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Explain One Play: Stephen Curry is pre-screened for three pointers

The Warriors pass their midterm exam as they beat the Spurs switching defense in the Apr 7 2016 game.

How many other teams have won 70 games? Show me on your fingers.
How many other teams have won 70 games? Show me on your fingers.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

You know, I just haven't gotten tired of the Warriors beating the Spurs. I mean, Lamarcus Aldridge's dislocated finger and Boris Diaw's injury gave the Warriors a headstart, but I don't care. It still feels good.

The big theme for the last few Explain One Plays has been how the Warriors have been retooling their offense on the fly to counter the all-switching defense that is the league's newest standard defense against them. (Go to The Explain One Play series index and read up from Explain One Play: Curry & Green punish switches.)

The first major way was for Curry to accept the switch of a big defender on the perimeter. The Spurs bigs overplayed the three point shot by design, so Curry simply drove and finished repeatedly at the rim.

Let's look at a few plays from the game to see three other ways the Warriors countered the switching.

1. Attack Unforced Switching Errors

First, let's point out the Spurs mixed up a few easy switches and the Warriors punished those mistakes swiftly. Here's a wing pick and roll with Stephen Curry getting a screen from Draymond Green. Tony Parker is covering Curry and he thinks he's going to switch onto Draymond and Kawhi Leonard is going to cover Curry. Let's see what Kawhi thinks:

Kawhi disagrees and they both cover Draymond. Curry immediately goes straight for the basket and hits a casually amazing banked floater over a closing Aldridge.

In the playoffs, expect the Spurs to tighten up the unforced defensive switching errors like this.

2. Fake Screens

Here's one class of counters against The Switch.  Basically, the screener can fake the screen or slip it early. This can confuse the defenders, since a full screen triggers the switch, and no screen doesn't, so what do they do on these half screens?

For instance, the recent Jazz game gave us Klay Thompson's game tying three via Klay faking a high screen for Curry and getting his man to switch to Curry while he instead popped out for an open 3:

Here's an example from tonight.  Here it looks like a middle version of the high post-cross, where they feed Andrew Bogut up high and Klay goes to screen for Curry. (More details on post-cross at Explain One Play: Andrew Bogut between the legs to Klay Thompson three.) But instead of Klay screening Curry's defender Kawhi, he merely runs near him and...

You can see Klay's defender Danny Green jumping towards Curry as if he's switching, and losing sight of Klay for a half second. He realizes Kawhi isn't switching, so he tries to recover, but it's too late.

Expect to see the Warriors use this concept frequently against The Switch.

3. Pre-Screen Three Man Game

The pick and roll is relatively easy to defend by switching: if there's a screen, swap assignments. Ta da.  In general three man games are much harder to defend by switching as each player now can switch to two players or not switch, and each of the three defenders has to make the same decision.

The Warriors have cleverly turned innocent pick and rolls into three man games by having someone pre-screen for the pick and roll screener. Here's a blunt but effective version from before.  Curry is going to get a screen from Draymond. But first, you'll see Harrison Barnes cross the court to pre-screen for Draymond before Dray comes over to set the pick. Follow Barnes's defender and see the series of decisions he needs to make. (More details on Three Man Games: Explain One Play: Stephen Curry to Open Andrew Bogut Dunk.)

Tonight, the Warriors ran the same concept, blending it with a fake screen as discussed above.  Here's the play.

Curry eventually gets a pick from Andrew Bogut on the wing. But before that, Klay Thompson pre-screens for Bogut, tying up Bogut's defender Tim Duncan (who looked pretty old today). Bogut runs toward Klay as if to do what he does 90% of the time: set a pindown screen for Klay. But instead, Klay really is screening Duncan, so Bogut swerves to set the real screen for Curry. Bang.

In slow motion, one can see that probably the optimal defense would be for everyone to switch: Klay's defender Green should switch to Duncan's man Bogut on the Klay screen; then Green should switch to Curry off the Bogut screen.

In the mean time, Duncan needs to switch to Klay (on the first switch with Green) and follow him to the arc. If you follow the logic of the play, Draymond would then screen Duncan for Klay at the free throw circle (in reality, he screens Green), so Kawhi needs to then switch out to Klay.

This is a lot of switching on the fly to expect from even the best defense in NBA history. Instead, Danny Green stays with Klay, leaving Duncan sagged too low to come out to help when Curry's defender Parker is screened by Bogut.

Last Thoughts

Tonight it was time for the Warriors' midterm exam against The Switch (as I'll call it hence), and they passed it, to the point where it's become a bigger issue how the Spurs are going to combat the Warriors' switching defense. I saw the Warriors switch (as usual) assignments on screens on the outside, and when the ball came inside, they often double teamed the post and dared the Spurs to find the open man. In general, the Spurs did not punish the doubles, and when they did, it was by hitting cutters in the lane instead of open three point shooters.

I didn't see many adjustments in the Spurs offense to fight the Warriors defense. I thought Kawhi was forced to take (and make!) tough shots, and ditto for LMA. The normal vanilla Spurs package was gummed up by the switches. I saw some neat looking sets with a big holding the ball high at top of the free throw circle while various Spurs cut down the lane (or back door along the baseline). But I mainly recall that against the bench, which didn't defend it very well.

I don't know what's going to happen in San Antonio as far as rest goes, but I imagine not very inventive game plans. But it's possible the Gregg Popovich will try out tighter defensive schemes against the fake screens and prescreening.

Barnes's two threes at the end of the half completely changed the tone of the game. The Warriors had earned a big lead and then crapped it away with careless defense (their own unforced mistakes switching led to two open Danny Green 3s). But then Barnes canned those shots and got the lead back to a respectable cushion. Good to see him hitting jump shots again.

Curry made outstanding passes all game. Let's remember to appreciate how often and quickly he finds the right pass at the right time, often delivered with personality, especially on the fast break.

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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