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Explain One Play: Stephen Curry's next level backdoor layup

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This is a deep dive video analysis of plays from the Cavaliers-Warriors game on Jan 18 2016.

This move smells like champagne.
This move smells like champagne.
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Cavaliers came in with their B game and the Warriors came in with their A game, and it was a wall to wall blowout. Throughout this game (and if you are a Warriors fan, you really owe it to yourself to rewatch the first three quarters of this game), the Warriors executed crisply on offense, burning the Cavs on multiple plays by countering their aggressive defense with counters, and they communicated beautifully on defense.

First, A Bonus Play: Warriors Switch the Switch to Get Andre Iguodala a Fast Break Dunk

Well, this play ends with an Andre dunk. But it begins with some excellent Warriors defense. Watch the play and focus on who guards LeBron James and when. By my count, three different Warriors guard him one-on-one: first Iguodala, then Klay Thompson, then Draymond Green, while Curry fakes a double team, and Shaun Livingston actually digs down to double-team LeBron. This is a team that is really used to guarding LeBron. Watch.

There is some meandering off-ball play by the Cavs as LeBron posts up: a couple of cuts to the lane, a half-hearted down screen, but none of the Cavs seem convinced they will get the ball. LeBron proves them right.

The play starts with Andre guarding LeBron. Then he switches with Klay Thompson on the barest of LeBron screens (I don't understand why the Warriors switch Iguodala off LeBron so easily on these perfunctory screens), so then Klay is guarding LeBron. This is not as good as Draymond guarding LeBron, so what to do? The Warriors do something I haven't seen them do before. Klay and Draymond look at each other and AS THE BALL IS IN THE AIR to LeBron, they quickly switch behind his back like a magic trick.  I love that. Then somewhere between Draymond and Shaun's harassment, LeBron loses the ball, leading to a scramble and finally the dunk.

Next Level Offense

Okay, this year, Steve Kerr's theme has been "Next Level" and one thing the Warriors have worked on is introducing more options in a play to account for different defensive responses. In particular, the Warriors need to develop play options for when defenses overplay the passes to the three point line. Let's look at one play where the Warriors pulled out a new option tonight.

Level 1. Warriors Rip

We've been following different versions of this play for a while.  You'll see the ball start on the right side and go to the top to Shaun Livingston. Curry is set up in the post(!).  We know Curry is not a post-up threat (yet), so what can he be doing? Well, he and Draymond approach each other. But instead of Draymond setting a screen for Curry to pop out for a three, this happens:

Yes, Curry sets a back screen for Draymond and takes out his defender. Draymond cuts to the basket and gets the pass. Very often, Draymond will get completely open (see Explain One Play: Stephen Curry Screen = Harrison Barnes Dunk DEJA VU! and also search the Explain One Play index for "Rip"). But in this case, Cleveland is ready for the play, and Richard Jefferson switches off of Andre in the corner to contest Draymond's layup. Draymond completes a difficult finish.

Level 2. Rip Curl

The Warriors recently introduced a new twist on the play. You'll see it starts in the same way with the same personnel except Harrison Barnes has the ball up top instead of Livingston.  You'll see Curry come up to set a back screen on Draymond's defender, and Draymond cuts to the hoop. But Curry slips the screen and instead comes to the perimeter and curls around Barnes's screen to drive (and dish to Green for a baseline drive).

When I first wrote about this in Explain One Play: Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green throw down huge dunks, I wasn't sure how much of this was an improvisation, but after seeing the next play tonight, I see it's a set play.

Level 3. Rip Curl Backdoor

Here is the Next Level of this play.  The play will start much like Level 1 & 2 with the ball swinging to the top, Curry stepping up to back screen Draymond Green's defender. Then just like Level 2, Green cuts through to the far corner and Livingston at the top passes the ball off in order to set a screen for Curry to curl around. Curry absolutely looks like he is going to come up to the top to curl and gives Kyrie a touch push off, but then...

...instead of cutting to the top and curling around Livingston, he suddenly changes direction and cuts to the basket.  Klay threads in a lovely pass and Curry completes an elegant layup.  A move where an off-ball player moves away from the basket and then surprise cuts towards the basket is often called a backdoor cut.

Rewatch the clip and watch poor Kyrie Irving. He's aggressively staying with Curry from the start of the clip. He's holding his arm like they're at the spring formal together.  He hugs Curry as he sets the back screen (Timothy Mozgov is zoning so far away from Green that Curry can't do much to screen him). And then Curry gives him that tell-tale touch push-off which almost always means Curry is cutting to the arc to use the screen, so Kyrie turns on the jets. He is going to beat Curry to the screen and not let him even use the screen. And he does beat Curry to the Livingston screen, but only because Curry went the other way.

Final Thoughts

I've said it before: Stephen Curry makes the most miraculous plays, but nothing gets me and Oracle Arena pumped up as much as an Andre Iguodala slam dunk. I love his burst of surprising athleticism that mixes grace, power and fear that he's going to injure himself.

The game does not prove the Cavs would lose a series against the Warriors in June, but it does disprove the idea that adding Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to the Cavs in the Finals would have added 30 points per game and an automatic series win. On the contrary, I (and many) have argued that the injuries forced the Cavs to play the best possible strategy against the Warriors of hard-nosed wrestling defense plus glacial slow pace. Tonight reminded us that Kevin Love is almost unplayable against the Warriors because he simply cannot guard the pick and roll with his man (typically Draymond Green) and Stephen Curry.

Kyrie should be a game-changer because he appears to have the athleticism to be a strong defender and the beautiful shot to play off-ball with Lebron, and the handles to create on-ball.  And yet tonight reminds us that none of those things seem to work. I don't really understand why. In particular, putting Kyrie-Love in pick-and-roll defense regularly led to Warriors success.

This is the problem with a one-dimensional offense: a good defense develops resistance over time to the same play. So the Cavs overused the antibiotic Lebron during the Finals, and the Warriors have figured out that Iguodala is the best on-ball defender of Lebron, followed by Draymond, followed distantly by Klay and Shaun who can guard him in a pinch, and in theory followed distantly by Curry, who somehow guards Lebron better than you'd think (he's not scored against Curry in many attempts, though he has done damage from kickout passes).  The Warriors have an array of real and fake double teams to throw at LeBron, and multiple players have experience playing goalie to contain his drives.  As for now, the Cavs should on paper have multiple looks on offense to throw at the W's, but I haven't seen anything work, and you can't play Love and Kyrie with poor defense unless they make it up and more on offense.

Illegal Screen Watch

See Explain One Play: Illegal Screen Calls Wipe Out Two Curry 3s for the definitive look at illegal screens. Recall that we grade the screens in our plays on a scale of 0 (illegal, insane moving octopus criminal battery) to 10 (perfectly legal).

Level 1. Curry screen: He absolutely grabs, wrestles and hangs for dear life onto Draymond's defender. Rating: 0/10 legal.

Level 2. Curry screen: He slipped the screen, so there wasn't really a screen. Barnes weak side screen for Klay: his elbow came out a little bit, but this is quite legal by NBA standards. Rating: 9.5/10 legal.

Level 3. Curry screen: Mozgov was too far away for Curry to really screen... he just reached out to tag him. Livingston weak side screen for Klay: I believe this is 100% legal. Livingston is allowed to move along with the screened man. Rating: 10/10 legal!

Switch the Switch Play. Lebron's screen: so perfunctory that even though it's moving, you could never call that a foul. Rating: 9.5/10 legal. Iman Shumpart's weak side screen of Iguodala: moving and grabby. Certainly illegal, but the fact that it didn't influence the play plus the fact that he ran into his man more than the dodging Andre makes this a no-call. Rating: 3/10 legal.

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.