Some possessions slip through most people’s consciousness because nothing of note happened. But sometimes, what didn’t happen during a possession can be the most telling.
Take this particular one, for example, during the second quarter. With Stephen Curry handling the ball, Kevon Looney sets a high ball screen for him near half court. The Houston Rockets — who were switching almost every screen on and off the ball — chose to switch this particular ball screen, resulting in Christian Wood having to take Curry around the screen.
Seeing this from Curry’s perspective, the process is admittedly sound. Jalen Green stunts and leaves Andrew Wiggins open at the top of the arc momentarily, leaving the 41.3% three-point shooter open before a timely rotation from Kevin Porter Jr. closes the window shut. The Rockets defense then shifts away from Otto Porter Jr. in the corner, with Wiggins making the correct read by whipping the pass toward Porter for an excellent shot that just missed.
Or take this possession, where Curry forces another switch onto Wood:
It’s an instance of “productive passivity” from Curry, who passes out of the matchup and opts to watch a wing dribble handoff between Porter and Wiggins. Again, from Curry’s perspective, the process is sound: Wood has to attach himself to Curry, which opens the lane for someone else — in this case, Wiggins — to drive and score at the rim.
But it’s these bouts of passivity from Curry — even in the face of a favorable mismatch — that can often be sources of frustration. Everyone is chomping at the bit for Curry to regain his vintage MVP form. He may be averaging 26.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists, but his scoring efficiency is seeing an unprecedented nosedive.
The shooting splits are uncharacteristic: 42/38/91, on 58.9% True Shooting. Not counting his injury-shortened 2019-20 season, the last time Curry posted a sub-60% True Shooting mark was during the 2012-13 season — nine seasons ago.
The three-point struggles are of note, but I would argue that it’s been his efficiency on twos that has been more alarming. Shooting 48.2% on twos — on track to be his third-worst two-point-shooting mark and the first time he’s shot below 50% on twos since the 2010-11 season — isn’t ideal, especially in the midst of a three-point-shooting slump.
Curry’s shooting woes have fed into his bouts of passivity, while being passive has led to a lack of consistent rhythm and flow — a crippling feedback loop serving as the culprit behind his mid-season slump. But when Curry does decide to become aggressive, some looks have been products of good offensive process. When Curry does hunt the mismatch, he often obtains the shots he desires.
On this possession, he gets another matchup with Wood, albeit in a different manner from the previous clip:
The Warriors run a staple play: double drag screens flowing into low-post split action. The double drag forces Wood to switch onto Curry. After the post entry, Looney sets the down screen on Wood. Curry gets a look that just misses.
To Curry’s credit, as the game went on, his mindset changed from passivity to aggressively hunting Wood. When the lowest-hanging fruit is there for the taking, the answer to one’s struggles — and the team’s struggles, by extension — is to go for the simplest solution.
Whether it was on brush screens, high ball screens, or quick bursts of relocation, Curry found scoring opportunities against Wood, who was out of his depth defending a dangerous offensive force out on the perimeter.
Continuously setting high ball screens for Curry has been a consistent talking point throughout Steve Kerr’s tenure as head coach. It’s no secret that Kerr has tried to shy away from a traditional pick-and-roll-based offense that the majority of NBA teams run, opting to run a motion offense that uses the off-ball chaos of Curry coupled with equal-opportunity scoring and playmaking.
The Warriors have consistently been among the most conservative teams when it comes to running pick-and-roll possessions. This year hasn’t been any different; they average 14.3 pick-and-roll possessions, which constitute 12.7% of their total possessions — third-fewest in the league. Only the Denver Nuggets and the Brooklyn Nets run fewer pick-and-rolls.
While Kerr’s reservations with spreading the floor and running ball-screen action for his best player has been well-chronicled, it doesn’t mean that Kerr has been completely abhorrent of it. When the situation calls for it, he unleashes Curry and a screening partner — usually Draymond Green — on two-man actions, which often result in short-roll 4-on-3 situations born out of two defenders attaching themselves to Curry around the screen.
With Green out, Kevon Looney and Nemanja Bjelica filled the void as Curry’s partners during ball screens. While he’s bereft of athleticism and verticality, Looney can roll downhill and finish at the rim when Curry finds himself trapped. While he doesn’t have the playmaking clairvoyance of Green on the short roll, Looney can also serve as a competent substitute who’s capable of making the correct reads.
Bjelica, on the other hand, is the closest approximation to Green in terms of playmaking on the short roll, with the added dimension of being a pick-and-pop threat. Together, both Looney and Bjelica continuously set ball screens for Curry that led to efficient offensive possessions against the Rockets, especially during crunch time.
With how this Warriors offense has been scuffling — 26th in offensive rating over the last 26 games, starting from their first matchup against the Phoenix Suns — one would assume that crunch-time offense has been an Achilles heel of sorts for them.
The Warriors’ 14 wins in clutch situations this season — defined as the last five minutes of the game with the score within five points or less — has mostly been won on the defensive end; their 92.7 defensive rating in the clutch ranks third. On the other hand, their 105.2 offensive rating in clutch situations is a middling 19th.
The concept of keeping things simple can also apply to endgame situations. When push comes to shove, the answer is as simple as placing your faith upon the shoulders of your superstar.
Which was evident during the last possession of the game, on Curry’s first buzzer-beating game winner of his career.
After the game, when asked what he drew up during the timeout, Kerr was straightforward with his answer.
“Get the ball to Steph, and get out of the way.”