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Explain One Play: Three game-ending Stephen Curry decoys against the Celtics

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Video breakdown of three end-of-game plays from the Warriors win against the Celtics on Dec 11, 2015. Yes, three.

Shaun Livingston refuses soup to Isaiah Thomas multiple times.
Shaun Livingston refuses soup to Isaiah Thomas multiple times.
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

How do you get three game-ending plays in a single game?  By going to double overtime, of course!

We'll look at the last Golden State Warriors plays from the 4th period, the first overtime and the second overtime from a thrilling win over the Boston Celtics last night.

What Could Have Been the Game-Winner #1

Okay, this should have been the game-winner.  It's a very recognizable play, so here's your quiz. What play is this?

Yes, it's the charismatic megafauna of Warriors plays, Elevator Doors. The two bigs Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli stand next to each other, and Stephen Curry runs between them. The bigs then shut the doors and make Curry's defender run the long way around them. (Past Explain Post here, and also here.)

Did You Notice? The acting job Curry put on by pretending to trip right before he cuts through the elevator doors?

What Could Have Been the Game-Winner #2

Here the Warriors have to get a shot in just over a second. This leaves only a very narrow set of possibilities. Basically, you have a catch-and-shoot or you have a lob to a layup. First view the play.

For end of game plays, the convention is for defenses to switch everything. This means that if a player gets screened or leaves your area, you switch responsibilities with the nearest teammate to cover for you. Now this play is really a wonderful display of switching by the Celtics defense. Basically, the Celtics play a 1-3 zone with three men along the baseline guarding their lower third, and Evan Turner guarding the top, and pressure on the inbounds. This is a great strategy for defending plays you know are going to be catch and shoot. Apparently, this is a common strategy for the Celtics in general on late game in-bounds plays.

And despite all that, the Warriors could have won the game if the pass were on target.

First, rewatch the play and just follow all the Celtics switches. Each defender takes responsibility for whichever Warrior enters their zone. At the start of the play, each Celtic is defending the zone around them. So, for instance, Jae Crowder #99 is guarding Leandro Barbosa starts #19. Barbosa runs around the top. Crowder calmly and alertly signals for a switch (watch his arm) and the Celtics all move down one Warrior assignment, while the Celtic at the end, Avery Bradley #0 picks up Barbosa.

Then Curry #30 starts at the left block (just to the left of the basket) and runs over to screen Draymond's defender (Crowder has just switched onto Draymond). Draymond gets a run to the basket, so Crowder has to switch AGAIN onto Curry and have Sullinger pick up the cutting Draymond. Then Curry breaks out to the arc, so Crowder now has to switch AGAIN onto Festus Ezeli.

At this point, Crowder has to see if Evan Turner #11 is going to pick up Curry or not as Curry leaves his zone and enters Turner's.  Crowder doesn't look sure whether Turner is picking up Curry. For a split second when Curry cuts, Crowder hesitates and lets Ezeli cut to the rim. If Andre Iguodala's pass is on target and Ezeli slams home an alley-oop, the game is over.  But sadly, no.

What Could Have Been the Game-Winner #3

In a weird coincidence, the first overtime ends exactly the same way as the fourth quarter, with Isaiah Thomas getting stopped on a last possession and the Dubs calling timeout with about a second left.  Here's the last-second play the Warriors ran.

On this play it's probably easier to see that the Celtics are AGAIN playing a 1-3 zone with three men along the baseline guarding their lower third, and Evan Turner guarding the top.

Did you notice the beginning when Curry, Draymond and Shaun Livingston put their heads together for a conference, and Jae Crowder sticks his head in? I believe this was a Warriors trick because the play starts before they break out of the huddle as Barbosa bolts around, this time under the basket.  So at the start of the play, Jae Crowder is guarding four Warriors in his zone. They all break out but Crowder doesn't follow anyone out of his zone.

Briefly, Crowder is guarding Curry and Turner is guarding Draymond at the top. Then Draymond cuts down the seam between Crowder's zone and Jared Sullinger's zone. Crowder AGAIN has to decide whether Curry is getting picked up by Turner and if he's switching onto Draymond. This gives Draymond an angle to run in front of him for the lob. Sullinger is a half step late in backing up to contest the lob. That is a tough pass for Andre to thread in there, but if it is on target, Draymond wins the game.

(Added 12:45p)

This dot diagram is a mess, but you get the idea. (These are machine generated.)

Basically The Game-Winner

So, Curry has been the decoy on the previous two game-ending plays. Curry is completely gassed.  So he is again the decoy for this play at the end of the second overtime.  This play ends up involving Ezeli and Livingston, two of the more rested Warriors.

At the start of this play, Evan Turner is guarding Curry directly.  Curry unsubtly runs up and bear hugs Livingston's defender, Jonas Jerebko #11. At this point, Turner probably needs to switch to guarding Livingston. Do you think the Warriors believe Turner is sharp with his switches? I don't either. So Turner really muffs up the switch and doesn't realize Livingston is cutting until he's long gone and receiving the pass. Or it's possible that he has firm orders to never leave Curry. Two men are now guarding Curry.

Sullinger alertly covers for Turner by switching onto Livingston. The second Sullinger switches, HIS man, Ezeli, is now free to cut to the basket. Livingston passes to Ezeli. Crowder alertly switches onto Ezeli (all these Celtics have been whip sharp switchers except for Turner). Ezeli is not Draymond Green, so he doesn't realize Iguodala is now open in the right corner since Crowder left him.  Instead, he powers to the basket and is met by a relentless Jerebko. He was screened early by Curry, but didn't give up on the play. Ezeli fights hard for the rebound and knocks it to Livingston. Shaun still has to make some clutch free throws, but this play has now finally sealed the game.

If you want to read more breakdowns, check out the rest of the series of Explain One Play articles. For the full updated index, go to The Explain One Play series index.