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Explain One Play: Illegal Screen Calls Wipe Out Two Curry 3s

This is a deep dive video analysis of plays from the Pistons-Warriors game on Jan 16 2016.

One of several no-calls.
One of several no-calls.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Very nice game from the Pistons. If you want to blame something for the loss, blame disorganized defense plus nightmarish shooting from the non-Curry's (21-68, 57 pts on 30.9%).  Don't blame the controversial illegal screen calls that wiped two long Stephen Curry 3's off the scoreboard during the Warriors 3rd quarter rally.

However. We can't help talking about the plays here, since we've already started an Illegal Screen Watch in this series. Recall that we grade the screens in our plays on a scale of 0 (illegal, insane moving octopus criminal battery) to 10 (perfectly legal).

(We are not trained NBA referees, but we can read the guidelines.  For our future reference, I've included the League memo on Illegal Screens at the end of this article.)

Illegal Screen Call #1.

Here, the Warriors have clawed back to a 10 point deficit and Curry strolls down court and launches a gorgeous long 3 with 20 sec on the shot clock (benchable offense for 99% of other players).  Unfortunately, Leandro Barbosa bumps into Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

There are three interpretations of what Barbosa was doing. If you interpret Barbosa's movement as a screen, he is moving and this is illegal.

If you interpret Barbosa as making a normal offensive movement, such as getting to a spot on the floor, then this is either incidental contact and thus a no-call (which is hard to argue since one of them ended up on the floor dislodged), or two players going for the same spot on the floor, and the foul goes to whoever got there second (hard to judge).

It is possible that Leandro wasn't trying to hit him... but he didn't avoid the contact either. And because KCP is trying to get to Curry, and Barbosa is between Curry's defender and Curry, I believe this is a screen and an illegal one.

If this collision had occurred away from the play, you might have a no-call, or a foul on whoever initiated the contact. I believe this call is correct, but it could also have easily been a no-call.  My rating: 4/10 legal.

Then again, I haven't really forgiven the NBA for calling Lebron's slide tackle of Curry "incidental contact".

Illegal Screen Call #2.

Okay, let's just focus on this exact play and not larger issues of referee justice.

Advanced Pop Quiz: what play are the Warriors running?

Yep, it's High HORNS (or 45), which we discussed just last post in Explain One Play: Curry Dunks. Yes, Curry Dunks, and more thoroughly in One Play: The W's Stop and Steal a Clippers Play.

Here is another angle on the play.

By the strict rules, Ezeli has set an illegal screen. First, his feet are un-naturally wide apart (Rule: "inside of his legs/feet at about shoulder‐width".  Second, he leans slightly towards the defender before contact ( a screener may not "move laterally or toward an opponent being screened, after having assumed a legal position.")  However, by NBA standards, this is a pretty legal screen.

For instance, here are two Pistons screens from the same game:

You can see that Andre Drummond leans over to make better contact with Klay Thompson. He leans even more than Ezeli and his foot comes up higher.

Here Ersan Ilyasova sets s screen with over-wide stance and sliding towards Curry. Worse than Ezeli's screen.

So I would rate the screens: Ezeli: 8/10 legal, Drummond: 7/10 legal, Ilyasova, 6/10 legal.  I personally think that they are no-calls taken in isolation. So as a single call, I think this is a terrible call.

HOWEVER. Ezeli's screen was not in isolation. Look at the previous play.

Illegal Screen (No-)Call #3.

In the following clip of the previous play, no foul was called.  Enjoy Curry's deep three, but keep an eye on Festus Ezeli's screen on Steve Blake.

The initial screen is excellent. But the followthrough: "move... toward an opponent being screened", check. "grab, hold, push or unnaturally restrict an opponent's movement," check on all counts. "If he gets brave and come in your space, smack him in the mouth and say I'M A LINEBACKER let's go!" Check.  Rating: 0/10 legal.

So in my opinion, the referee let one Ezeli takedown go, but called the following play extra strictly as a make-up.

Final Thoughts

That Stephen Curry can shoot, huh? He made about five super deep threes in a row, not even counting his logo-distance three earlier.

Refs do this all the time. They try to call a "fair" game and even out calls. For instance, the immortal end of regulation of Pelicans Game Three (see A Tale of Two Threes: Key Plays from Game 3 Warriors/Pelicans) featured two brilliant Curry 3s. On the first one, he travelled subtly. On the second, he got clobbered into the stands. I personally think two no-calls was the just outcome, but it's not the objectively correct way to call the game. Is there a better alternative? I don't know. NBA refereeing is hard.

Anyway, this was an exploration of the messy world of illegal and legal screens. If I REALLY wanted to complain, I would have dialed up all the no-calls on violent contact on Warriors drives...

Appendix: The Definitive Memo on Illegal Screens

From the NBA's Nov 4 2015 memo to the teams and supplement:


A screen is the legal action of a player who, without causing undue contact, delays or prevents an opponent from reaching a desired position.

RULE NO. 12—FOULS AND PENALTIES B. Personal Foul Section III—By Screening

A player who sets a screen shall not (1) assume a position nearer than a normal step from an opponent, if that opponent is stationary and unaware of the screener’s position, or (2) make illegal contact with an opponent when he assumes a position at the side or front of an opponent, or (3) assume a position so near to a moving opponent that he is not given an opportunity to stop and/or change direction before making illegal contact, or (4) move laterally or toward an opponent being screened, after having assumed a legal position. The screener may move in the same direction and path of the opponent being screened.

In (3) above, the speed of the opponent being screened will determine what the screener’s stationary position may be. This position will vary and may be one to two normal steps or strides from his opponent.


  • When a player screens in front of or at the side of a stationary opponent, he may be as close as he desires providing he does not make contact. His opponent can see him and, therefore, is expected to detour around the screen.
  • If he screens behind a stationary opponent, the opponent must be able to take a normal step backward without contact. Because the opponent is not expected to see a screener behind him, the player screened is given latitude of movement. The defender must be given an opportunity to change direction and avoid contact with the screener.
  • To screen a moving opponent, the player must stop soon enough to permit his opponent the opportunity to stop and/or change direction. The distance between the player screening and his opponent will depend upon the speed at which the players are moving.
  • If two opponents are moving in the same direction and path, the player who is behind is responsible for contact. The player in front may stop or slow his pace, but he may not move backward or sideward into his opponent. The player in front may or may not have the ball. This situation assumes the two players have been moving in identically the same direction and path before contact.

The "Spot":

A player establishes a legal screening position in the path of an opponent when he beats him to the imaginary "spot" on the floor where contact ultimately occurs. Beating the player to the "spot" means that if the opponent is:

  • Stationary and [the screener is] in an area that could be visible to the defender, the screener needs to get in the path of his opponent, he does not need to give him any room, but he cannot initiate contact;
  • Stationary and  [the screener is] outside the defender’s field of vision, the screener must give his opponent room to take at least one step toward him; or
  • Moving, the screener must give his opponent enough room to avoid the screen (even if the opponent ultimately initiates contact with the screener).

Legal Screening Position:

To be in a legal screening position, the screener must:

  • Have his legs/feet balanced so that he can move in any direction, with the inside of his legs/feet at about shoulder-width (i.e., a foot cannot be outside shoulder- width, and/or he cannot be in an unnatural/imbalanced stance),
  • Have his arms near the front of his body (i.e., he cannot extend them out),
  • Have his elbows extended to the sides no further than when his wrists are touching in the center of his body, and
  • Not grab, hold, push or unnaturally restrict an opponent’s movement.


The screener can be moving to firm up his position when contact occurs provided that if the movement is in his:

  • Chest, shoulders or hips, he absorbs the contact from the oncoming player and doesn’t deliver it (e.g., by turning with the opponent rather resisting or restricting his movement or softening his stance to allow the opponent to move through the screen); or
  • Legs or feet, contact occurs to the screener’s upper body (chest, shoulder, etc.), and not in his legs or feet.

If the above criteria are met, any contact by the screening player is deemed incidental in the player’s effort to screen his opponent.

Further from the NBA Rule Book: Comments On The Rules / Basic Principles / A. Contact Situations

1. Incidental Contact. The mere fact that contact occurs does not necessarily constitute a foul. Contact which is incidental to an effort by a player to play an opponent, reach a loose ball, or perform normal defensive or offensive movements, should not be considered illegal. If, however, a player attempts to play an opponent from a position where he has no reasonable chance to perform without making contact with his opponent, the responsibility is on the player in this position.

2. Guarding an Opponent. In all guarding situations, a player is entitled to any spot on the court he desires, provided he legally gets to that spot first and without contact with an opponent. If a defensive or offensive player has established a position on the floor and his opponent initiates contact that results in the dislodging of the opponent, a foul should be called IMMEDIATELY.

During all throw-ins, the defensive player(s) must be allowed to take a position between his man and the basket.

A player may continue to move after gaining a guarding position in the path of an opponent provided he is not moving directly or obliquely toward his opponent when contact occurs. A player is never permitted to move into the path of an opponent after the opponent has jumped into the air.

A player who extends a hand, forearm, shoulder, hip or leg into the path of an opponent and thereby causes contact is not considered to have a legal position in the path of an opponent. A player is entitled to a vertical position even to the extent of holding his arms above his shoulders, as in post play or when double-teaming in pressing tactics.

Any player who conforms to the above is absolved from responsibility for any contact by an opponent which may dislodge or tend to dislodge such player from the position which he has attained and is maintaining legally. If contact occurs, the official must decide whether the contact is incidental or a foul has been committed.

If you want to read more video 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.

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