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Explain One Play: The Blueprint to Wins Without Curry

How do the Warriors win without Stephen Curry, the greatest offensive force in history ? Here is the blueprint, illustrated by plays from Game 5 of the 2016 Rockets series.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Blueprint to Life Without Curry

How do the Warriors win without Stephen Curry, the greatest offensive force in history ? They've had mixed results during the year and looked poor to decent. But the playoffs are different and now the Warriors can focus their game plan on one team at a time. They also know they won't have Curry for at least the first three games, maybe all the games of the second round, and when Curry's back, he'll be rusty. So it's a matter of survival to follow a blueprint to winning without Curry.

Here it is.

  1. gritty switching defense (with goalie backup) to keep them in games
  2. fast break opportunities off stops
  3. Klay shooting streaks to get separation
  4. making simple plays to reduce turnovers
  5. post up smaller defenders to pass to cutters (and score)
  6. motion offense to pick on weak defenders without ISOs
Let's look at these principles in action in three plays from the series-clinching win in Game 5 against the Houston Rockets. I want to focus on #6: how the offense picks on weak defenders without clearing out for an isolation and without bogging down the flow of the offense. This is particularly important because some defenders like James Harden and Josh Smith are not bad on-ball defenders, but are very vulnerable off-ball.

Play 1. Punishing a Mismatch

Here is an example of the Next Level version of the oldest play in the Kerr playbook, the Post-Cross split cuts. (See
Explain One Play: Stephen Curry to Open Andrew Bogut Dunk for a good starter on Post-Cross.)  The basic idea of the post-cross play is someone throws the ball to a big in the post, and then someone screens for a shooter popping out for a three.

The simplest way to kill this play is for the defenders to switch assignments at the screen. However, the Warriors run this next-level version which is a switch killer. In this case, Shaun Livingston feeds Andrew Bogut in the post and then cuts by him, threatening to receive a handoff. Bogut now looks for Klay Thompson curling off of Draymond Green's screen. Watch the play unfold as Klay and Dray's defenders try to coordinate a switch.

Trevor Ariza (Klay's defender) and Donatus Motiejunas (Dray's defender) switch on the play. You can see some trouble on the switch, as Ariza wants to follow Klay, so Draymond steps back to receive a pass for a spot-up three. Bogut's pass is very wide and Ariza recovers well.  But look what happens with Klay and DM. DM is a bulky big who is not used to chasing shooters flaring out for spot up threes. So the second DM turns his head, Klay takes off and curls around Bogut. DM cannot recover and Klay gets an open three. Talk about open, Dray has time to chase the ball to half court and Klay still gets a very wide open shot.

That's an example of how you punish a mismatch (Klay on big) without isolating Klay on the big.

Play 2. Punishing A Bad Switch

This is a pretty simple play. This is another post-cross. You'll see Draymond feed Shaun Livingston in the "post" and Draymond will screen for Klay. In this case, watch how the switch (doesn't) unfold.

Klay is again guarded by Ariza, and Dray is guarded by Josh Smith. Dray sets a simple screen and nails Ariza. Josh Smith needs to switch onto Klay.  He does not switch. He hovers in the paint guarding no one, except the demons in his own mind.  Jason Terry realizes that Smith will not be guarding anyone physical on this play and jumps out, but he's too late.

Post-Cross and Shaun Livingston

One subtle thing I love about these two past plays is how they play to the strengths of Shaun S-Dot Livingston. It's been a question how to use S-Dot in the post-cross, because his lack of three-point range makes it easy to switch off him if he's acting at the perimeter. Well, in Play 1, the Warriors have him cut to the basket after the feed (which is a real threat) and have someone else set the screen (Dray). In Play 2, S-Dot is the "post" but they place him right at the free-throw line. As you know, S-Dot is nearly automatic from the distance, so he is a real threat to shoot a turnaround jumper from there.

Play 3. Intense Switching Defense With Goalie

This is now the standard Warriors defense: switch most screens, contest hard at the three-point line, and have a goalie ready to stop drivers.

Here is my favorite play of the night. This play is not the tightest defense, but it has great hustle and communication. See how many switches you can count.

Right at the start of the play, Draymond picks up Jason Terry to stop the fast break. Notice his arm signals to Andre Iguodala to pick up Harden.

  1. Harden immediately screens for Terry, and Andre switches to Terry.
  2. Harden cuts backdoor, a fine cut, and Terry hits him with a nice pass. But Klay saves the day, switching all the way from Ariza in the right corner.
  3. Harden sneaks a pass out to Ariza, and Ezeli switches on to Ariza to drive him off the three point line.
  4. Ariza dribbles past the closeout so Klay switches back to Ariza and stops the drive.
  5. Andre was zoning Harden and Terry at the arc. The two wisely split, so Andre chooses to cover Harden. When Ariza passes to Terry, Andre switches out to Terry.
  6. Terry rotates the ball to Harden. Ian Clark anticipates this and before the pass is thrown, he already is sprinting to close out on Harden and lambada with him.
  7. Harden drives past Clark, but Ezeli switches off Smith to play goalie to cut off Harden's drive, and this gives Iansanity a chance to poke the ball away from Harden.
All that's left is Ian-sanity completing a difficult layup very nicely. Curry either celebrates by imitating a helicopter or he's signaling the team to get back quick to prevent the fast break the other way. I believe it's both.

So I counted seven switches in ten seconds to disrupt some rather good offense.  For more details on the Switching + Goalie D, check out links at Explain One Play: Warriors attack and guard James Harden.

Final Thoughts

The Rockets were absolutely created to lose to the no-Curry Warriors. Their offense focuses on isolations, simple pick and roll, and kickout passes to three pointers. The Warriors switching D can contain the pick and roll, the goalie contains the isolations, so unless the HOU shooters are hot from 3, it's going to be a long game. And the Warriors motion offense feasts on teams that have trouble with off-ball defense and communication and with key poor defenders. That would be the Rockets, who at all times had either James Harden (nil effort off-ball), Josh Smith (space case off-ball) or Michael Beasley (space case on-ball). So there was no finer set of training wheels for the no-Curry Warriors than the Rockets.

On the face of it, the Blazers have vulnerabilities similar to the Rockets'. They have defenders in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum who are so-so defenders on-ball and quite distractible off-ball. Expect to see the offense force them to play alert off-ball defense on whoever they guard, and for them to be posted up often.  On offense, the Blazers can possibly be reduced to a spread-pick-and-roll team by having the Warriors switch all screens. And expect to see occasional double teams of ball handlers if the switch + goalie scheme isn't containing their high scoring backcourt.

On the other hand, the Blazers do have two shooters that can catch fire, and a team concept and chemistry that will allow them to try different looks on offense and defense and make adjustments in a way that the dysfunctional Rockets could not. If Curry doesn't return, then I think the series will be up for grabs and a challenge for our Dubs.

(I haven't even mentioned the injured Clippers mainly because I don't think they have much of a chance of winning. I'll write a followup in case they pull out a miracle series win.)

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.

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