Dillon Brooks was up to his usual shenanigans against Stephen Curry.
Call it whatever you want — tough, rough-and-tumble, physical, holding, fouling, dirty, etc. — Brooks has historically given Curry fits. Brooks fits the profile of a Curry agitator: 6’7” tall, broad shouldered, and incredibly handsy. He rides the thin line between acceptable and excessive physicality, a formula that has worked in the past against Curry, especially during high-stakes playoffs situations.
Which was why the Golden State Warriors were hellbent on trying to shoo away Brooks from guarding Curry. They used all sorts of on-ball screens, which included high ball screens in early offense, as well as double drag screens that were intended to force Brooks to run through a gauntlet of screens and dare him to navigate around them in order to stay attached to Curry.
But the quick hitting nature of double drag screens meant that even for someone who is typically adept at screen navigation in Brooks, it would be impossible to keep up with Curry, forcing the Grizzlies to have to switch one of their bigs onto one of the most notorious big-man killers in the league.
Coupled with the fact that the drag screens were set by two of the Warriors’ best screeners in Draymond Green and Kevon Looney, Brooks had no shot at sticking with Curry, forcing the inevitable switch onto Steven Adams and allowing Curry to go all the way to the rim.
Having this amount of ball screens being set for Curry spoke to how seriously Steve Kerr and the Warriors were taking this matchup seriously. The Warriors run the second-least amount of pick-and-rolls in the league: 12.5% of their possessions have involved a ball handler in the pick-and-roll; only the Brooklyn Nets run fewer pick-and-rolls in the league, per Synergy.
The Warriors still ran their typical off-ball sets for Curry — it would be foolish not to run any off-ball-screening actions for the deadliest player in the league when it comes to shooting around screens. Curry scores 1.201 points per possession (PPP) around off-ball screens — fourth among 58 players who have 25 or more off-screen possessions this season, per Synergy. Out of those 58, only Curry — with 134 off-screen possessions — has more than 100; the second-most frequent player on the list — Buddy Hield —has 92.
An example of a favorite off-ball-screen set play the Warriors like to run for Curry after timeouts (ATO) — a set they’ve previously run against the Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic— is this “Hammer” action set:
But despite the Warriors running their favored motion sets for Curry, they knew the magnitude of the situation. These Grizzlies have become a sort of mini-rival, dating back to last season where the Warriors were able to clinch the 7th seed during the last game of the season against Memphis, only to lose the winner-take-all play-in game against the very same team. They met in a rematch in October 28, where the Grizzlies were able to make it two wins in a row in a game where the Warriors threw away a huge lead.
In some ways, this was more than just a regular season game — and the Warriors played like it.
“This is a game that I wanted to win very bad,” Green said after the game. “This was a team that beat us in the Play-In game last year and then came in and beat us on our floor in a game that we let get away earlier this year. Obviously, we have guys that are down, but it’s a mental thing as well when you’re playing a team like that, that plays you tough every game. I was a little more riled up this game because it was a very important game.”
The playoff atmosphere and aura permeated throughout the game — and some of it was apparent in how the Warriors simplified some of their endgame sets for Curry, who got his fair share of high ball screens and isolations.
It could be construed as “practice” for the playoffs. The Warriors’ motion and off-ball sets can easily be made stagnant in a playoff series, where multiple reps, scouting, and the prevalence of the half-court game necessitates the use of more “rudimentary” and straightforward offensive principles.
Sometimes, all you need to do to eke out a win is to give the ball to your best player, set a screen (or not), and let him do his thing.
Curry broke out of his recent shooting and efficiency slump with a performance that torched the Grizzlies: 46 points on 22 shots, 5-of-8 on twos, 8-of-14 on threes, 12-of-12 from the free-throw line, and 84.3% True Shooting.
“Vintage Steph,” Kerr said. “That’s about as good as it gets against a very physical defense with great size. I think over the last 10 or 12 games, Memphis has had the best defensive rating in the league, so they’re a really good team defensively. For Steph to go out and get 46, he showed every bit of his talent tonight and his will.”
Curry wasn’t alone. Without the Warriors’ second and third-leading scorers in Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins, Curry did not have the typical secondary shot creation that supplemented his offense.
That was when the unlikeliest of scorers stepped up.
Gary Payton II is often thought of as a defense-first guard. The main reason for Kerr starting him against the Grizzlies was to keep Ja Morant on a tight leash, and perhaps make himself available as an open man on the weak side or as a cutter or roamer in the dunker spot, acting as an opportunistic scorer on the margins.
Payton scoring a few buckets due to the defense ignoring him was expected. What wasn’t expected was just how much he took advantage of those pockets of inattention.
With the absences of Poole and Wiggins and the sudden expectation of being Curry’s backcourt partner being placed upon his shoulders, Payton knew that he had to be more aggressive than usual — which he managed to accomplish, to great results.
“It was just next-man mentality,” Payton said. “Guys step up, 30 (Stephen Curry) puts everybody, and Draymond puts everybody in a good position to make plays. Coach just told us to be aggressive. We’re a little shorthanded, so just be aggressive and when you have opportunities to make plays, just make plays.”
Payton finished behind Curry as the second-leading scorer: 22 points on 16 shots, including an astounding 4-of-7 clip on threes. Payton was left open on the weak side on several possessions. He isn’t what one would construe as the ideal weak-side spacer, especially on short-roll possessions where defenses are inclined to collapse toward the paint.
But Payton — who has made it a point of emphasis to work on his jump shot — did his job as someone who was left wide open on several possessions.
“He spent the summer really working hard on that three-point shot,” Kerr said of Payton. “He revamped it a little bit and works on it daily and he shoots the ball with confidence. He’s the guy who’s had to claw his way to get to this point. He’s fearless (and) he’s finally getting a real chance to play big minutes on a good team. He’s the kind of guy who’s gonna seize this opportunity and make the most of everything. He’s fun to watch.”
Payton — who is 21-of-51 on threes this season, good for 41.2% — made the most out of this opportunity, and his unexpected scoring punch provided a cushion behind Curry that was needed against a Grizzlies team that refused to yield.
Payton may not be this consistent of a scorer on most nights, especially with the nature of his scoring being opportunistic. But while Poole, Wiggins, and Damion Lee continue to be held back by health and safety protocols, Payton and the other supplementary role players behind Curry and Green will need to step up and contribute, and to fill holes that they may not have been expected to fill.
“When you’re without several key guys, especially scorers... you pretty much have to find a couple guys making shots each night,” Kerr said. “Tonight we got that obviously with Gary, (Jonathan Kuminga), and (Otto Porter Jr.). We expect Otto to make shots, (Nemanja Bjelica) too, but those guys knock down five threes between them.
“The margin for error is definitely slimmer. We just have to do what we did tonight, which is defend and find ways to score.”