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Explain One Play: JaVale McGee (what?) sinks the Suns

JaVale McGee had some weird and good plays down the stretch of the Warriors-Suns game on April 5th, 2017. We analyze the Motion Weak pick and roll.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Golden State Warriors
I’m a lover not a fighter
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, of course Stephen Curry did most of the heavy lifting with a casual 42 point game (15-26, 8-13 on 3s, +25).

But JaVale McGee, of all people, was second in plus-minus with +23. Let’s look at the end of the game where McGee put his stamp on the game, for good, bad and weird.

JaVale’s Vertical Spacing

This is an interesting play which subtly illustrates JaVale’s “vertical spacing”. People talk a lot about “spacing” which usually means the horizontal space between players. In particular, they usually mean the extra spacing that results when shooters like Curry and Klay Thompson are at the arc and their defenders stay close to them.

Someone like McGee of course can’t shoot threes (at least not without instant vigilante justice from Brandon Jennings), so he doesn’t offer “horizontal” spacing. But he is always a threat to jump up to catch a lob for a dunk. This gives him a gravity that Kerr has called “vertical” spacing. So watch this play once just for enjoyment. Then watch it again and try to figure out why in the world the Suns would double-team McGee!

The play starts with the ball with a passer (Shaun Livingston) and Curry and Thompson approach each other. This often means a split cut, particularly the dive-pops we’ve been talking about.

But it’s a fake dive-pop. Instead, Curry swivels and runs back the other way, getting two screens along the baseline, one from Matt Barnes, and one from McGee. Pity poor Curry’s defender Tyler Ulis (who certainly had good moments this game). Watch as he gets a step behind from the fake, runs smack into a Barnes screen, sprints to catch up to Curry, gets help when Jared Dudley hip bumps Curry, then finally has to switch to McGee while McGee’s defender, Alan Williams has to switch onto Curry.

Now Ulis is 5’ 10”. McGee is 7’ 0” and can jump about five feet higher. No matter how Ulis guards McGee, the ball can be lobbed to him, and even alley-ooped to him for a dunk. So Jared Dudley has to come over to guard McGee from behind to prevent the lob and dunk. That’s vertical spacing for you.

That means that Devin Booker is on the left side and has to guard both Matt Barnes and Thompson. So even if he guarded one of them closely or zoned them both precisely, the Warriors can get an open shot. In this case, Thompson sees Booker turn his head to watch Curry drive and he silently, sneakily relocates to the left wing. Curry drives at Booker to keep his attention, kicks to Thompson and Klay hits the three that gave the W’s their final cushion.

JaVale taketh and he giveth away

Then comes a sequence that I don’t really want to linger on with video, but McGee makes a nice steal, then immediately bobbles the ball to give it away to the Suns, gets boxed out by a small guy for a putback, then runs down court and smashes in a putback. The highs and lows of McGee.

Motion Weak pick and roll

We recently showed how the W’s developed a version of the pick and roll (Motion Strong pick and roll -- see the Glossary) that counters the switching defenses that many teams play against the Dubs. We mentioned in passing that the W’s have an even more common version which McGee usually runs. Well, here it was in crunch time.

Watch a pure version of it, and we’ll dissect it together.

The pattern is this:

  1. The ball (Curry) passes to the wing (Patrick McCaw)
  2. Then Curry makes a shallow cut on the ball side out to the weak (non-ball) side.
  3. In the mean time, the eventual screener (Zaza Pachulia) comes diagonally across court to meet Curry. Along the way, they get some kind of pre-screen or harassment from the weak side other player (Klay)
  4. Now they run a normal pick and roll on the wing.

(1) & (2) are the start of many plays in the Motion Weak set which the Spurs popularized.

Why come from far away? So the big defender will be trailing behind the play and unable to switch early. Here Dirk Nowitzki sags back to contain Curry and gets burned with the jumper.

Here’s another one with Curry running it with McGee. The camera angle is terrible, but look for the shallow cut, then McCaw pre-screening, McGee coming from far away to set the pick.

Once they start the pick and roll, Curry is doubled and McGee gets the outlet to dunk.

The pattern is simple enough that the W’s have been running this play with a wide variety of players.

Here are a couple from the less enjoyable part of the recent Spurs game. The first ends up with an Ian Clark - Pachulia pick and roll. See if you can predict the paths that Clark and Pachulia will take.

This last one is an amusing one. It’s clearly a Motion Weak pick and roll that’s supposed to end with an Andre Iguodala - Matt Barnes pick and roll. If you don’t know the play, it doesn’t look that strange. If you know the play, you see that Barnes took a drunken bee path and it’s not clear he knew what to do on the play at all.

I’m fairly sure the play was not supposed to end with Iguodala standing still for five seconds watching Barnes lurch around and finally fire up a contested 3.

Back to the Suns game

Okay, back to the game tonight. By now you are well equipped to see what this play is supposed to be.

Yes, that was a tired looking version of Motion Weak pick and roll. I guess the end of a back to back dampens the crispness of execution. McGee runs slowly so his man can keep up easily. Klay skips the pre-screen completely. Luckily, the Suns blitz double-team Curry on the pick and roll. Curry gives it up to McGee who makes a pretty nice play in space against a capable defender.

Game, toasters.

Final Thoughts

This was an extra long Explain One Play because I am likely to take the rest of the season off to recharge, now that the Dubs have clinched the #1 seed. If you miss these, you can always look at old ones at the Explain One Play Mega-Index. I plan to continue writing E1P for what I hope is a long playoff run.

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