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Explain One Play: Stephen Curry volleyball pass for deathblow three

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This is a deep dive video analysis of plays from the Pacers-Warriors game on Jan 22 2016.

"Imma finish this triple double that LB almost stole from me."
"Imma finish this triple double that LB almost stole from me."
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

This is an epically long play that sealed the game for the Warriors against the Pacers. We're late in the fourth, and the Pacers have kept the game in the 6-10 point range for most of the fourth quarter. One push will either make this a winnable game for the Pacers, or put them away for good.

This play is so epic that we broke it into four parts. You can see it all in a row at the end.

Part the First.  The Pacers Volunteer a 4-on-3

This play begins strangely. You can see that the play begins, as a number of Warriors plays do, with Stephen Curry bringing it up on one side and then swinging it through Draymond Green at the top, with the other side wing Klay Thompson coming up to receive a pass from Draymond. This is the look that starts a Spurs set Motion Strong (See One Warriors Play: Spurs Play + Curry = Bogut Dunk) and the Warriors use it to flow into a few different plays.  But something odd happens this time. Draymond never passes it to Klay. Instead:

yes, Draymond drives into the paint and suddenly the Warriors have a 4-on-3. Draymond hits the open Barnes who is perhaps more used to shooting all the way from the corner, and bricks the baseline jumper.  (Barnes's shot since his return has been like Andre Iguodala's in its erraticness.)

How did the 4-on-3 happen? The simplest answer is that Paul George just tries to intercept the Curry pass to Draymond and Green just takes off leaving him behind. It looks more like Paul George wanted to double team Curry, but Monta Ellis is nearby and he shows no interest in double teaming Curry. Strange.

Part the Second. The Foolish Steal Attempt

Anyway, Barnes misses the open jumper, which might have finished the game off. But he didn't, which was probably pretty frustrating to Curry.  So Curry tries to make something spectacular happen and he lunges to intercept the outlet pass to the Monta Ellis. He whiffs badly and ends up about ten feet behind the play. If the Pacers can space well and attack, they will have a 5-on-4 advantage. So what happens? Watch.

Monta tries to drive past Draymond and gets the ball stripped. I feel like I've seen that play before from when Monta was a Warrior. But in fairness, the Pacers don't have any spacing to take advantage of the numbers advantage. It is instructive to see how calmly the Warriors deal with Curry's bad gamble.  Draymond Green seamlessly switches to pick up Monta. Andre picks up the next Pacer over. As Curry runs to catch up to the play, you can see Andre point out clearly whom Steph should pick up (Glenn Robinson III coming down the middle).  The Warriors defense shows their experience switching and communicating assignments clearly in disorder.

Part The Third. Counter-attack!

So, at the end of the last clip, Green had just stolen the ball, and Andre picks it up and pushes it up court quickly. He soon finds he doesn't have numbers, and not being Steph he pulls the ball out instead of firing up some crazy shot and corrupting the youth of the world. But then he sees Steph trailing the play and pitches it to him. Steph, actually being Steph, attacks 4-on-4 immediately and this happens:

Remember that Monta got caught under the net at the end of the last play, so Steph is quicker than everyone in front of him, and he attacks before the Pacers can get organized. Somewhere during the drive, the ball is knocked loose into the air, so Steph rises up and does a perfect volleyball pass straight to Barnes in the corner. My guess is that Curry saw Barnes open in the corner the whole time and meant to pass it to him, and once the ball got in the air, he figured he could still get it to Barnes. Barnes should have an open 3, but Monta Ellis has finally arrived very late in the play and he challenges Barnes.

My favorite little thing about this subclip is that Curry gets the ball in triple-threat position before the dribble: he can dribble & drive, he can pass or he can shoot. Except that unlike the usual triple-threat, he is a yard past the three-point line, but because he's Steph, when he ball fakes from TWENTY SEVEN FEET away, Robinson and Solomon Hill both come out to challenge, and Hill gets way up in the air on the shot fake.

Also notice how in the chaos, nobody takes responsibility for defending Curry! With Monta out at the start of the play, Hill was briefly responsible (you can see Paul George pointing and yelling for him to pick up Curry), but he just jumps himself out of the play and makes things worse by leaking out. Robinson digs in and gets the deflection (I think), but he doesn't follow Curry. I think he believes Paul George has Curry, since he's closest.   George is temporarily trying to cover three men: Curry, Barnes and Klay.

Part the Fourth: Soul Crushing Deathblow

Curry quietly tiptoes to the corner while everyone watches Barnes and Klay. Curry gets the pass, and everyone in the arena knows this will be the backbreaking 3 that seals the game.

It's very operatic to rewatch the clip and follow Paul George's nightmare unfold.  First, Barnes drives to attack Monta's closeout, but George comes out to stop the drive. Whew, all is good. But wait. What is Monta doing right next to him? He frantically points towards Curry to get Monta to switch on to Curry. At the same time, Klay also points at Curry to get Barnes to pass to him. Then Solomon Hill wanders back into the play at the right elbow and also points at Curry, as if to scream, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? or SOMEONE SAVE US or to cast the Finger of Death spell. When the pass goes to Curry, Paul George slaps his arms down in disgust and there's enough arc on Curry's shot for George to shake his head several times and mutter "Lord, why have you forsaken me??"  The Pacers never recover after this play.

The Whole Play

Let's reflect for a second. The Pacers just ran an early offense attack on the Warriors with numbers but can't get spacing, so the W's handle the attack by smoothly switching and communicating. The Warriors counter attack and because of Curry's early attack and gravity, the Pacers actually OUTNUMBER the Warriors 5 to 4 (Draymond doesn't show up on screen until the last second of the clip), but they are completely confused about assignments so two players don't cover anyone at the end and Curry is wide open. The Warriors have become masters at getting spacing and finding the open man.

Here's the whole play.

(You can really see Klay pointing out Curry in the corner in Jae's video.)

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.