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Explain One Play: Festus Ezeli (who?) saves the Dubs

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Festus Ezeli (who?) saved the Dubs with his defense, allowing them to come back against the Blazers in Game 2. His ability to guard the pick and roll and to switch changed the game for good.

Swagzeli waits and listens... and then strikes!
Swagzeli waits and listens... and then strikes!
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Warriors absolutely put the clamps on the Blazers attack in the fourth quarter, to storm back from an 11 point deficit to win going away. It helped that Klay Thompson finally starting hitting shots, but the key was defense. The Blazers had some pretty hot, timely shooting up to the fourth, and Damian Lillard went nuclear in the third quarter.

So what changed?  Steve Kerr changed the game when he went to Festus Ezeli. The Ezeli points were welcome, but the real key was that he allowed the Warriors to defend Lillard and Mason Plumlee properly.

Before: Bogut Gets Torched on Pick and Roll

Andrew Bogut is still a fantastic rim protector, but he is just not mobile over distances.  The Blazers picked on him repeatedly, by using Bogut's man to screen for a shooter (in this case, Lillard), and the Dubs had Bogut sag back to prevent easy drives to the basket. This led to lots of space for jump shots. See if you can tell the difference between the following two plays:

and this:

Check the timestamps. They are different possessions, exact same outcome.

So if the Dubs don't use Bogut, perhaps they could try Anderson Varejao?

Before: Andy Gets Torched on Pick and Roll

Andy is a good passer with a nice feel for the Warriors motion offense. He is also less mobile than Bogut at this point (hair movement doesn't count).  When Andy came in, the Blazers pounced on him and screened with his man repeatedly. Andy sagged way back into the paint, which led to:

(1) open jumpers

or (2) space for pocket passes to the rolling big man


After: Life With Festus

So, who can save us?  The Small Ball Lineups of Pain could defend the pick and roll, but it's exhausting to play them all game. The Warriors needed someone to defend the pick and roll competently while the Warriors clawed their way back, until the W's could go small to close the game. Well, there isn't really anyone else to try but Festus Ezeli, so Kerr summoned him out of the doghouse.

And so it was that Ezeli made his mark on the game with defense.

Ezeli vs the Pick and Roll

Here's an early play where they tried to pick on Ezeli in the pick and roll, and he does a great job of staying with Lillard and forcing him to give up the ball.

Ezeli Contests The Handoff

Next, the Blazers try a handoff to Lillard, but notice how high up Ezeli is playing compared to Bogut and Varejao.  He is close enough to contest this Lillard jumper.  Behold:

Ezeli Switches

Now the Blazers depart from the pick and roll action which had been killing the Warriors. They try what looks like a delayed curl for #9 Gerald Henderson who cuts along the baseline. The Warriors absolutely disintegrate this play by switching all screens. Watch:

First, Andre Iguodala guards GH under the basket. Barnes switches to guard him when his man screens Andre. Barnes chases him all around the court until he's finally rubbed off by Ezeli's man Ed Davis. Ezeli alertly switches onto GH.  Can Festus stay with the small guy for the last 6 seconds of shot clock?  No problem. Really good D and a great shot contest.

Ezeli's mobility allowed the Warriors to switch all screens, something Bogut and Andy would have no hope of doing.

Ezeli Hedges the Pick and Roll

In this play, Ezeli's man offers a screen, but Ezeli jumps out to contain and discourage the ball handler from driving. He sends the screen away and Ezeli fleetly gets back to his man and lets Shaun Livingston finish the defense one-on-one.

Pop Quiz: What Play Are the Blazers Running?

Here's the play. See if you recognize the play they've stolen from the Warriors.

Yes, it's our beloved Warriors Weave. (Details: Explain One Play: Draymond Green weaves crazy three.)   They disguise the start a bit, but it's the same play. When the first pass happens, watch the two players on the lower left. The play will end with a pick and roll between them. That's the tell that this is the Warriors Weave play and not some other weave.

Anyway, Ezeli does a GREAT job of keeping C.J. McCollum from turning the corner on the last pick and roll, then getting back to his man Plumlee and then forcing a missed shot.  Draymond later also cited this play as a highlight of the game.

Final Thoughts

I don't usually quote myself, but here:

Ezeli flashes brilliance, and combines it with dunderhead-ness. Ezeli is more mobile than Bogut or Andy, and is a good shot blocker and rebounder. Yes, he also can finish lobs, but at this point in his career you merely hope he is an offensive neutral, since what you gain in athletic dunks, you often lose in dropped balls, dunderhead fouls and being in the wrong place on court for plays. Is he going to grow into a more consistent, solid, heady player?

Harrison Barnes has a similar brilliance and roughness to his game.  There are so many ifs and maybes and at-this-point-in-his-career for both men. And naturally, they are both coming up for restricted free agency.  This will be a really interesting and franchise-turning summer...

Draymond Agrees

Bonus Draymond-Festus love fest. In the first two minutes, Draymond basically concisely summarizes this whole article, calling out several of the specific plays we highlighted above.

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.