Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson both had excellent games against the Dallas Mavericks, but for reasons we all wouldn’t typically expect out of the greatest shooting backcourt in NBA history.
In the previous article I wrote, I praised the Splash Brothers for excelling in an area they haven’t really previously excelled at, at least when playing together: as playmakers. With Draymond Green out and the Warriors sorely missing the player who organizes the offense in a way no one else can, Curry and Thompson needed to be table setters for the team in his stead.
The duo combined for 13 assists against the Mavericks, all while scoring a combined 33 points. A majority of those assists were fed to their supporting cast. For the first time in what seemingly amounted to an eternity, their offense flowed like a river, with the Splash Brothers at the forefront of that engine finally being set loose from its month-long snag.
While the Splash Brothers’ increased emphasis in playmaking was a welcomed sight, the necessity of them becoming the one-two shooting-and-scoring punch of the dynasty years is a valid prerequisite toward a title run. Without it, they would most certainly run into difficulties against other elite teams in a playoff setting.
The Splash Brothers felt like the Splash Brothers in a most unusual way against the Mavericks, but against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Splash Brothers were the exact embodiment of the Splash Brothers who took the league by storm almost a decade ago, pioneers of a three-point revolution that changed the game immensely.
Curry finished with 29 points on 10 shots: 4-of-10 on twos, 6-of-10 on threes, and 68.0% True Shooting. The Wolves’ exceptional wing depth forced Curry to have to work extra for several of his scores; throwing lengthy defenders such as Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels toward Curry resulted in a couple of loose handles, steals, blocked shots, and tough shot attempts that were bothered.
But the fact that Curry was able to finally achieve a breakthrough in terms of his shooting — against defender profiles tailored to slow him down, no less — is an extremely encouraging sign. It might still be too early to declare him fully recovered from his slump, but it’s a promising first step.
These are the kinds of shots that weren’t falling for Curry:
Pull-up threes have historically been in Curry’s wheelhouse — the one aspect of his outside shooting that separates him from the rest of the elite-shooters field. But this season is proving to be difficult for him in that department: 36.8% on 6.7 pull-up-three attempts this season, down by four percentage points on slightly fewer attempts from last season.
Regaining confidence and panache on his pull-ups — turning away before the shots go in — is a return to vintage Curry.
But my favorite Curry three of the night didn’t come on a pull-up, but on a staple Warriors action:
That is the Warriors’ “modified” low-post split action — modified in the sense that it is, in essence, a three-way split. Peep at Curry setting the cross-screen for Otto Porter Jr., who receives the entry pass. Curry then goes to set a back-screen for Thompson, after which Curry runs off of a traditional split down-screen from Kevon Looney to free him up for a three.
You may be asking: What is the point of adding another layer to the classic split action?
It’s simple. Opponents are well aware of the Warriors’ bread-and-butter action, and are more wary of it when the obvious tell — an entry pass into the post — occurs. They will simply opt not to drop their big, but instead switch the down-screen action.
But when you add a back-screen for a cutter — in this instance, Thompson — you induce hesitation and confusion from the opposing big. If you’re Karl-Anthony Towns in this situation and you see Thompson cutting within your peripheral vision, you will be compelled to sag off to prevent a pass from reaching Thompson.
That’s when the conundrum occurs:
Towns, by virtue of having to account for Thompson, isn’t in any position to switch, hedge, or blitz the down-screen action for Curry — and it is why this multi-layered version of the Warriors’ signature set has largely worked this season.
Don’t underestimate the insertion of Thompson into these sets. He draws plenty of attention himself, with gravitational pull that is identical to his Splash Brother.
The manner with which these two function together on the floor is often subtle but no less potent: one spaced on the weak-side wing or corner, leaving plenty of room for the other to operate; or one cutting through to act as a decoy for the other to be set loose on an action, as was demonstrated above.
We rarely see the two of them leverage each other’s pull through direct involvement with each other — i.e., screening for one another. Deliberate guard-guard screens are often discouraged because defenses will often switch those actions.
But in an uncontrolled environment where chaos reigns — situations where the Warriors have often thrived in — Curry and Thompson screening for one another becomes a whole different monster.
A Curry relocation flowing into a Thompson “pin-in” exit screen becomes a Thompson cut and layup, simply because Curry automatically draws two defenders around the screen. If you’re the defense, how are you supposed to defend that?
Or how about this: a wide down-screen set by Curry for Thompson out of HORNS (formation with the ball handler up top, two stationed at the elbows, and two parked on both corners), which allows Thompson to curl and drive toward the rim for the layup:
Again, how do you defend that?
It’s a question that can also be directed toward the rest of the NBA, considering how Thompson has looked during the last two games. Against the Wolves, he scored 23 points on 16 shots: 4-of-7 on twos, 5-of-9 on threes, and 71.9% True Shooting.
Adding the Mavericks game into the equation, Thompson is averaging 19 points on 53.6% shooting from the field and 57.1% on threes over the last two games. We’re slowly seeing defenses having to pick their poison when defending the Warriors; the surprising thing about that fact is that they’ve been opting to die from arguably the most potent one out there.
Helping on an Andrew Wiggins drive, all while losing track of Thompson relocating to the weak-side corner, was one such example:
Or turning the ball over and having to scramble back on the other end against the prospect of having to stop Curry in transition — all while Thompson is running to his right. The instinct is to pick up Curry, but when another defender has that same instinct, it leaves Thompson open for the wing three.
Or Thompson being an active benefactor of his teammates’ pull on split actions or sideline out-of-bounds plays. Setting screens for outside threats such as Jordan Poole, then cutting inside and finishing with his off hand. Pretending to set a screen for Curry on an inbounds “Chicago” action (pin-down into DHO), then slipping inside and cutting.
Thompson displayed the full arsenal of his off-ball prowess:
We even saw a vintage defensive possession from Thompson, using full use of his lateral movement — a component of his post-injury stint widely expected to be a work in progress — when the Wolves run “Pistol” action.
Watch Thompson switch the wing handoff, then shoot the gap in order to remain in front of his man. This is a glimpse of the pre-injury version whose perimeter defense was widely renowned:
We all know the saying: Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t — and the numbers are telling us that in 132 minutes (small-sample-size-theater!) on the floor together, Curry and Thompson are outscoring opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions, with an offensive rating (115.2) that would be the equivalent of the second-ranked offense in the league.
All it’s telling us is the obvious: Curry and Thompson playing together and wreaking all sorts of havoc is a recipe for success.
Is it a recipe for a championship? History tells us that it is. What remains to be seen is if that recipe will still work four years after winning their previous title.