The Warriors are a tough team to defend. They’re prolific from three-point range, can score in the post, boast one of the league’s best pick-and-roll combinations, have bigs that can step out and shoot or put the ball on the floor, and move the ball with the quickness and precision all teams strive for. They leave a bit to be desired in terms of dribble penetration, but that’s an aspect of the offense that should develop over time as Steph Curry gets healthy and Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes continue to expand their games.
For now, though, Golden State makes up for it as best they can by utilizing the threat of Curry and/or Thompson coming off down screens set by Warriors big men. It all works because Jarrett Jack – a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate – allows Curry to slide off the ball and play shooting guard, putting extra pressure on the defense. Mark Jackson has experimented with Barnes initiating the offense from the backcourt in these same sets, but the similar threat isn’t there; the rookie isn’t the pinpoint passer or penetrator, should the action break down, that Jack is.
It shouldn’t surprise that Golden State relies on this three-guard lineup so often in crunch time. They sacrifice defensively in terms of size, but Thompson has been quietly game defending small forwards all season – look at his play late on Kevin Durant last night – and the positives gleaned on the other end outweigh that small negative. Curry is their best as the primary option in this action given his creating prowess compared to Thompson, and the latter draws more attention as a decoy than Barnes does because he’s a superior shooter.
But Golden State used both of their sharpshooters in this role late in last night’s win over the Thunder, and each time it worked to seamless effect, if through different means.
Let’s pick up the action with 3:36 left in the game and Golden State down 94-93. That trusty three-guard lineup is in here, supplanted upfront by David Lee and Carl Landry. This is is the Warriors’ best group offensively, a factor we shouldn’t take for granted given how Oklahoma City defends the play. Jack probes from the top of the key loosely defended by Durant, as Thompson prepares to come off a down screen near the left block from Lee. Curry and Landry are on the right side of the floor, closely checked by Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins.
Things break down for the Thunder as soon as Thompson uses the screen from Lee. Kevin Martin, defending Thompson, is in a tough spot here. Lag farther behind and he risks Thompson cutting to the elbow-extended for a three-pointer; stay closer, as he chooses, and Thompson could curl off the screen and catch and create. Regardless, he’s hardly helped by the man checking Lee, Serge Ibaka. As seen in the below photo, Ibaka offers Martin no help in preventing Thompson from getting to the paint. Instead and inexplicably, he stays connected to Lee as the lefty begins to roll. With the pass on its way, Martin trailing, Ibaka refusing to help, and Perkins’ back turned, OKC is dead in the water – Thompson has a clear lane to the rim.
The play is linked in real time below. Take special note of Ibaka. He’s far more concerned with Lee on a potential roll or pop than he is Thompson finishing at the rim. Given the infancy of Thompson’s off-the-dribble game perhaps that makes sense, but I’d argue he’s more comfortable finishing himself than having to make a difficult pocket pass to Lee immediately after the catch. Perkins doesn’t help matters; see the man and the ball! Then there’s Durant. He could maybe prevent all this by pressuring Jack with his pterodactyl reach, making the initial pass much, much more difficult.
Now with 1:22 left and ahead 99-98, the Warriors go back to the same action but with an additional wrinkle and Curry in Thompson’s place. Barnes is back in the game – replacing a fouled-out Thompson – and begins the sequence by clearing out the left wing. Just as he does, Lee turns to set that same down screen for an awaiting Curry, who’s defended by Westbrook. A couple things stand out immediately from the picture below: 1)Martin has his heels to the sideline as he chases Barnes, prompting extra attention from Ibaka, and 2) Westbrook is already chasing Curry, a problem considering Lee is about to create more space between them with the pick.
Ibaka is caught between a rock and a hard place here. He failed to help on this action previously and allowed a layup because of it, and this time the man receiving the screen, Curry, is a superior player with a wider array of skills. That Westbrook is so far behind Curry even before the latter uses the screen makes matters even worse for Ibaka, too. Curry comes off Lee’s pick much wider than Thompson did, and Ibaka opts to hedge hard this time to contest a catch-and-shoot. Westbrook, again, needs to be much closer to Curry; Ibaka’s hedge wouldn’t have to be so drastic and the pocket between he and his teammate wouldn’t be so wide. As it is, he could also stand to bump Lee. Instead, he does neither and Curry takes advantage of the swath between them, finding a rolling Lee for an easy layup.
Oklahoma City didn’t break down in this instance the way they did on Thompson’s layup. Rather, this easy Golden State bucket is almost the sole fault of Westbrook. Ibaka does his job with a hard hedge and extended arms, Perkins is barely late – if at all – on the weakside help from the bottom, and even Durant is closer to Jack on the first pass. But that seemingly meaningless first cut away by Barnes is actually anything but; it confuses Martin enough to get his feet turned around, and is why Landry would have had an easy layup, too, if Lee opted to pass it to him. Perhaps next time. The play is linked below in realtime.
The Thunder are stacked with long, quick, and explosive athletes, but that’s not all there is to defense. Timing, understanding help rotations, and attention to detail matter more on that end than anything else, and Oklahoma City is notorious for breakdowns related to those very intricacies. Golden State knew this ahead of time, and forced the Thunder’s most reckless and gamble-prone defenders – Ibaka and Westbrook – into positions and choices they aren’t yet comfortable making.
Oklahoma City isn’t the only team that has fallen or will fall prey to this action and its variances by Golden State this season. It’s a staple of the Warriors offensive attack, utilizing the unique skill, threat, and cohesion presented by the guard receiving the screen and the man setting it. Golden State got arguably their biggest win of the season last night, and owe it largely to a simple two-man game that – from a defensive perspective, at least – is actually anything but.
Follow Jack Winter on Twitter @armstrongwinter.