In the Warriors’ 117-107 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the story of the night would certainly be their 39 assists on 44 made field goals. Another story certain to dominate the newsfeeds would be Stephen Curry’s 36 points on 12-of-21 shooting (57.1 percent), with an 8-of-14 shooting clip from three-point range (57.1 percent).
But a more nuanced and perhaps underappreciated aspect of the Warriors’ surging offense is the gamut of screens that they set to get their shooters and scorers free. The return of Andrew Bogut to the lineup — one of the best at setting hard screens that skirt the boundaries of what is construed as legal or illegal — gave the Warriors another body with which to open up the Warriors’ offense to more undisturbed looks at the rim.
According to NBA.com’s stats page, which tracks play type data, the Warriors lead the league in the amount of screening actions they run, with 13.1 percent of their plays coming off of screens. They average 1.10 points per possession (PPP) off of screens — also leading the league. Additionally, they lead the league in FG% (45.5 percent) and eFG% (56.7 percent) off of screens. The Warriors are, quite simply, the most effective and the most productive screening team in the entire league.
The combination of having excellent screen-setters and elite jump shooters has allowed the Warriors — in huge part — to become the deadliest offensive team to have perhaps existed in the history of the NBA. Defenses are often left to pick their poison when the prospect of someone like Curry is running off of one or multiple screens.
When the Warriors run their patented double-punch set that they often run in endgame or crunchtime situations, the defense is hard-pressed to cover Curry running off of a screen, catching the pass from a posted-up Kevin Durant, and immediately going up for a shot. Curry’s defender is often wiped out by a solid screen from a big, which in this instance is Kevon Looney, while the opposing big man is forced to drop back to account for a possible Durant low-post isolation.
Even when the Warriors run double-punch again during a subsequent offensive possession, the Wolves’ defense still seems unprepared to defend it. With Durant being substituted out, Klay Thompson takes his place as the low-post facilitator. Even so, Karl-Anthony Towns still feels the need to drop back and account for Thompson on the low post, which eliminates him from switching onto Curry or contesting a possible Curry catch-and-shoot three. Luckily for the Wolves, Looney’s screen on Curry’s defender is ruled as illegal.
For the most part, however, the Warriors don’t run set plays that follow a specific sequence of movements — rather, they follow a read-and-react pattern based on pre-installed motions and cuts, which can include simple pin downs that make the use of one screen, or a “floppy” set that makes use of two staggered screens. In this sequence, a simple pin down screen by Draymond Green allows Thompson to catch and shoot the three, which is made more deadly by the fact that Thompson doesn’t need much of a set-up, nor does he have much of a dip in his form — catch, quick release, and it’s cash money.
With Bogut back in the line up, the Warriors can once again make use of his hard screens to free up jump shooters such as Curry, Thompson, and Durant. A Bogut and Durant screening combination is even more deadly, since both of them are 7-footers — defenders will have a hard time defending two towering players in a pick-and-roll sequence. Bogut can easily roll toward the basket after a screen, and Durant’s height and length allows him to get the ball to a rolling Bogut. Alternatively, Bogut’s screen can free up Durant to dribble inside for one of his patented mid-range jumpers, which is virtually automatic.
Here is Bogut again, this time setting a pin down for Thompson and then rolling toward the rim. Towns is forced to account for the rolling Bogut, whose screen causes Thompson’s defender to trail behind him. Thompson dribbles inside, and Towns cannot step up to contest his mid-range jumper.
Thompson hits another three courtesy of a series of screens, with Looney’s screen wiping out Thompson’s defender from the equation. But notice how the first screen was set by Curry — a testament to his willingness to set screens for his teammates despite his small frame and his status as the go-to guy for the Warriors. Not every elite, top-level superstar is willing to go through this much trouble to set their teammates up, but Curry is a shining exception.
Here is Curry shooting a three off of a simple pin down by Looney. Curry helps himself a bit in this sequence — watch how he gives a slight push to his defender to break free. It’s subtle enough for it to go unnoticed by the officials, yet it is effective enough to direct the defender toward the direction of Looney’s screen. Curry buries the three despite two defenders scrambling to contest his shot.
Screens that are set high for someone like Curry opens up a plethora of possibilities. Even if the Warriors aren’t a team that relies on the pick-and-roll that much — they are ranked second-to-last in pick-and-roll frequency at 11.2 percent, per NBA.com’s play type data — they are deadly whenever they do unleash such an action, scoring 0.98 PPP and ranking second in the league, per play type data. Here, Green sets a high screen for Curry, who uses his exceptional dribbling skills to direct his defender toward the screen, then immediately shifts directions to go the other way. Taj Gibson is too slow to keep up with Curry’s ball-handling wizardry, allowing Curry to drive all to the way to the rim for the finish.
Watch Curry in this sequence after he gives up the ball. He runs a full loop around several screens: first, he runs past Bogut’s initial screen, then starts his loop-around; second, Thompson, on the left wing, passes to Bogut and sets a screen for Curry; and third, Bogut hands off the ball to Curry while eliminating his defender from the equation at the same time with a hard screen, allowing Curry to go up for the open three.
Another instance of Curry slightly pushing off his defender toward the direction of an immovable body like Looney. Once the defender gets caught up in Looney’s screen, he is never heard from again by Curry, who calmly knocks in another three.
These are just a few of the instances that show how the Warriors heavily rely on their screening actions — mostly off-ball, but with the occasional traditional pick-and-roll actions — to generate offense by taking advantage of the elite offensive talent that they possess. Most of the time, fans scratch their heads and wonder why the team won’t just rely on simple pick-and-rolls and spam them endlessly. That is a viable strategy, and it will work simply because of the talented natures of Curry, Durant, and Thompson.
But this is the NBA, and every team is capable of adjusting to something that they see time and time again, no matter how talented the players involved in the actions are. Putting the ball in Curry’s hands all the time — and also in Durant’s, for that matter — and endlessly running pick-and-rolls would make the team too predictable, and it would only serve to exhaust the two.
This is what Steve Kerr envisioned when he installed the Warriors’ motion offense almost five years ago — a system that aims to be unpredictable, non-stagnant, and that uses the melting pot of talent that they possess. Given that they are fully healthy, focused, and locked in, there is no other team in this world that can beat a well-oiled, fully-functional, and efficient machine.
The Wolves fought well and gave a gallant effort, but when the Warriors inflict death by a thousand screens, then there is nothing else that can be done.
Seventy down, 12 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.