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.
Some players in this league can’t be handled one-on-one, and the surliest of them all visited Oracle Arena tonight: Russell Westbrook. This season he is unleashed with a onstant green light to shoot and create for teammates. He reminds me most of Kobe Bryant 2004-2006, free of his co-superstar and eagerly shouldering the load to prove to the world what he can do. And like Kobe, he is strong, quick to the basket, highly athletic and an outstanding leaper and dunker, a decent passer, in perpetual alpha aggression mode.
Now a look at the box score shows Westbrook shot 4 for 15 with 10 assists and 6 turnovers. The most naive take would be that Stephen Curry shut down Westbrook. This is not what happened, though Curry did play his most focused defensive game of the season. A second take might be that the Warriors hid Curry by having Klay Thompson cover Westbrook. For the most part this is not what happened either.
The Warriors played Westbrook with the same principles they’ve used in the past, and using a system the 2008 Celtics used to contain Kobe Bryant: they shadowed Westbrook with a goalie backup. This is a go-to strategy for the Warriors against outstanding one-on-one players. We’ve seen it against Damian Lillard last game, LeBron James, James Harden (Guardin' Harden: The New Warriors Defense), Anthony Davis (Explain One Play: Curry finishes the And-1 layup) and others.
Draymond, goalie for hire
Here’s an example. Watch the play to get a feel for what happens. You’ll see Westbrook start with the ball, give it up, then loop under the basket, get the ball back and after some more passing he’ll have the ball at a standstill with the shot clock winding down, three feet behind the three-point arc. He makes it, but that’s a shot the defense will take every time.
Watch it again, but focus on Curry’s defense. Watch him fight through the screen, and then gamely body up Westbrook and keep him from driving.
Okay, then watch it one more time and ask yourself, who is Draymond Green guarding? (Tip: He starts the clip right on the logo and backs up to be blocked by the basket.) Go ahead, I’ll wait, because this is the whole point of the article.
Yes, he’s officially guarding the rookie #3 Domantas Sabonis, but by 15 on the shot clock, he has completely abandoned his man (who scoots all the way across court) in order to back up Curry at the right block and protect against Westbook driving past him. As Westbrook rounds the corner and gets one pass away from Sabonis, Green stunts out to discourage a pass. Steven Adams sees that Sabonis is loosely covered, so he kicks the ball out to him, but Draymond recovers easily.
Westbrook against the human wall
The 2008 Celtics expected Kobe Bryant to start pressing once they shielded off the lane from him. He would either fire inefficient contested 2s or drive into a wall of arms. The Warriors certainly expected the same thing from Westbrook. Here’s an example where Westbrook presses and tries to do too much. He pushes the ball in early offense, but the Dubs are back. Here’s the play.
It’s particularly poignant at 20 on the shot clock. You can see that not only is Curry back to guard Westbrook, not only is the goalie Green back, but the whole Thunder team is trailing so literally the entire Warriors team has formed a line across the lane walling Westbrook off from the basket. In the distance, Anthony Morrow raises his arms for a pass, then young Sabonis does the same. It is in vain. Westbrook spins into the lane and into the wall and forces the issue so much that of all people Pachulia gets a block without jumping.
The balance of the universe is disturbed when Pachulia actually gets a block, so he of course immediately turns the ball over. The ball luckily goes to Curry who is picked up by two Thunder in transition, so he behind-the-backs a pass to Kevin Durant. Three.
Who is Green guarding on this play? I mean, yes, the point is that Green is being the goalie behind Curry and shadowing Westbrook. But who else does he have responsibility for? As the clip starts, he’s the left-most Warrior.
Well, it’s a little unclear, isn’t it? Klay Thompson is on the weak side guarding two men: Andre Roberson at the wing and Victor Oladipo in the right corner. The Thunder swing the ball around to the under-covered right side, and Green has to figure out his assignment. He quickly sees that Durant is guarding Sabonis, so he has to help Klay on the right side.
The Thunder do the right general thing and get the ball to Sabonis at the top, and Roberson cuts to the basket. This was a standard counter in the playoffs to the Warriors’ leaving Roberson open to have a goalie. When Roberson cuts, Thompson has to decide whether to guard Roberson or Oladipo. Green has to make the same decision. They both decide to guard Oladipo. Oops.
This leads to Roberson handling the ball with Steven Adams under the basket and Pachulia guarding the two of them. Roberson can finish simple layups, but he is still not a good ballhandler. So, perhaps unexpectedly, Pachulia comes through by first deflecting the pass to Adams, then knocking the ball from Roberson for a turnover.
The Warriors as still good at using a goalie. You can see that not every team can do this well, because you need someone like Green who is mobile and can read the floor quickly and who can hang with small attackers or bigs in the paint. You also need a lot of communication and a team used to switching assignments, and you can see from the last clip that the Dubs still have room to grow there. In the past, Andrew Bogut had duty as shadow goalie. Perhaps in the future Kevin Durant could also serve.
Tonight, the Dubs used an extreme version of this defense, because this year there is a more urgent need than in previous years. Basically, Curry and Zaza Pachulia were getting killed on pick and rolls because Curry isn’t big enough to contain smalls with wiry strength and Pachulia is slow in space and usually has negative blocking ability, tonight’s 3 blocks being highly unusual. In a playoff series, the Thunder should be able to develop counters to this goalie overplay, but to get through the season effectively while the defensive chemistry grows, this is an important tool.
Durant must have felt the love tonight as it seemed like everyone, especially Curry, was feeding him. They really wanted him to have a breakout game against his old team. In general, it feels like all year that Curry has been deferring to try to get Durant (and Thompson) going offensively. We also saw a few plays where Curry and Durant ran pick and rolls to force a small to guard Durant allowing him unblockable short jumpers in the lane. That’s going to be a bread and butter play going forward.
ps. I think Andre Iguodala has missed something like five straight fast break layups??
pps. In the poll, 40% of you correctly picked the W’s to win by >10 points. But 32.8% of you also correctly picked that “Karmic justice demands that the Cleveland baseball team blows a 3-1 series lead.” Good job, folks!