Chris Paul’s 42 points were just short of a career-high, and his 15 assists and six steals made him the only player in almost 40 years to reach those thresholds in the same game. This might have been the best performance of Paul’s Hall-of-Fame career, and the Clippers notched their first win of the 2013-2014 season.
After the game, though, Craig Sager just couldn’t help himself. He had to ask about Steph Curry and the Warriors.
“Man, he can shoot that ball can’t he?” Paul, eyes big, said of his fellow North Carolinian. “…That’s a really good team. They make tough shots.”
He definitely can, they definitely are, and they definitely do. Golden State knew all that already, of course, but that doesn’t take away from the team-wide offensive performance, Curry’s eye-opening 38-point, 9-assist effort included. Forget Steph’s 11(!) turnovers and the Warriors’ glaring defensive struggles, and it’s easy to glean optimism from last night’s 126-115 loss to the Clippers at Staples Center.
Paul won’t be a virtuoso every time these teams meet, Curry won’t be so careless with the ball, Klay Thompson won’t be invisible offensively, David Lee won’t foul out, and Harrison Barnes won’t be on the bench. Step back from that ledge, basically; Thursday’s outcome is just one result of many opportunities the Warriors will have to cement themselves as real contenders in the Western Conference this season.
And if you look beneath a surface full of uncharacteristic miscues, there’s even a lot to like to about the loss to LAC. The Warriors offense, turnovers and all, was absolutely devastating on the road against a team coming off not only a day of rest, but an opening-night embarrassment, too.
If we’ve learned one thing from this week’s games, it’s that Golden State will boast an offense this season that rates far better than last year’s 10th-ranked unit. As the pet play highlighted below indicates, this roster’s unique set of talents mesh too well for anything less.
This set isn’t a new one for the Warriors; they ran it frequently last season. But improved playmaking ability on the wings and health and speed of Golden State’s big men makes it deadlier than ever.
The initial option and goal is simple: a high, staggered ball-screen to get Curry an open look from deep early in the shot clock while the defense is still transitioning. If the opponents guarding the screeners are late to notice the action or fall asleep at the wheel, it’s curtains for the defense. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin fall victim to that inattentiveness in the first two clips, and Steph effortlessly connects. In both instances, the players they’re guarding – first Bogut, then Lee – are the second level of the double-screen. This means it’s their responsibility to hedge hard – while Paul works hard to recover over the top – and cut off Curry’s dribble before he can get to an open spot. But they fail to do so, and Paul’s voice (he’s guarding off the ball here) is easily heard on the live broadcast as the play develops a second time. “Stay up! Stay up!” he urges Griffin, just as Curry gets separation and launches.
Before Draymond Green even sets a pick in the third clip, Paul is already motioning for Matt Barnes to hedge high and hard. As the play develops and Curry works around a screen from Bogut, the Clippers point guard is heard again: “Stay up!” Jordan has both feet above the arc as Curry comes his way this time, and Barnes and Paul – those clever guys – switched the initial screen from Green. The resulting shot attempt isn’t bad for a shooter with Curry’s range, but it’s certainly not the relative layups yielded before, either.
Paul’s instruction and the adjustment made to switch on Green’s screen makes Curry’s look much more difficult. A 27-footer is tough on its own, especially when a hand the size of Jordan’s is in the shooter’s face. Curry would have been better off letting the sequence develop, where this set’s second option would have come into play.
If Curry turns down a shot after the first double-screen, the Warriors big men move as a convoy towards the opposite corner to an awaiting wing. It’s normally and hopefully Klay Thompson, who provides the shooting threat that most closely resembles Curry’s. Andre Iguodala can function here too, though, where his quickness and vision serves as a major asset catching on the move. But it’s Thompson receiving the caravan in the video’s fourth and final clip, as Griffin finally jumps out hard in Curry’s direction and Paul does a yeoman’s work navigating the staggered screens.
There are several options presenting Golden State as Thompson comes off that massive pick: if the man guarding the second screener doesn’t hedge, Curry hits Thompson for a drive or jumper; if help defenders overplay the picks, either big man can slip back door for a layup. There’s even a read-reaction before the second double-screen; Lee could simply dive to the basket if Griffin lingers a bit too long. All of this movement easily creates defensive confusion, and the Warriors are athletic and skilled enough to exploit any potential mistake.
The problem for the defense is that it can do most everything right and Golden State can score anyway. That’s what happens here, as Thompson whirls around Lee’s pick, Griffin cuts off the first pass and Redick trails closely behind. Jordan is even in perfect help relationship between Bogut and the rolling/popping Lee. But it doesn’t matter; the Warriors are too smart and too good. Curry waits an extra beat for Griffin’s head to turn then finds an active Lee. Jordan is still there to altar a shot at the rim, but he retreated towards Bogut as Griffin began his recover and is on his heels as a result. Lee sees a small opening between the Los Angeles big men, takes a quick dribble and finishes with his off-hand at the front of the rim. Beautiful basketball to say the least.
And there will be much more of it to come. Golden State has found an ideal combination of players to run sets like this one, with rare marksmen, agile big men, and athletic swing forwards that all possess keen court sense and understand the value of open shots. The sky is the limit for the Warriors offensively, and last night’s loss – 24 turnovers not withstanding – only furthers that belief. If Golden State can make progress as the year goes by on the other end similar to what it did last season, even the same can be said for the hopes of this team as a whole.
*Statistical and visual support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.