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One Play: Stephen Curry's absurd no-look backwards pass to Harrison Barnes in New Orleans

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Breakdown of that absurd Curry over-the-head pass to Barnes for a dunk from the Pelicans-Warriors game on Halloween.

Curry has vision.
Curry has vision.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

My original title was One Play: Busted Pick and Roll + Curry = Barnes Dunk, but that didn't quite capture the amount of religious awe the play inspired.

Yes, with Stephen Curry you've got the greatest shooting ever and the great handle, but I just love his court vision and his inventiveness.

Here it is.

Well, that pretty much stands alone.

But the play fragment is an interesting one to watch several times, from the point of view of different players.

Watching the Set Up

Freeze the start of the video and play the first five seconds.  The play starts with an inbounds with 17 on the shot clock, and Curry in a bad position. From the start, the spacing is terrible. Barnes does a dribble handoff to Curry. We have shooters in the corners (that part is fine), but Barnes, Curry and Ezeli are all scrunched up. I suspect Ezeli was to set the screen more to the middle of the court. Dante Cunningham overplays Curry towards the sideline and Omer Asik lumbers over to "contain" Curry. This looks like the ICE defense we've discussed (for instance, in One Play #2. Spurs Hammer Loop).

Watching Barnes

Now re-watch, but focus on Barnes. Barnes tries to save the play by clearing out, but instead of clearing to the opposite wing (which would lead his defender Holiday out of Curry's driving lane), he clears out toward the near corner and across the lane, which brings Barnes's defender into a place he can contain Curry.

But to his credit, Barnes catches a -- to put it mildly -- unexpected and unorthodox pass from Curry and finishes the dunk through contact.

Kind of the Barnes Experience in a nutshell: a sandwich of frustration plus amazing plays that happen anyway.

Watching Jrue Holiday

Now re-watch, but focus on Barnes's defender, Jrue Holiday. As Barnes cuts past him, he makes a funny wave towards Barnes and Anthony Davis, that might remind you of the futile Kendrick Perkins wave from the previous Pelicans game's Big Man Soap Opera. I believe it means that Jrue wants Anthony Davis to switch on to Barnes. I believe this because Jrue proceeds to ignore Barnes for the rest of the play.  This was a bit unfair to Davis, as he also had to cover Draymond Green in the corner.

Jrue cuts off Curry's drive and then sort of floats rightwards towards no one to defend as if carried by a peaceful stream. Too late, he sees his man Barnes under the basket, dunking. A single tear falls.

Watching Curry

Now re-watch, but focus on Curry. First, he gets an enthusiastic but bad screen from Festus Ezeli. Ezeli bumps Dante Cunningham but then immediately rolls before Curry can get separation from Dante. At this point, Curry believes Dante is hung up on Ezeli's screen, so Curry goes forward. He sees the lumbering big Asik is above the three point line. (Would Asik come out this far for any one else in the NBA? Maybe Korver, maybe.) So Curry blows by Asik and figures he has separation from Dante (which he doesn't).

So if you freeze the play at 10:52 game clock as Curry hits the free throw circle, as far as Curry knows, it's a four on three with Jrue in front of him (but with momentum going towards Curry's left), Barnes under the hoop, Green in the corner occupying Davis and Klay way out on the other corner. He is going to fake out Jrue and either make Jrue play him (so Curry hits Barnes for a dunk) or just take a layup.

But Dante is closer than Curry realizes, and Dante knocks the ball away during Curry's crossover.

Now here is where it gets superhuman: Curry grabs the loose ball, but my guess is that he sees Barnes through peripheral vision under the basket, and had already planned to get him the ball. He knows Jrue is flying left due to crossover; he feels Dante going left on his back. He sees Asik lumber by. He sees Anthony Davis contesting. Curry quickly, through some combination of sight, visualization, and instinct knows he can throw an unexpected pass to Barnes if he is quick enough. And the gamble pays off.

Bonus Awesome Play

This play reminds me of my favorite Curry play of last season, maybe favorite of all-time.

This starts with a great steal (one of his steals-in-position that Ron Adams loves). Then... this is a REAL no-look play... none of this pass-while-not-turning-the-head stuff. Watch the video and try to find where in this whole sequence that the laws of optics allow Curry to see where Barnes is.

He deflects the ball, he physically fights for the ball, and then tracks down the loose ball, and I think his only chance to even know Barnes is there is that he sees a little slate blur in peripheral vision just as the ball bounces the first time. Instead of grabbing the ball and resetting (boring), or turning to pass (would be too late), he fires a backwards, touch, no-look bounce pass that leads a moving Barnes right to a dunk between two Rockets.


Bonus Links

I'm no IQ, but here are a few links about the game.

Previously in the One Play Series