12 have played fewer than six NBA seasons. With Thompson rehabbing an Achilles injury, only Draymond Green and Looney have played meaningful minutes with Curry.

So, it stands to reason that the Warriors’ offense has yet to develop a layered attack or gotten comfortable with secondary actions. But Kerr believes it’s coming.

“He’s been doing this a long time,” Kerr said of Curry. “He’s seen everything. He’s won championships. He’s had season-ending injuries. He’s seen every coverage there is. He’s Steph Curry. He’s going to be fine, no matter what comes his way. …

“It’s just a matter of our team connecting and figuring out who we are and what we are. It’s going to take some time. … The offense is going to come together over time.”

As for the box-and-one hoodie, Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said he would have sported it to Chase Center for the Jan. 10 matchup.

“I spilled a little spaghetti sauce on my box-and-one sweatshirt at pregame meal today, so I’m out of luck there,” he joked.

Rusty Simmons is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: rsimmons@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Rusty_SFChron