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Explain One Play: Durant torches bigs off-ball

How Kevin Durant torched the Spurs switching defense by cutting off-ball, plus W’s defend LaMarcus Aldridge in Game 3 of the Spurs-Warriors series.

Golden State Warriors v San Antonio Spurs - Game Three
we never crossed swords, we only crossed shields
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Look up unfamiliar terms in the end glossary.

A major theme of Explain One Play last year was how the Warriors countered switching defenses. In spring 2016, the Spurs popularized this defense against the Warriors motion offense. What was fiendishly clever about this is that the strategy done right takes away open shots off screens, but gives up size mismatches. So in theory, Stephen Curry can now roast a big slow defender, or Klay Thompson can shoot over a smaller defender.

But the simplest way to punish the switches is to run isolation plays, which slows tempo, breaks up flow, disengages teammates and communication, and isn’t all that efficient, even for the best isolation players in the NBA. For instance, in this Adam Fromal article, we saw that two of the best isolation scorers in the NBA were Curry (1.12 points per possession, #7) and Kevin Durant (1.07 ppp, #8), but both of them scored less efficiently than the overall Warriors offense.

So, the W’s have worked their attack to counter switches in the flow of the normal offense. They used these principles, discussed previously:

  1. Attack unforced switching errors,
  2. Set fake screens,
  3. Create Three Man Games by setting a pre-screen for the screener
  4. Post Up Smalls
  5. Use Double Screens
  6. Keep Running Your Offense

and then this year, installed the next-level split cuts using the dive-pop action, analyzed previously.

Tonight, Kevin Durant punished switches directly in isolation, but also with good movement off-ball, memorably with a couple of great backdoor layups from David West, but also in the second quarter stretch which gave the W’s the lead permanently.

Let’s have a look at this stretch now. We will also look at how the Spurs tried and mostly failed to free up LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs fans’ new whipping boy, during this stretch.

Q2.4:26. GSW 49, SAS 47

Watch as the Spurs have Aldridge set the screen three times for pick and rolls in an attempt to get Draymond Green off of him.

First, he tries to screen Curry. Often the Warriors switch screens, but they try to avoid that with Curry. Curry sneaks by Aldridge’s screen, through a combination of grit and Aldridge’s releasing early to roll. Andre Iguodala jumps over to tag Aldridge before handing him back.

Then he screens for Jonathon Simmons. Durant fights through one screen, then finally get literally grabbed by Aldridge on a re-screen. This gives Simmons a tough contested floater which dribbles in. That’s not the high quality shot that the Spurs need.

Q2.4:05. GSW 49, SAS 49

This play begins weirdly with Patty Mills voluntarily switching onto Durant, then the W’s let him off the hook when he hands Durant off to Aldridge. Watch how Aldridge guards Durant from there.

Okay, it was a trick. Aldridge doesn’t really guard Durant after the switch. Curry runs around Simmons like a traffic cone, so Aldridge comes to help. Curry kicks the ball out and Draymond Green immediately finds Durant who has tiptoed out to the right corner. Durant drains the 3, even thought Green comes out and contests really well... how did he get so close without fouling Durant?

Well, the refs aren’t perfect.

Again, notice how Durant punished the switches without isolating on a mismatch.

Q2.3:35. GSW 52, SAS 49

Follow Durant early in this play. He will get a downscreen from Curry which you can see Jonathon Simmons immediately calls for Davis Bertans to switch. Should Durant isolate and face up on this rookie? Watch.

I think this is supposed to be a dive-pop action, but the Spurs switch right away. Now Durant knows he can outrace Bertans, and Bertans also isn’t facing Green. So Durant immediately backcuts. Bertans does a pretty good job of flailing blind to stop the pass, but Green throws an incredibly precise pass. That is an incredibly skilled catch, and a nice little bank shot.

Q2.3:21. GSW 54, SAS 49

The Spurs again try to establish Aldridge with deep post position. He does a nice job ducking in and sealing Green off deep in the paint. Curry does a good job preventing the direct pass, but eventually the Spurs get it to Aldridge. Watch what happens.

Shaun Livingston comes in for the double team. It’s clear that Aldridge doesn’t read the court quickly while being double teamed, and the Spurs probably have simplified his read to: find the nearest open guy and pass it. Here Simmons is more open than Manu Ginobili, but Aldridge fires it to Ginobili, who of course instantly redirects it to the proper open man. Simmons here is probably best served swinging the ball to the open Bertens on the right wing, but instead he drives into the belly of the defense, getting blanketed by Durant and then the helping Green. Aldridge luckily picks up the loose ball and the unluckily misses two point-blank shots.

Q2.2:29. GSW 56, SAS 49

There is some smart basketball happening on this play, with chess-like moves. And ultimately, really good switching here from the Warriors. Recall, the Spurs are doing everything they can to get Green off of Aldridge. They have tried numerous pick and rolls to force a switch, and they don’t often work. Here they try a pick and roll with Aldridge then immediately getting two other screens. Watch how the W’s scramble to contain this action.

Aldridge sets a screen which Curry waltzes around, then he gets a back screen from Ginobili, and then Simmons is waiting in the paint to set another screen. On the first screen, you might think Klay Thompson should switch to cover Aldridge, but he doesn't. It's clearly the Warriors scheme to only switch Green off Aldridge when absolutely necessary. So Draymond is now trailing Aldridge. So Andre Iguodala switches his butt onto Aldridge to front him to prevent an entry pass.

The Spurs are no dummies, and Simmons immediately zipper cuts to the top knowing that Iguodala’s butt is on Aldridge, and Green is way back in the paint. Why isn’t Simmons open? Because Klay Thompson alertly switches to Simmons. So, Klay’s old man is now open right? No, Iguodala eventually runs out to the perimeter to cover Ginobili.

After all that, Green is still covering Aldridge! So the Spurs throw it in to Aldridge with the shot clock running down, and naturally, Curry double teams Aldridge. What a pesty defense. Aldridge dumps the ball out fast and Simmons has to chuck up a quick long contested shot.

Aldridge in theory could have turned over his right shoulder and forced up a baseline jumper. That might be a counter they try a little more, because that’s higher percentage than a hand grenade quick shot from Simmons.

Game tweets

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