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Explain One Play: Durant and Warriors defend LeBron and Kyrie

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The Warriors played outstanding defense which turned into great counter-attacking offense in the Cavaliers-Warriors game on Jan 16, 2017.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Golden State Warriors
flagrant two?
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Kevin Durant is starting to get the hang of this defense thing. Tonight, he played a great defensive game, both in the team setting and when challenged in isolation. The Warriors in general were locked-in on defense and repeatedly turned stops into counter-attacking transition points. Let’s look at the schemes the W’s used to contain LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

Kevin Durant against big and small

First, he got isolated in the post against Kevin Love. The play starts with Durant guarding LeBron James, fighting through a screen and disrupting the initial pick and roll. Love backs Durant down low. Then...

Then he got caught guarding Kyrie Irving on a switch.

That’s flexibility!

Durant versus LeBron James

From Ethan Sherwood Strauss: “Offensively, I can do that pretty well, but defensively, I’ve been trying to just stay locked in and focused every game,” Durant said postgame. That focus appears to have paid off in a game in which James went 0-of-5 with a turnover against Durant as primary defender.

Durant made his best highlight defensive plays as the help defender. The Cavs enjoy using switches to force someone slow like Zaza Pachulia to defend James in space. The Warriors have for a while had a standard defensive scheme which I call Goalie (others call it strong-side overload, shadowing, etc.)

On this play, you can see that James pushes the ball up in early offense to force Pachulia to pick him up. But the entire time, Durant is lurking behind as a goalie in case James gets by.

Well of course, James got by. But you didn’t expect Durant to stuff that dunk so thoroughly, did you?

Here’s another play caused by Durant’s goalie play. James again rushes up to keep Pachulia guarding him. The Warriors deploy not just Durant as a goalie, at the left post, but also Curry at the nail at the free throw line. This is to contain James driving to the middle or down the lane. James drives down the left foul lane past Pachulia, but is intercepted by the goalie Durant.

James gets caught pounding the ball computing how to take advantage of Pachulia, and he has his back turned to Stephen Curry. Curry riskily leaves Irving open at the top, but the gamble pays off with his blind-side steal.

I enjoyed how Kevin Love wanders into the play and Curry lets him go by, assuming that Klay Thompson or Green will pick Love up. James actually had Kyrie or Love open, but the W’s gamble that their pressure will reach James before he can find the open shooters with long skip passes.

Here a final clip on defending James. Durant ends up playing a key role rotating to help on Love and then out-rebounding him close to the basket. But the most interesting thing is watching how the Warriors defend James with Curry when the Cavs target Curry in the pick and roll.

(Okay, here’s the right video!)

In the Finals, the Cavs had success attacking the injured Curry using the pick and roll. They used his man to screen for James, which in theory forced him to switch to james and then James went to work on him. Since Game 7, the Warriors have changed their defensive scheme on pick and rolls to what could be called a hyperactive hedge. Basically, if it looks like the pick and roll is happening, Curry jumps out to tag James but then seeks to recover back to his original man as soon as possible.

In this play, Curry jumps out very very early, then once Shumpert slips the screen, Curry tries to recover back to him. But JaVale McGee has already picked him up, so now the W’s have left someone open. The Cavs swing the ball around to find the open man, but the W’s keep rotating to cover. James ends up with a close but contested shot.

Guarding Kyrie with switching

Kyrie prefers attacking in isolation, but he does run the pick and roll as well. Here’s a play where he gets a screen from Kevin Love. In theory, this should be a great play since they’re both great shooters. In practice, the Warriors blow it up with a switch and then Kyrie picks up the dribble.

As soon as Kyrie picks up his dribble he’s in trouble. Green immediately goes into Ron Adams “stick position” and gets right up on Irving so he can’t get an easy entry to Love in the post. Tristan Thompson steps up as a pressure release, but Curry gets his speedy hands in to deflect the ball, which for five seconds gains flubber powers.

Durant got so many of his points in the flow of offense and counter-attack transition. It was beautiful.

Klay and Zaza guard Irving

Two final clips of guarding Irving with two different strategies. One can see that the W’s plan was to throw different coverages of Irving’s pick and roll, and it worked pretty well. This play begins with Irving trying to get Pachulia on a switch (this is a high priority for everyone who plays the Warriors, since Pachulia is slow). Pachulia’s man Tristan Thompson comes up to screen. What keeps Irving from turning the corner on the screen and driving?

Here Pachulia performs a perfect hedge and he jumps out to get in Irving’s way until Thompson can catch up, and then recovers back to his man. Thompson plays Irving’s spin move perfectly, the one he used to end the Christmas game.

Okay, second clip, similar set up, Thompson screening for Irving to get Pachulia to switch to Irving. This time the W’s mix it up, and Thompson is in ICE position, overplaying the drive middle to force Irving to drive away from the screen. Pachulia, in his slow way, starts in ICE contain position, but he just gets closer and closer until...

...until Pachulia’s suddenly double-teaming Irving. Irving is surprised and under pressure badly overthrows his release man.

If you want to read more video breakdowns — one for well-nigh every Warriors’ win since 2015 — check out the Explain One Play Mega-Index, searchable and sortable by player, play, team and date.