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Explain One Play: Stephen Curry butt-whumps for Kevin Durant dunk

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Stephen Curry screens for Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala slam-dunks in the Warriors-Celtics game on Nov 18, 2016.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics
Fast Breakin’: Electric Boogaloo 2
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

I like big screens and I cannot lie

This will be the second consecutive Explain post about Stephen Curry’s screens. But I am just a fan. (Last two: Explain One Play: Kevin Durant and Draymond Green Get Open Dunks and Explain One Play: Kevin Durant Alley-oops, Stephen Curry Screens.) With all respect to Russell Westbrook’s force-of-nature power, I don’t recall him setting screens for Durant. To be honest, I cannot recall Westbrook setting a screen at all.

From this Vantage Sports 2015-2016 breakdown:

The Thunder big men (Adams, Kanter, Ibaka) set 87% of the Thunder’s on-ball screens, followed by 10.2% for their small forwards (mostly Durant), and 2.8% for their guards (mostly Andre Roberson who is barely a guard).

The [Warriors’] bigs still set a significant portion of these screens at 79.7% (Green, Bogut, Ezeli). Where the Warriors are different is that their guards (Curry, Thompson, Livingston, Barbosa) are setting 9.5% of their screens, while their small forwards (Iguodala, Barnes, and Rush) are at 10.9%. This is a significant difference.

It is so powerful when a scorer sets a screen, as their defender will not want to switch away. Probably a third of the Warriors’ highlight plays have come from Curry being Sir Screen-a-lot. When Durant talks about “selfless” players on the Warriors, this is a bit of what he means.

You other players can’t deny

There’s a simple action that the Warriors have been running all year which opposing teams have been unable to deny. I’m surprised the play hasn’t been scouted out thoroughly by now. Certainly the Warriors will have to go to counters in a few weeks. Here’s an example from the Phoenix game — the very first play:

The play begins with Curry feeding the ball to the wing, and rip-cutting down the side of the lane using a back-screen at the elbow (this is often called a UCLA cut (for reasons to be explained below). Then he turns around and back-screens for the wing, who gives it back to the elbow screener and cuts backdoor (usually for a dunk). Curry really puts the “back” in back-screen by swinging his butt around to impede the scrambling defender.

And a round screen in your face, you get sprung

And on Friday against the Celtics, the Warriors used this and variants to get layups. Here’s a version with Andre Iguodala as the wing and Draymond Green as the elbow screen. If you know the play, you can predict who will screen next and who will cut backdoor.

Curry UCLA-cuts, then doubles back to back-screen for Iguodala who feeds Green and cuts backdoor. Curry’s screen springs him free, Green hits him with a nice bounce pass and it’s a dunk.

The Dubs also experimented with a variant, which has the same core idea. Watch:

Here, Curry feeds the elbow screener directly and then rip-cuts using the ball handler as a screen. Then he — wait for it — doubles back to back-screen for Durant. The spacing in this version is funny — Klay Thompson also cuts down the lane which distracts the Celtic defender, Kelly Olynyk, for a split second until Durant is almost on top of him. Durant gets the foul call (looked like all ball?).

The UCLA cut

This play is part of the whole theme this year of beating switches. In this case, it’s a three-man game, which is much harder to switch than a simple two-man game (like a pick-and-roll) because three players have to negotiate the switch on the fly.

This kind of play has a long history. The UCLA cut was made famous by legendary UCLA coach John Wooden. There are whole offenses built around this kind of action, notably Jerry Sloan’s Utah Jazz of the John Stockton / Karl Malone era. This was a good fit because, for all of Stockton’s dirty play, he was a tremendous decision-maker and, like Curry, a willing screener as a point guard.

Here is a little clip of the Jazz running a similar play to the one dissected above. In this version, you see the pass to the wing, the UCLA cut off a screen at the elbow, and Stockton doubling back to screen for Malone at the elbow (the Dubs play has the screen for the wing). Sorry about the music.

In honor of this video and Jerry Sloan, let’s call this play UCLA Buttonhook in the future. We’ll probably see it at least once a game until teams begin stopping it.

KD got back

The uptick in weak-side actions that the Warriors are running when Durant has the ball in the high post makes it that much harder to double-team him, and Shaun Livingston got a dunk when the Celtics finally did blitz Durant.

Durant is the first Warrior who can consistently punish a mismatch. Curry punishes big men in aggregate because he’s often dropping 3s over them. But his raw scoring success in isolations is probably lower than Durant’s. So when the Celtics try to wrestle and tackle Curry, after a few screens and switches, Durant has someone to shoot over. Last year, if Curry had a bad game like tonight, the W’s probably would have lost. Great to have the margin of error!

Further reading

If you want to read more video breakdowns — one for every Warriors’ win since 2015 — 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.