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The Golden Breakdown: Examining the Warriors’ spacing and shooting predicament

Steve Kerr knows that the Warriors have a spacing problem. The Pistons were all too eager to let the Warriors struggle from the outside while they traded baskets and made threes of their own.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

After the Warriors’ 111-102 defeat against the Detroit Pistons, Steve Kerr was in an unusually testy mood. Typically calm, cool and collected, he showed visible signs of frustration, and it was apparent that he was not satisfied with his team’s effort. When asked about it, he ended up shouldering the blame for his team’s three-point shooting woes.

“I did not like our offense tonight. I’ve got to do a better job, honestly. Tonight was probably a game that I could mark down as one of my worst performances as a coach, honestly,” Kerr said after the game.

“Every time I looked we had three guys in the paint ... we had some combinations out there that we hadn’t planned on going to, that clearly weren’t effective, and that’s my fault.”

Having Stephen Curry back would make one think that the Warriors’ spacing and shooting problems would become a thing of the past. But what happened on Saturday night proved to be a revelation of some underlying schematic problems that the Warriors will need to address.

Against the Pistons, the Warriors shot 6-of-26 from beyond the arc, good for 23.1 percent. During the 11 games without Curry, the Warriors shot 33.5 percent from three-point range. Getting Curry back — albeit a rusty and slightly out-of-game-shape Curry — did little to remedy that statistic.

To be fair to Kerr, his starting lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Jonas Jerebko, and Damian Jones was a lineup that was supposed to provide plenty of spacing. With the exception of Jones, every single player in this lineup can shoot the ball. But in the 7 minutes that this lineup spent on the floor in the first quarter, not one three-point shot was made in 5 attempts.

Curry’s return marked the reappearance of the famous “gravity” that he provides. The past 11 games have proven to be difficult at times in terms of getting adequate shooting space. While Durant and Thompson are two of the best shooters in the league, they can’t command the kind of unique attention that Curry does. His ability to shoot or drive off of the pick-and-roll almost gave the Warriors their first three-point bucket. The spacing wasn’t terrible, and the execution was on point, but it was simply a matter of Jonas Jerebko not making the shot.

Curry’s presence on the floor makes the Warriors much more deadly in transition. His ability to pull up at virtually any point of the floor attracts a lot of attention, and putting only one defender on him will run the risk of him blowing by or faking and side-stepping for an open jumper. But Curry is someone who relies on momentum and feel. Even the greatest shooter of all time needs to regain his legs and his shooting touch.

When it was apparent that his threes weren’t about to fall as easily as rain in Seattle, Curry settled for creating shooting opportunities for his Splash Brother, even when he has a favorable matchup against a big man in Blake Griffin. There has been plenty of instances where he has made big men look like human carousels, but he saves Griffin from potential embarrassment by opting to use his penetration to kick out to Thompson.

Shooters keep on shooting, no matter how much they are struggling — Thompson’s struggles at the three-point line have been well-documented this season, and even the luxury of having his partner-in-crime on the floor can’t save him from his slump.

At the 5:15 mark of the first quarter, Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell check in for Jones and Jerebko, and this is where the Warriors run into a snafu in terms of spacing personnel. The presence of two players who mainly operate in the shaded area basically makes the defense’s job a whole lot easier. Griffin and Andre Drummond now have the option of comfortably sagging off of Looney and Bell, who are absolute non-threats on the perimeter. Off-ball actions are virtually shut down, and attempted three-pointers can be well-contested.

To account for the lack of spacing — and for Curry’s sluggish shooting start — the Warriors adjust by going back to a staple of their Curry-less offense: a high pick-and-roll for Durant, which takes advantage of a big who stays back and elects to cover the paint. This gives Durant a wide open look at the basket, and it takes advantage of the hot streak that he has been having for the past few games. But as the rest of the night would unfold, this would turn out to be his only three-point field goal for the entire game.

At just under the 3 minute mark, Andre Iguodala checks in for Curry, which further shrinks spacing for the Warriors on offense. The Warriors’ reliance on mid-range shots makes a sweeping return, as evidenced by Thompson knocking down two mid-range jumpers off of elbow curls from a HORNS formation.

Usually, pin downs for Thompson would allow him to run beyond the line and pull up for a three, but there seems to be a direct correlation between the lack of spacing and defenders having an increased knack for sticking to Thompson at the hips, forcing him to adjust by stepping inside the arc and settling for mid-range jumpers.

Thompson does have a knack for knocking down two-point shots in succession, but the Pistons would counter this through three-point volume shooting. While the Pistons’ three-point field goal percentage wasn’t particularly excellent (34.3 percent), they simply shot and made more threes (12-of-35). They were willing to let the Warriors get two-point shots, as long as they were making more threes in response.

The Warriors’ lack of three-point attempts was especially apparent during the second quarter, where they would attempt a grand total of three. With a lineup consisting of Curry, Iguodala, Bell, Damion Lee, and Shaun Livingston, it’s easy to see how threes would be extremely difficult to generate — the defense has more bravado in doubling Curry, forcing him to pass the ball to a non-shooter such as Iguodala.

The Warriors try their hardest to get Curry going from three-point range by running “floppy” for him, where he runs along the baseline and uses staggered screens to get free for a shot. The Warriors simply repeat this action for him on the other side when the initial action is well-covered, but even that is shut down, forcing him to penetrate and settle for a floater. Again, the Pistons are willing to trade baskets with the Warriors, as long as they sprinkle in a couple of three-point makes and prevent the Warriors from making their own threes.

In the third quarter, Kerr would opt to start Looney in lieu of Jerebko, in an attempt to perhaps counter the Pistons’ two-big combination of Griffin and Drummond. With Curry at the helm, the Warriors run a pick-and-roll, with Jones getting a quick pass from Curry on the short roll. This collapses the defense toward the paint, leaving Thompson all alone to receive the kickout for his first and only three-point make of the night.

Having Durant on the post would eventually net Curry his first three of the night. The Warriors are fond of having Durant and Curry screen for each other under the basket, in hopes of getting Durant a switch onto a smaller defender. In any case, having Durant in the post forces a big to shadow the paint, in anticipation of Durant’s approach toward the basket. This allows Curry to use a flare screen up top to catch and shoot the uncontested three.

It would seem that Curry is slowly regaining his shooting touch and rhythm. He thrives in moments where the defense is in a state of chaos and confusion, and he uses one such instance to bury another three during a botched play.

To start off the fourth quarter, a lineup of Curry, Livingston, Iguodala, Jerebko, and Looney is fielded. Again, this is one lineup that doesn’t exactly provide ample spacing. When Curry is run off the line, he is forced to penetrate and settle for a floater. As expected, the spacing is terrible in this possession, with the defense all too happy to pack the interior and live with a Curry floater.

Like a matador tempting the bull to charge at him, the Pistons would keep denying the three-point shot from Curry and dare him to charge straight at the basket, confident that no one else on the perimeter would be able to knock down a three. Their matador gamble worked, and it eventually allowed them to pull away and claim the game for themselves.

Looking at the game and the Warriors’ miserable shooting from three-point range, it is easy to get frustrated at Kerr. The coach is an easy target — after all, it is his decisions in terms of in-game adjustments and lineups that can sometimes spell the difference between victory and defeat. Kerr is correct in placing the blame on himself, but there are also other reasons that should be looked at.

At 34.4 percent, Thompson is having a miserable season in terms of shooting the three, even before Curry was sidelined with an injury. Open shots that are usually automatic for him aren’t falling, and his penchant for settling for mid-range shots may be an attempt to ease himself into regaining a consistent shooting groove from the outside.

Durant is also shooting at a percentage that is well below his career numbers (32.7 percent from three). His penchant for shooting pull up threes has usually been a positive experience for the Warriors — two championships, two Finals MVPs, and a win against the Orlando Magic a few nights ago are testaments to that. Otherwise, Durant is also missing threes that he usually makes with ease. With Curry back in the lineup, Durant should get more open perimeter shots, but it remains to be seen whether he can capitalize on those opportunities.

The Warriors outside of Curry, Thompson and Durant are simply lacking knockdown shooters. Livingston is ineffective the further he strays away from the basket. Iguodala is hit-or-miss from three — with miss being more prevalent nowadays. Jerebko has shown that he can knock down the three, but he doesn’t get many touches. Lee will get less playing time now that Curry is back. Alfonzo McKinnie and Draymond Green are injured. Jacob Evans is unplayable due to his lack of shooting. Their three young centers don’t even know what a follow-through is.

Curry himself is rusty and still relatively out-of-shape. He showed promise by heating up in the second half, but he mostly settled for drives and floaters. Unlike what most people expected, his return didn’t exactly transform the Warriors into a shooting behemoth overnight.

But all he needs is time to get his groove back. And with Kerr acknowledging that the team needs some adjustments, it’s wise to count on the Warriors playing the long game and improving step-by-step as the season goes by.

Twenty-four down, 58 more to go.

Stay Golden, Dub Nation.

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