I decided to start writing for Davis here at SportsWunderkind back in early February after a conversation we had about Tristan Thompson’s steady improvement. Back then, the Warriors were 30-17, shooting significantly over 40% from 3 the last two months, and one of the biggest surprises of the season. We had planned for one of my first articles to be about their incredibly intriguing offense, that had David Lee operating as high-post distributor, resulting in him averaging nearly 5 assists a game (during that two month stretch of December-January), double his career average of 2.5. And then the Warriors went 4-8 in the month of February, and we scrapped the idea.
Man, do I wish we hadn’t.
Golden State has been the absolute darling of the playoffs (sorry, Chicago, everyone knows your exit is soon; thanks for pissing off the Heat!) because of their youth, the rockin’ Oracle Arena, and their affinity for playing up-tempo and from long range. The Warriors are shooting 41% from beyond the arc as a team, which sounds insane, but considering they averaged 40% throughout the regular season, it really isn’t. They’ve been doing this all year long. How? Partly because of how the NBA has developed the past few years. The 7 Seconds or Less Suns in the mid 00’s popularized this style of play, of running up and down the court and jacking threes all game. Other teams have taken that formula and improved upon it. The numbers don’t lie- in the final year of those run and gun Suns teams, 9 different NBA teams attempted more than 1500 3s throughout the regular season. This year? 19 teams (the Wizards, Timberwolves, Hornets, and Suns are roughly 25 attempts away from that 1500 figure) have attempted that many. In the modern era, the teams that are most successful at this style of play don’t simply have great three-point shooters, they have at least one person on their team who can consistently get into the paint at will. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (RIP), Carmelo Anthony, and Tony Parker can all get to the hoop whenever they want to (to varying degrees, obviously), and as a result, their teams all finished in the top five of 3 point percentage. The use of the 3 point shot for most teams come from having a perimeter play slash into the paint and kick the ball out to the corners. However, the team that tops that list, the Warriors, don’t have an elite slasher like the others. Their 3 point shooting is not based off of dribble penetration to the lane. Enter Mark Jackson’s innovative ways to get some of the best shooters in the league in their rhythm, that has come to complete fruition in these playoffs.
These past two games versus San Antonio nearly every single possession for the Warriors has been the same exact options; either Stephen Curry, Jarrett Jack, or Klay Thompson take the ball up the court. Andrew Bogut or Carl Landry (they are rarely on the court at the same time) will float around the high post or 3-point line. The ball handler will either toss the big guy an entry pass, or wait for him to set a screen, and Curry/Thompson then immediately look to pull up for three. NBA scribes have deemed this elevator play. Below is a montage of what it can look like.
In the series with the Spurs, Jarrett Jack’s main offense has been penetrating the key and plays more of a two-man game with the big, and looks to kick out. They also like to look for a mid-to-low post isolation for Landry, who hasn’t played a ton (28 minutes combined Games 1 and 2) but has been very effective (8 for 10 from the field, 14 boards), as well as the high-post entry pass to Bogut (he’s replaced Lee well here) that acts similarly to setting a screen, except the passer (Curry or Jack) will cut to the hoop and set a screen for Barnes/Thompson, with both the screener and the player running to Bogut viable options for a scoring opportunity. Probably the greatest reason for their success with these options is the creative opportunity it offers. Mark Jackson’s best strength has been that he lets his playmakers make a play. The best example for this would be the transition 3s that Curry and Thompson have taken a strong liking to (especially when they’ve gotten hot). They grab an outlet pass, scramble down the court and appear to be out of control, and all of a sudden they pull up and the smoothness of their jumpers makes it look like it was planned all along. Below is an example of Curry simply getting the ball and shooting in transition. What makes Steph and Klay so effective is a realization that they can shoot over a defender. They aren’t bothered by a hand in the face the way most shooters are.
Curry and Klay are basically me, but with parallel parking. You’re confused as hell as to what I’m doing until I’m done, and then you step back and go “daaaaaaaamn” and are super impressed. No big deal.
Back to the important point, the pulling up for 3 right out of a pick. It isn’t anything new, and it usually isn’t a terribly efficient shot, but it’s been deadly for the Warriors. So why does it work for Golden State (other than that Steph and Klay are awesome)? Well, it’s really about the Spurs age, height and their adjustments.
Tim Duncan used to be one of the best big men defenders in the league, especially when it came to pick and rolls, but the old man simply doesn’t have the agility to keep up anymore. He has to rely almost entirely on his positioning now rather than his physicality, which can be very difficult when keeping up with the young, quick Golden State guards. So Popovich tried to hide him in Game 1, by having him not stay up on pick and rolls and relying on Tony Parker to get through the screen in time to cover Curry. Wrong choice. Curry killed it off those right-off-the-pick 3s, going 6 of 14 from downtown. So then came the adjustment in Game Two. After Klay Thompson’s poor outside shooting performance in their first outing (0-4), the Spurs must have considered that since they somehow pulled out Game 1, that if they were to force Curry to defer to his teammates, the series would be theirs for the taking. Wrong again. Duncan and his fellow big men comrades charged Steph in Game 2, trying their best to take away the deep ball. It worked, against him (a 2-6 game isn’t really something to scoff at, though). However, it has the effect of opening things up for one Klay Thompson. Curry would come off the screen set by Bogut (or get the ball back from the high post), and either simply drive around, find the open man, or take the shot anyway. That’s one of the biggest reasons for Klay’s monster second game- the Spurs were so concerned on preventing Curry from heating, that they over played him on pick-and-rolls, and due to their excellent spacing (Draymond Green and Barnes have been the primary power forwards, a very positive effect of the David Lee injury) it left one of the deadliest shooters in the league wide open in Thompson. Klay absolutely went on a tear, ending up just one shy of tying the playoff record for 3s in a game at 9. The San Antonio bigs, specifically Duncan, just can’t win on the Golden State pick-and-rolls. They either have to play the shooter too close which opens up the lane, or give Curry a foot too much space for the deadliest shooter in the game.
The matchup problems don’t stop there, however. Since the Spurs want the more physical Danny Green on Curry the majority of the time, it makes Tony and Manu’s jobs on defense more difficult. Parker guarded Klay in the first game, and while Thompson didn’t make a three, he went 8 of 11 on other field goals, showing a diversity to his game that most, and definitely San Antonio, didn’t see coming. So, now Pop has Manu is guarding him. Where does that leave Parker? On the even bigger, more athletic, Harrison Barnes. Barnes’s game isn’t as refined as Thompson’s or Curry’s, so Parker hasn’t gotten completely destroyed, but keeping up with a player 6 inches taller, 30 pounds heavier, and 10 years younger than you (Tony turns 31 in a week, Harrison will celebrate his 21st on the 30th) is not an easy task, and it appears to be taking a toll. His shooting percentage and assists are down from last series, and his turnovers are up. Golden State continually let Barnes go to work on the smaller Parker in the post with continually positive results. Basically, San Antonio appears to be in deep trouble.
While Mark Jackson has done a solid job this series, he’s still facing one of the better coaches in NBA history in Pop. You have to think that he’s got something up his sleeve to fix this problem, there’s no way he rolls into the Oracle with the same strategies that Golden State has shredded. He’s not only too smart to do that, but that would mean looking into the weary, old eyes of Tim, Manu, and Tony and accepting defeat. The Spurs will never, ever die, as long as Popovich is coach. I expect some new element or wrinkle to be tried in every game and every quarter until the series is over. For those waiting for the Warriors to suddenly regress, and go ice cold shooting, you’ll probably be waiting quite awhile. Even when they struggled in February, Golden State still shot well as a team, they just couldn’t stop anyone on defense. If the Spurs have any hope of winning this series, they can’t have that mindset. Something needs to change. It’s difficult to say what, though. They may be resigned to leaving Parker on Curry and allowing him to shoot over Tony, as long as it doesn’t mean wide open shoot-and-slash opportunities for everyone else on the court. They could continue to gamble that the supporting cast around Curry (including Klay) won’t catch fire, and continue to allow Steph to shoot two-point field goals, on which he went 16 of 29 in game 2. So far, it’s been pick your poison for San Antonio. The Spurs are trying to find a vaccine for aging, and as I wrote previously, I’m pretty sure Popovich is a wizard. If someone can come up with a solution, it’s him. But if I were a Spurs fan, I’d be desperately jabbing pins into the ankles of my Stephen Curry voodoo doll right about now.