Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson had their first game together on January 9 against the Cleveland Cavaliers — a Splash Brothers tandem whose reunion was two and a half years in the making.
But ever since their first game together as a duo, it hasn’t really felt like the Splash Brothers were genuinely back.
Curry is in the midst of his worst career slump; ever since the Warriors’ November 30 matchup against the Phoenix Suns, he has been on a downward spiral, both in terms of his shooting success (38/34/89 shooting splits) and his scoring efficiency (53.4% True Shooting, 2.3 points below league average).
Thompson’s return has been quite a mixed bag. He’s shown spurts of his pre-injury form: supreme spot-up/catch-and-shoot proficiency, relentless off-ball movement, mid-range chops, and lockdown defense.
But his legs still haven’t fully recovered from being out of action for virtually two and a half years. Some of his shots have been glaringly short, a sign that there are still problems with lift and conditioning. He has smoked a number of shots at the rim, also a sign that his faith in his legs still isn’t one-hundred percent.
But there has been no shortage of shooting confidence. In just seven games, Thompson is already averaging 14.0 shot attempts. He’s up to 7.1 two-point attempts (two below his career average) and 6.9 three-point attempts (in line with his career average).
The percentages, however, haven’t been as peachy. He’s shooting 44.0% on twos (five percentage points below career average) and 33.3% on threes (nearly nine percentage points below career average).
Having two of your best offensive players be in less-than-ideal points of their careers at the same time isn’t going to do your offense any favors, and it’s a huge reason why the Warriors have had an offensive rating of 109.0 over the 28-game stretch since the first Suns game — 24th over that period.
Which is why the 130-92 drubbing of the Dallas Mavericks — fourth in defensive rating going into the game — felt like the first time the Splash Brothers were the Splash Brothers. Not because Curry (19 points on 16 shots) and Thompson (15 points on 12 shots) put up astronomical scoring performances.
It was because it felt like the vision of them being on the floor and causing all sorts of offensive chaos was fulfilled. Whether it was both of them sharing the floor, or one playing the role of an attention vacuum and offensive fulcrum while the other rested on the bench, the Warriors offense hummed to the beat of a tune that hasn’t played smoothly in what feels like an eternity.
The vision that I’m pertaining to — and the one the Warriors are looking to make a more consistent aspect of their offense — was exemplified by this seemingly unassuming possession out of halftime:
The TNT broadcast didn’t do the possession above justice. It’s not shown, but the set starts out with something the Warriors haven’t really tried before: placing the Splash Brothers as screeners in double-ball-screen action. The possession then flows into a Thompson down screen for Curry.
Curry drawing two off of the down screen leaves Thompson free on the pop. Curry places the pocket pass perfectly to his backcourt partner, who drills the long two.
The Warriors ran the same action later on, but with Jordan Poole taking the role of Thompson:
Instead of Poole popping out toward the strong-side corner, he relocates to the weak-side corner, all while Curry uses the down screen to penetrate and enter the paint. The attention he draws opens up the weak side. With aid from a Kevon Looney pin-in screen, Curry kicks out to Poole, who drills the open three.
The concept above — involving Curry and Thompson directly together through multi-layered screening actions — is fairly rare. We’ve seen instances of guard-guard screens where Thompson “ghosts” the screen and flares out, banking on Curry drawing two so that he can be left wide open.
But the more common way of the Splash Brothers doing their damage on the floor together is how often they open up opportunities for their other teammates. Curry’s gravity is both legendary and notorious, but Thompson himself vacuums defenders away by virtue of being involved in all sorts of down-screen action.
Take this possession, for instance — and pay attention not only to Thompson, but also to Curry:
The main attraction above is the Kuminga screen and slip toward the rim, playing off of Thompson drawing two around the down screen in order to dive without obstruction. But Curry relocating to the strong-side and eliminating his defender from becoming the low-man on the weak-side who can help on the Kuminga cut makes the young rookie’s job just a tiny bit easier.
It seemed like the theme of the night from both Curry and Thompson was finding ways to kickstart and drive the engine of the offense, in lieu crippling it by jacking up shots in an attempt to force their way into a rhythm.
It seems heretical to accuse two of the greatest shooters of all time of wantonly jacking up shots. But as unbelievable as it may sound, Curry’s slump and Thompson’s feeling-out process may have hampered the offense more than it helped.
At least, according to the eye test.
A peek into the on/off numbers — small sample size notwithstanding — gives the indication that the Curry-Thompson duo together on the floor is picking up from where it left off. In 108 minutes on the floor together, the Splash Brothers have outscored opponents by 13.6 points per 100 possessions.
A huge component of that success may be due to Curry and Thompson’s teammates thriving with two floor-warping all-time-greats on the floor — and not necessarily due to the two of them having excellent individual shooting and scoring performances.
That won’t always be the case. Curry will break out of his quagmire eventually. Thompson will capture that pre-injury flow. But in the meantime, they’ll continue to find ways to get their teammates involved in as much offense as possible.
Curry had seven assists, most of them through attracting attention around down screens and your run-of-the-mill traps and hedges around ball screens. But the possession that caught my eye the most was this hockey assist by Curry.
The possession above is a pretty complex but intelligent way to get Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porzingis involved in the action. An Andrew Wiggins screen forces the Dončić switch, then a give-and-go pitch action with Looney forces Porzingis into the action.
Curry penetrates against Porzingis, drawing low-man help away from the weak-side corner and leaving Maxi Kleber as the lone defender “splitting the difference,” Curry kicks out to Wiggins, who then swings to Otto Porter Jr. in the corner for a three.
Thompson was more flashy and direct with his involvement. Infamous for being a shoot-first-dribble-and-pass-later gunslinger, he was more intent than usual on setting the offensive table for everyone around him. Extra swing passes to the open man, passes in transition to corner fillers, etc. — he was in tune with his playmaking side.
Three of his assists even had an element of flair to them:
Ultimately, it’s what Thompson does best — shoot and defend — that will be indicators of his ability to contribute to a championship-contending squad. The flashes of the Thompson of old are promising; he shot 3-of-7 on twos (a couple at the rim) and 3-of-5 on threes against the Mavericks
Defensively, Thompson may be more suited to defending against slower targets who thrive with post ups, as opposed to quicker guards and wings who demand significantly more lateral movement. He had a couple of excellent defensive possessions against Dončić in the post, including one that came after a made three, in what was perhaps the best two-way sequence of Thompson’s season.
Probably the best two-way sequence from Klay Thompson so far this season. Movement catch-and-shoot three that's smooooth. Then switches onto Luka on the other end and forces the miss. pic.twitter.com/oEDFK6Wn5p— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) January 26, 2022
The unselfishness and intelligence of the Splash Brothers were on full display against the Mavericks. Shots were taken, but were by no means forced. They didn’t let their misses and even their makes get to their heads — but instead continued to set the table, not only for each other but also for their supporting casts.
Eventually, the Warriors will need Curry to return to his MVP form. Thompson will have to prove that this performance wasn’t just a one-hit wonder, but the beginning of an upswing and eventual return to being an All-Star-caliber player.
Until then — and until the return of Draymond Green — the Splash Brothers’ all-around excellence should serve as a satisfactory stopgap.