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The Golden Breakdown: The tactical adjustments behind the Warriors’ close-out win over the Clippers

A Game 6 against an 8-seed in the first round was uncharted territory for the Warriors. It forced them to make several adjustments on both ends of the floor, allowing them to put away the Clippers for good and move on.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The wake-up call was received perhaps a game or two too late, but it was received nonetheless: The Warriors needed to get this first-round annoyance out of the way in order to focus on a much-tougher matchup with the Houston Rockets.

The Warriors were able to put away the Clippers by employing several adjustments they probably should’ve made much earlier in the series. Defensively, the Warriors reverted back to their swarming defense, putting the clamps on an offense that wreaked havoc on them in Game 5, where the Clippers were able to stamp an offensive rating of 131.6 on the defending champions.

Offensively, the Warriors went to a mostly small lineup, starting Shaun Livingston in lieu of Andrew Bogut and mostly relying on the Hamptons 5 for versatility on offense and interchangeability on defense. They also used the Clippers’ trapping strategy on Stephen Curry against them, while unleashing the ultimate offensive strategy: Give Kevin Durant the ball and let him work his magic.

Tactic #1: Give Kevin Durant the ball

Durant has been on an absolute scoring rampage in this first round series against the Clippers. The Slim Reaper moniker for the 7-foot scoring machine is as apt of a nickname as there is in the league. Like death itself, Durant is inevitable — or rather, his scoring over any kind of defense, over any kind of defender, is inevitable.

“When Durant scores, he scores because he’s just good and bigger,” Doc Rivers said. “That’s what we tell our guys too. If he scores off the dribble on you, just don’t worry about it. If he scores off of movement then that’s on us.”

Coming into Game 6, Durant averaged 38.7 points per game over the last 3 games, while shooting 40-of-70 from the field (57.1 percent).

It was evident that Durant is currently in sublime scoring form. He has established himself as a truly unstoppable force, to the point that the Clippers’ strategy on him was to let him feed on them and to focus instead on stopping the Warriors’ other offensive weapons from going off, most notably Curry.

While that strategy may have been the Clippers’ only hope, it only served to burn them in the end, in the form of an even bigger nuclear blast from Durant, who dropped 50 points while requiring only 26 shots to do so. His efficiency was staggering, with a shooting split of .577/.429/.933.

Add his Game 6 numbers to his total production over the last 4 games of this series, and the numbers are just absolutely out-of-this world.

“It was one of the great performances I’ve seen in my life,” Steve Kerr said. “He just carried us during these last couple games of this series. He’s the ultimate weapon because there’s no defense for Kevin. No matter what anybody does, he can get a good shot. He knew we needed them badly, and he just took over the game in the first half and set a good tone.”

Durant is often criticized — even by some Warriors fans — of taking charge of the ball for too long, often at the expense of the team’s egalitarian motion offense. But Durant is perhaps the deadliest isolation scorer in the NBA today. He has shown a willingness to play within the system, but that system can get stifled at times.

It is during those times of stagnation, when the defense forcingly puts poetry in motion to a screeching halt, when keeping things simple is the best course of action.

Simply stated, put the ball in Durant’s hands, and watch inevitability cast its dark shadow over the opposing defense.

“We tried everything,” Lou Williams said about defending Durant. “We had several different coverages for KD. Sometimes you come across special people, and it doesn’t matter what you send to them. It’s no scheme, it’s no nothing that you can do with special people. He’s one of them, and he showed it tonight.”

Tactic #2: The high pick-and-roll

The Clippers virtually gave up on trying to completely prevent Durant from scoring. They acknowledged that no matter what they did, no matter which of their players they assigned to guard him, Durant would simply find a variety of ways to get his points.

So they turned their focus towards containing Curry. Coming into Game 6, Curry was averaging 24.8 points on a shooting split of .486/.512/.968, with a true-shooting percentage (TS%) of 70.7 percent.

Despite the fact that Curry was aggressively targeted by the Clippers defense, he still managed to put up incredible efficiency numbers on the floor. His gravity is still a force to be reckoned with, even if he doesn’t end up handling the ball for most of the time. However, whenever he does handle the ball, it forces the defense to pay extra special attention to him due to his nature as a damage dealer from any point of the court.

The Warriors realized that the Clippers were willing to throw everything but the kitchen sink towards Curry, including trapping him off of screens, throwing double teams at him while allowing a non-shooter to be left open, and doing subtle things to keep Curry off-rhythm, such as small grabs and pushes while Curry is moving off the ball.

The Warriors’ adjustment to these tactics was simple: Run a gamut of high pick-and-roll for Curry to take advantage of the Clippers’ traps, which allows Curry to pass to Draymond Green on the short roll to take advantage of a virtual 2-on-1 situation created by the defense’s double team on Curry.

In this sequence, the Warriors set two screens for Curry up high. Curry loses his footing while going around the second screen, passing out to Kevon Looney who then passes to Green at the top of the key. Lou Williams is left alone in the paint as a result of Curry drawing attention, allowing Andre Iguodala to cut along the baseline and receive Green’s lob for the dunk.

The Warriors flow into off-ball screening action for Curry, who receives a screen from Green. When two defenders attach themselves to Curry, Iguodala’s bounce pass finds its way to a cutting Green, who then lobs the ball over the lone defender in the paint toward Looney, who finishes with a dunk.

Instead of Curry being doubled in this possession, it is Durant, who draws two defenders onto him and is in danger of being trapped along the sideline. However, Green cuts inside and receives Durant’s pass, forcing another 2-on-1 situation and lobbing the ball to Iguodala for another alley-oop.

In this sequence, Iguodala sets the high screen for Curry. Before the defense can even trap him, Curry quickly threads a pocket pass to Iguodala on the short roll, while Green cuts hard toward the basket from the weak side. Another 2-on-1 situation is created, and Iguodala drops the ball to Green for the easy layup.

The Warriors run the same set-up in the next possession — high pick set by Iguodala for Curry — only this time, Curry doesn’t pass to the short roll but passes to Green on the left wing and runs toward the corner, as if to prepare for a relocation three. As expected, two defenders chase Curry, leaving Iguodala alone to roll toward the basket. Green finds the rolling Iguodala, who finishes with another dunk.

Another high pick-and-roll nets the Warriors an alley-oop finish, as Curry gives the ball to Green on the short roll, forcing the rest of the outnumbered defenders to step up to Green’s drive. Another well-placed lob allows Livingston to cut along the baseline to jump and finish the play.

This one is made to look way too easy — another high pick for Curry, another pass on the short roll for Green which creates another 2-on-1 situation, and a lob over the lone defender to a cutting Iguodala for the alley-oop finish.

Having been burned too many times by several 2-on-1 situations on the short roll, the defense opts to stay at home with their assignments on this possession, allowing Curry to pass to a rolling Green, who strolls to the rim for an uncontested layup.

Tactic #3: Clamp down on defense

After the Clippers burned the Warriors in Game 5 using Williams and Montrezl Harrell in the pick-and-roll, they visibly adjusted during Game 6. They were able to stifle Williams’ attempts at dribble penetration, while quickly shutting down his small windows of passing to Harrell on the roll.

In Game 6, Williams and Harrell, who are the Clippers’ main offensive options despite coming off the bench, combined for a paltry 18 points. Williams, in particular, had an abysmal offensive performance, with 3-of-21 clip from the field (14.3 percent) and failing to knock in any of his 3 attempts from beyond the arc.

Williams first checked into the game at the 5:18 mark of the 1st quarter, and right away, the Warriors set their sights on trying to contain him. In this possession, Williams receives the ball and tries to get around a screen towards his left, but Klay Thompson closes off that path and forces him to drive right. At the same time, Looney steps up and stops Williams in his tracks, forcing him to lose control of the ball for a turnover.

Watch how the Warriors were able to completely cut off Williams from Harrell in this pick-and-roll. Iguodala and Looney swarm all over Williams, while Green rotates over to Harrell. Williams is forced to kick out to Patrick Beverley in the corner, whose shot is well defended.

When Thompson gets switched onto Williams, Thompson does a great job of staying in front of his man, eventually poking at the ball and forcing it out of Williams’ hands when he exposes it for Thompson to strip.

In the process of trying to deny a hand-off to Williams, Thompson steals the ball from JaMychal Green, leading to a fastbreak and an eventual pull-up three from Durant on the other end.

Here is Iguodala taking a turn on Williams, who desperately tries to turn the corner against the 35-year-old. But Iguodala is immovable, staying in front of Williams and successfully stifling his drive with help from a rotating Green.

Even when Williams manages to get the step on Iguodala, Green is there to help and rotate. Williams tries to score and make contact, but Green goes straight up and swats away Williams’ layup attempt.

Cutting off the head of the snake allowed the Warriors to force the Clippers into an offensive rut for most of the game. With Williams sputtering on offense, so did the rest of the Clippers, who succumbed to the Warriors forcing them into several stagnant possessions, 14 turnovers, and 39.6 percent shooting from the field.

Most importantly, the Warriors answered the call for them to immediately put the Clippers into a choke hold, and to keep that hold tight until the Clippers were forced to submit to them. The wake-up call they received after Game 5 did not go for naught.

The late reception of this call may have come at a slight cost, however. Curry rolled his right ankle, and while he was able to continue playing, he showed signs of not being fully spry and agile. Thompson also rolled his ankle during a drive to the rim, showing signs of discomfort after getting up. The Splash Brothers’ health is now a topic of concern, with only a day to prepare for the Rockets.

But if those concerns turn out to be non-factors, then all bets are off in this upcoming second round series against their main Western Conference rivals. The winner may eventually go on to play in the NBA Finals. There will be no room for errors. Considering the presence of elite talent on both sides, the slightest of mistakes can easily be turned into the biggest of advantages.

It may only be the second round, but it could very well decide the fate of the NBA for years to come.

Four wins down, 12 more to go.

Stay Golden, Dub Nation.

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