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‘This is what I’m here to do’: Los Angeles Lakers’ Jarred Vanderbilt takes on the marathon of defending Stephen Curry

Veteran forward has changed the dynamic of Lakers’ defense

SAN FRANCISCO – After Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Tuesday, Los Angeles Lakers forward Jarred Vanderbilt told teammate LeBron James in the Lakers locker room that Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry ran like a marathoner. If Curry ran that much, Vanderbilt wasn’t too far behind, as he was the main defender assigned to defend the Warriors’ legendary sharpshooter.

“I was telling LeBron that I don’t know how much that [expletive] ran. Probably about 2 miles the whole time. I was like, ‘God dang,’ ” Vanderbilt said after the Lakers’ 117-112 victory in Game 1.

Center Anthony Davis was the overwhelming star of the Lakers’ win at Chase Center with 30 points, 23 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks. Lost in the marvel at Davis’ big performance was the impact Vanderbilt had defensively on Curry.

Curry averaged 33.7 points and 4.9 3-pointers made per game in the Warriors’ seven-game series against the Sacramento Kings in the first round. The NBA’s career leader in 3-pointers made scored an NBA Game 7-record 50 points in a 120-100 victory over the Kings on Sunday. The two-time NBA MVP is also widely regarded as the greatest shooter this game has seen.

In Game 1 against the Lakers, Curry scored 27 points on 10-of-24 from the field, 6-of-13 from 3-point range and five turnovers while being guarded primarily by Vanderbilt. It was Curry’s lowest scoring game thus far in eight postseason games.

Both Vanderbilt and Dennis Schröder did an effective job defending Curry. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Curry shot 5-of-10 from the field versus Vanderbilt, but also committed three turnovers when he was the primary defender. Curry shot 2-of-6 from the field when guard Dennis Schröder was the primary defender. The Warriors were 11-of-40 from the field and were blocked nine times when Davis, James or Vanderbilt contested the shot.

“He’s a hell of a player,” Vanderbilt said of Curry. “He’s even more dangerous without the ball. One second you think you can relax and give it up. That is when you have to lock in the most.

“He’s a tough cover. We have a lot of bodies to throw at him. Starting with me, Dennis, I think everyone did a great job of chasing him around kind of wearing him down and making it hard for him.”

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (right) shoots the ball against Los Angeles Lakers forward Jarred Vanderbilt (left) during the third quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at Chase Center on May 2 in San Francisco.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

What makes Vanderbilt a unique defender on Curry is that he has the quickness of a guard at 6-feet-9. “Vando” also has a 7-1 wingspan and an 8-10 standing reach. Curry, meanwhile, stands 6-2 and all that length defending him can make it tough to shoot.

The Lakers acquired Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley from the Utah Jazz and D’Angelo Russell from the Minnesota Timberwolves on Feb. 9 and sent Russell Westbrook, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damian Jones and a protected first-round pick to Utah and a future second-round pick to Minnesota. The Lakers wanted Vanderbilt due to his reputation as a versatile defender. Since his arrival, the five-year NBA veteran has had success guarding NBA All-Stars such as Curry, Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Dončić and Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant.

“That is my calling on the team. I like those matchups. Those challenges. That is what I’m here to do,” Vanderbilt said.

Said Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy: “Vanderbilt has been major for us since he’s been here [and] has taken the tough defensive assignments. He’s an unbelievable athlete to guard Ja and Steph at his height. His energy and activity are at an elite level.

“You’re not going to stop Ja and Stephen, but the ability to use size, length and quickness and make it difficult for them makes him an elite defender. Good kid. He was a big part of that trade for us. He just really changed the dynamic of our defense.”

While it’s impossible to stop Curry, Vanderbilt did his best to make it difficult with a defensive game plan. Vanderbilt’s main goal was to use his length to dissuade Curry from shooting 3-pointers, fight over all screens and try to make him drive to the basket. If successful making Curry drive, the 6-11 Davis was a waiting defender eager to try to block layup attempts. Vanderbilt also is trying his best not to switch defensively on Curry.

“With my size I can dictate a little bit. I’m trying to send him this way even though it is still hard,” said Vanderbilt, who had two steals in Game 1. “Having a little length on him helps a little bit. But it’s tough. It’s tough.”

Los Angeles Lakers foward Jarred Vanderbilt (right) chases a loose ball during the first quarter against the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at Chase Center on May 2 in San Francisco.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Vanderbilt’s biggest defensive play of the Lakers’ win came in the final seconds.

With the Lakers up 115-112 with less than 20 seconds remaining, Curry couldn’t get off a potential game-tying 3-pointer while being double-teamed by Vanderbilt and guard Austin Reaves. Curry passed the ball to Warriors forward Draymond Green who had the cat-quick Vanderbilt in his face as soon as he caught it. Green passed the ball to Warriors guard Jordan Poole, who missed a 28-foot 3-pointer with Vanderbilt appearing with a disruptive hand in the air when the shot was taken.

“I watched a lot of film. I’ve guarded him before, just not in the playoffs,” Vanderbilt said of Curry. “I just locked down and just trusted the game plan. Anytime he’s inside the 3-point line it’s a win for us. Just get him off the [3-point] line and make him drive to take a couple layups …

“I focus on him. He’s obviously the most dangerous on the court, especially when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, the way he moves and cuts and coming off screens. The biggest thing was stopping him. Limiting him.”

Vanderbilt missed five of seven shots from the field and finished with eight points and six rebounds. But when you have to chase Curry around all game, there isn’t much energy left offensively.

“It was low today,” Vanderbilt said of his offensive output. “By the time I got to that end I was gassed. I was trying to be effective by just crashing the glass … That’s pretty much it. Continue to be a threat.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.