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Explain One Play: Warriors defend and attack Twin Towers

We look at how the Rockets adjusted in Game 2 by attacking the Warriors with a Twin Towers offense, and how the Warriors countered. Bonus: six illegal screens by the Rockets and Thunder.

"Does this bother you? I'm not touching you!"
"Does this bother you? I'm not touching you!"
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

One of the big adjustments that the Rockets made from Game 1 was to give Donatas Motiejunas a larger role in the offense. Why not?  DM played pretty well in Game 1 garbage time, and the Grizzlies last year gave the Dubs a hard time with their Big Ball starting Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

So DM moved to power forward next to Dwight Howard, giving the Rockets a Twin Towers look. Unfortunately, the Warriors were able to defend DM through a combination of Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, and on offense, were able to attack DM repeatedly.  The Warriors repeatedly drove past DM and had good looks at the rim, and in the end, neutralized the Twin Towers attack.

Let's have a look at a few plays and we'll comment on Rockets dysfunction along the way. But first...

Ye Olde Illegal Screens Complaint

Everyone in the league sets illegal screens. It's like holding in football, or the catcher in baseball framing a strike by fooling the umpire. It's just a part of the game. The Warriors, however, SET more screens than the rest of the league, and because of their prominence, they get more attention for their illegal screens.

(The actual rules are listed at Explain One Play: Illegal Screen Calls Wipe Out Two Curry 3s. You should read them.)

So if you don't think other teams set illegal screens, we'll point out a few. For example, here are two key plays at the end of the Thunder game... not even cherry picking. These were the highlights shown. See if you can see how Kevin Durant gets open for his shots.

Did you catch it?  In both cases, Steven Adams sets illegal screens where he sharply moves into defenders knocking one to the ground and another out of pursuit. Welcome to the NBA.

Even the holy Rockets set illegal screens. I'll try to point them out in the clips below.

Defending the giant Motiejunas

The Giant Strikes (plus bonus illegal screens)

This long play ends up with the best-case scenario of Motiejunas: he hits a sweet baby hook over the half-foot shorter Draymond Green. But along the way, it might amuse you to assess the screens the Rockets set.

I counted:

  1. (illegal) Motiejunas screens Livingston. It is illegal two, maybe three ways. (1) He holds him. (2) His stance is wider than his shoulders. and (3) when you set a screen behind a defender, you have to give them a step of space.
  2. (legal) Motiejunas screens Klay.
  3. (illegal) Dwight Howard in the left corner screens Shaun Livingston (coming to defend Patrick Beverley). He attempts to do so by sliding and flying an elbow out.
Two Rockets illegal screens in just the first play of the game. Heavens.

Here's another best-case scenario for the Rockets and DM. On this play, DM gets Klay defending him on a switch, and he assertively hits another baby hook.

Once again, entertain yourselves by assessing the Rockets screens.

Okay, I counted:

  1. (illegal) Motiejunas tries to screen Livingston, but ends up shoving him in the back.
  2. (very illegal) Beverley takes a jogging start and lowers his shoulder to drive into Klay.
Okay, so that's the dream of playing Twin Towers.  But the Warriors found ways to defend DM.

Draymond Defends the Giant

Here the Rockets go to a straight post-up isolation of DM on Draymond Green. Draymond is amazingly good at defending these isolations.
Watch Draymond's display of strength and balance.


Draymond would have been a worthy Defensive Player of the Year. (You know, I don't remember caring much about this award before. Is this Warriors-centrism or am I just getting wiser, or are we collectively arguing more about it nowadays?)

Depressing Rockets dysfunction subtext 1: did you notice Beverley feeding DM and then immediately running over to screen Harden's defender, signaling thumbs back for Harden to use his screen? And then how Harden seemed to be zoned out, perhaps because the play was an ISO and wasn't for him. Then at the last second, he sort of acknowledges Beverley, but wanders around aimlessly. This was right after halftime. I don't think this was physical fatigue. I think it's existential ennui.

Klay Defends the Giant

Here's another play where the Rockets get Klay defending DM. (The TV didn't show how that happened... probably an early drag screen.) Watch how Draymond helps, and how Klay gamely stays with DM.

First, Klay bumps DM a few feet farther out than he wants. Then Draymond springs a surprise double-team on DM. Also Andrew Bogut steps up to challenge and put pressure on DM.

Depressing Rockets dysfunction subtext 2: How could Draymond leave a really good three point shooter in James Harden?  You do it if you have no belief that DM will pass out of the double team.  Harden's body language doesn't suggest in anyway that he's expecting DM to kick it out either.

Depressing Rockets dysfunction subtext 3: How can Bogut leave Dwight Howard who can still finish alley-oops with fire? You do it if you have no belief that DM will pass to Howard. Notice Dwight has not given up hope, he raises his arm for a high-low pass. Then Dwight gets the rebound and says, no I must be the change that I want to see. I must kick out this ball even though this is one of the rare times that I get to touch the ball on offense. Then he turns and fires it three feet over DM's head.

Attacking the Giant

Here is how the Warriors attacked Motiejunas on offense. Basically, they knew the Rockets are switching all assignments, so they would have wings screen DM to get him defending them. Then, they would exploit the mismatch in two ways.

#1. Drive past him.

He is after all a big and even Harrison Barnes can turbo past him. Early on in this play you can see Barnes screening DM at the right elbow and then going to the left wing. DM comes out to challenge. Then...

Barnes draws two help defenders on his drive which allows Draymond to sneak in for the putback layup.

#2. Run him off screens

Here Klay runs up and screens DM and gets him to switch. Instead of isolating on him, Klay instead runs a basic dribble handoff with Bogut. Watch.

DM can't navigate the screen (an unusual mostly legal one by Bogut), Dwight doesn't realize he has to switch, and Klay gets a wide open 3.

Final Thoughts

Without particularly trying hard, I found two illegal screens in two Thunder plays and four illegal screens in two Rockets plays. The other two Rockets plays had NO screens, which is pretty old school.  My point is that illegal screens are commonplace for every team. The Warriors screen a lot, so they probably set more illegal screens in absolute numbers. I'll concede that Bogut grabs on screens, if you'll concede that Stephen Curry (and Klay) get grabbed all the time off-ball.

Also, it sort of went without saying, but this was a gutsy win by the Warriors, who didn't play all that precisely. There was an awful lot of stagnant isolations on mismatches, but the Rockets are just too disorganized on defense to make the Warriors pay.

This one got away from me a little -- I just felt I had to respond to the whole illegal screens complaining. Future playoff Explain One Play articles won't be as extensive...

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.