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Explain One Play: Stephen Curry & Draymond Green punish Spurs-style switches

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How will the Warriors counter the Spurs switching defense? The end of the Timberwolves game on Mar 21 2016 gives us a preview.

Luke: "It's a giraffe... no a walrus... damn I'm no good at Pictionary."
Luke: "It's a giraffe... no a walrus... damn I'm no good at Pictionary."
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

What a grindfest. Draymond Green seemed to be the Warrior with the most energy at the end of the game and his activity on defense and the boards made the difference down the stretch. Stephen Curry looked exhausted, but even though his jumpers were not falling, he made numerous hustle and heady plays as well.

Beating The Spurs Switching D

I want to analyze some key plays at the end of the game. Why would I want to focus on plays in this zombie-like performance by the Warriors at the end of a road trip during an intense part of the schedule?  Because the Wolves played an imperfect version of the Spurs defense, and the Warriors are working on improving their counters against this D.

The current defensive strategy against the Warriors is to switch assignments on all screens (plus some double teaming of Stephen Curry). It is, ironically, the defense that the Warriors themselves have been pioneering this year and last via their Small Ball Death Squad.

How does one punish a switching defense? Here are some ideas:

  1. Get a mismatch and run an isolation play. The Warriors do run this when Draymond posts up a small defender, or when Curry gets a big defender.  But a really good defending team like the Spurs (or the Warriors!) can put midsized mobile flexible defenders making the mismatches less unfair.
  2. Keep running your offense, and force switched defenders to play unfamiliar situations. For instance, bigs generally aren't used to navigating screens in pick and roll, and smalls aren't used to guarding the screener.  Or smalls aren't used to boxing out and rebounding and bigs aren't used to guarding drivers in space.
  3. Run actions that force complicated switches. For instance, run plays where a player sets a screen, then immediately gets a screen. So their switched defender has to decide stay with the first switch or switch to the second screener. This is usually called Screen The Screener action.

The Warriors had some trouble punishing the switching defense all game, but down the stretch they grinded out the points they needed from Principles #2 and #3 above.

4:02. Tied 99-99. Draymond Hustle Putback

Advanced Reader Quiz: What is the original play here before Anderson Varejao drops the ball and blows the play?

It is a very tired and sloppy HORNS Curl play (two bigs at the free throw line elbows, two smalls in the low corners). (Full discussion here: Explain One Play: Klay Thompson curls a go-ahead three.)

Curry is supposed to run by Varejao and get a fake handoff, then Varejao is supposed to hit Klay coming around Draymond's down screen. Notice how the Wolves switch assignments on every screen. Because Curry's man, #5 Gorgei Dieng, switches to Varejao, he blows up the play by swarming Varejao and dislodging the ball. The play devolves to a Klay Thompson isolated at the top.

Now early in the play, because the Wolves switched everything, Ricky Rubio begins guarding Curry and switches to Draymond. Notice how Draymond is begging for the ball to post up Rubio. Klay instead drives by Dieng and forces Rubio to help. Klay is bothered enough to miss the layup, but Draymond easily boxes out the small Rubio to get the huge putback.

Switch punished!

1:56. Tied 101-101. Curry to Draymond Dunk

This play ends up being a vanilla Draymond-Curry wing pick and roll. But it's interesting to follow Dieng who starts off guarding Barnes. Watch all the decisions he has to make and who he has to communicate with on defense.

Poor Dieng starts off on Barnes. Barnes goes to set a screen for Draymond, so you see Dieng call out the switch to Karl-Anthony Towns. Now Dieng is following Draymond all across the floor to Dray's screen for Curry.  Dieng has seen Sportscenter, so he switches to Curry and steps up to challenge his three point shot. However, Rubio did not get the message, and he follows Curry as well.

Curry masterfully drives down the middle slowly enough to maintain everyone's attention. Draymond sneaks straight to the basket, silent but deadly. Dunk. Switch punished!

1:23. W's 103-101. Curry Rebounds Barnes Missed 3

The last play worked so well, the Warriors run it again. The Wolves have mixed up defensive assignments due to the Warriors attacking in early offense.  The Warriors don't mind. Once again, Barnes pre-screens for Draymond, when then runs over to screen for Curry.  There are all new victims, so the play works EXACTLY the same as before, except for one difference...

At the start, Tayshaun Prince guards Barnes, but he has to switch to Draymond and then immediately switch to Curry. He does not communicate this to Andrew Wiggins, so they both go to Curry.

Draymond sneaks to the basket. Curry hits Draymond with the exact same pass. HOWEVER, Towns refuses to be burned again, and he hauls butt to stop Draymond's drive, leaving Harrison Barnes waiting for a catch and shoot 3. Nice pass from Draymond, quality shot, miss by Barnes who is in Month 3 of a horrible jump shooting slump.

Prince ignores Barnes to stay on Curry, but he doesn't get a body or keep track of Curry. So Steph sneaks in while Draymond harasses the rebounding Rubio and Towns, and Curry manages to steal the rebound. Outstanding hustle play.

1:10. W's 103-101. Freaking Awesome Out of Bounds Play

I was going to write about this play alone, but I got carried away. The play makes a lot more sense in the context of the Warriors trying to counter the Timberwolves switching defense, and so I wrote a little more, a little more, and... you suffer the price.

Here's the play, which ends in a Draymond layup. The question for you is how the heck did Dray get open?

This is a freaking awesome play which gives the Warriors a cushion that they never give up. I don't recall the Warriors ever running it before, but I expect to see it again in the future.

This is a classic screen-the-screener type of action (see above #3). The play starts with Klay setting a screen for Curry. Barnes sets a plausible second screen for Curry, but the you can tell their heart isn't in it, because the real action is on the other side.

Right after Klay sets the screen, Draymond sets a screen for Klay. (There's the screen-the-screener part.) By the Wolves switching scheme, Prince begins guarding Draymond, but he has to switch to Klay who is cutting to the corner. Scheme or no scheme, if he doesn't switch, Klay will have an open jumper. So Prince switches.

The real challenge is for Rubio. He starts off guarding Curry, but he has to switch right away to Klay on the first screen. But Draymond immediately hits him on his blind side with a screen as Rubio turns to follow Klay. He has to decide in that split second whether to follow Klay or if someone (like Prince) has switched. Very tough to communicate that in a split second. He pauses for a moment and just as Prince leaves Dray, Draymond suddenly cuts to the basket. Good pass, easy finish, end of game.

If your scheme is to switch all screens (and this is almost universal at the end of NBA games), I don't see a way to stop this play unless you game plan specifically for it. I imagine there are some other counters if the rest of the NBA gets wise.

Final Quotes

From Ethan Sherwood Strauss's Draymond Green delivers for Golden State Warriors:

Of the switching strategy, Green said, "If they’re going to continue to do that, I’m going to continue to make sure I’m taking advantage of the team’s guards, whether that’s in the post. And it’s not just scoring, it’s making plays out of the post, it’s attacking off the dribble, offensive rebound, offensive glass. ... Teams are going to continue to play us like that because they saw us lose one game doing that and they think it’s the answer. Well, that’s fine. We’ll do what we do."

The switching sets the stage for Green to come through, to leverage his multifaceted skill set against a defense focused on the Splash Brothers -- Curry and Klay Thompson. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of the phenomenon, "It’s been easy to see his shooting and scoring is coming back. It’s been coming back the last few games. What’s happening now is everybody’s switching out on the guards. Three games in a row now -- Dallas, San Antonio and Minnesota -- they’re just switching everything and that gives Draymond a ton of room to work with inside and down on the block. So, he’s going to score more when teams play us that way."

From the ESPN AP writeup Warriors vs. Timberwolves - Game Recap - March 21, 2016 - ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs have given the rest of the NBA a defensive blueprint for beating the Golden State Warriors.

If the defensively challenged Minnesota Timberwolves can nearly pull it off, the defending champions should expect to see it a lot more down the stretch as they chase history....

With Minnesota's defense switching screens on the perimeter to stop Stephen Curry, Draymond Green stepped up by making 10 of 13 shots from the field.

After the Spurs aggressively switched on every screen and held Golden State to 79 points in a victory on Saturday, the Timberwolves employed the same strategy and nearly pulled off an upset....

The Wolves have struggled mightily on defense since turning things over to their youngest players, but interim coach Sam Mitchell implemented the new strategy to great effect.

"I think San Antonio did a pretty good job and we followed their game plan," Rubio said. "It was different than what we used to do, but I think we came up big."

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.