The Portland Trail Blazers came into their game against the Golden State Warriors as the team who allowed the second-highest opponent rim rate in the league (37.9% of their opponents’ shots came at the rim), per Cleaning the Glass.
The logical line of thought would then be this: with Jusuf Nurkić sidelined and Drew Eubanks being the only natural big man left on the Blazers’ roster, the Warriors should then be compelled to put lots of pressure on the rim — not only to get layups, but to create advantages off of the threat generated from paint touches.
The only problem? The Warriors are dead last in the league in the frequency of shots they attempt at the rim. Only 26.4% of their shot attempts have come from within four feet of the basket, per Cleaning the Glass.
The Warriors were really never the kind of team to intentionally attack the rim with ball handlers and shot creators. The nature of their offense organically bypasses traditional rim pressure and replaces it with alternative means of attacking the paint: through opportunistic cuts, backscreens, and slips/rolls after setting a screen for an attention-grabbing shooter.
To compound matters further, they were starved for personnel who could self-create shots at the rim, or at least take full advantage of rim opportunities with capable finishing. Steph Curry isn’t coming back anytime soon. Andrew Wiggins continued to be sidelined with an illness. James Wiseman suffered an ankle sprain. That left Jordan Poole and Jonathan Kuminga as the only sources of legitimate rim pressure on the team.
Kuminga may be an athletic freak with the speed and power game that provide him with plenty of downhill juice, but a limited handle has placed a proverbial cap — albeit most likely temporary if he continues to develop on a positive trajectory — on his ability to self-create layups. He has done a much better job as a connector and play finisher, often on transition possessions following a defensive stop.
But he has also shown that he can be the beneficiary of the aforementioned opportunistic nature of the Warriors offense. One example was on an after-timeout (ATO) set drawn by Steve Kerr for Kuminga — a classic play that Kerr stole from Fred Hoiberg, not only the former coach of the Chicago Bulls but also the former coach of the Iowa State Cyclones.
As such, the term Kerr uses for this particular play is “Cyclone”:
It’s not a play for everyday use. Kerr used to run Cyclone more often until teams started scouting and preparing for it, relegating it to a set that Kerr whips out once in a blue moon when opponents who haven’t seen it for a while — if at all — least expect it.
That moment finally came against the Blazers in the midst of the Warriors’ fourth-quarter rally:
Guard-guard cross-screen action underneath the rim allows Donte DiVincenzo and Klay Thompson to be in their proper positions for the set:
- DiVincenzo cuts through and receives the ball on the left wing — a position through which he is given an angle to pass to the cutter.
- Thompson is in the paint and seemingly is ready to receive a zipper screen to cut toward the top of the key.
Keeping the defense guessing — whether it’s Thompson running toward the top of the arc or setting a backscreen — is what makes this set so difficult to defend without knowing what’s coming.
Having shooters such as Thompson and Curry set screens for others isn’t an entirely novel concept, but the Warriors are perhaps the best at taking advantage of defenses being reticent to switch off of dangerous long-range gunners. They use the fear of losing track of Thompson above to eliminate switching the backscreen action from the equation — even while it’s supposed to be the hard counter to “Cyclone.”
This set play sparked a 16-2 run by the Warriors in the closing stages of the fourth quarter, buoyed by taking advantage of the Blazers’ miscues in ball-screen coverage and some key defensive stops translating to buckets against a compromised defense.
The specific miscue the Blazers committed — and one the Warriors pinpointed and attacked — was on guard-guard “ghost” screens targeting Damian Lillard, the first instance of which occurred during this possession:
The answer to guard-guard ghosted screens such as this is a switch, since the size similarities between defenders make it feasible. Josh Hart switches onto DiVincenzo, but Lillard’s nonchalant demeanor on the switch gives Poole the window he needs to pull up for the three to cut the deficit to a single point.
Other than guard-guard ghost screens (more on that later), the other catalyst that sparked the Warriors’ late-game run was good old fashioned defensive grit.
On a sideline out-of-bounds (SLOB) set, the Warriors applied tenacious ball denial to prevent Lillard from getting the ball. The Blazers are forced to inbound to Jerami Grant — guarded by Thompson — who decides to take Thompson off the dribble.
Draymond Green “traps the box” — the technical term for rotating into the paint to help on a drive from the wing — and discourages Grant enough to force a pass, but Green anticipates the pass and deflects it, leading to a turnover and a fastbreak situation.
However, Poole turns the ball over and the Warriors are forced to run back in transition defense. Kuminga picks up Anfernee Simons, who isolates and pulls up for a three — made difficult by Kuminga’s length and leaping ability.
A clean contest, a huge rebound, and Kuminga leaking out turns into a dunk:
The subsequent possession is another instance of Green’s mastery of “trapping the box”:
Lillard’s shot is sent back due to Green’s sublime timing. Kuminga’s closeout speed and clean contest forces another Simons miss. The Blazers are once again caught backpedaling in transition against a huge Thompson three that gives the Warriors a two-possession lead.
The cherry on top meshed the concept of dogged and tenacious defense with the aforementioned coverage mishap that plagued the Blazers — or to be more specific, plagued Lillard.
DiVincenzo pokes the ball away from Lillard and gets the steal, which sets up the coup de grâce. Lillard is once again targeted on a ghost screen. Whether Lillard was dejected from his mishap, was exhausted (he tallied 42 minutes), or was genuinely confused (again) on the ball-screen coverage remains to be seen, but DiVincenzo gets all the time in the world for a three that completes the Warriors’ rally.
The Warriors are still perfect during this current homestand. They are now 5-3 since Curry was sidelined due to a left shoulder subluxation. Poole is averaging 29.3 points on 59/30/88 shooting splits (2P/3P/FT) and 59.5 TS% — nearly two percentage points above league average.
Green is flashing his prowess as this generation’s best defender. DiVincenzo is showing why the Warriors signed him to be a key role player. The rest of the team is learning how to win and play together without relying on the Curry crutch — which bodes well for their chemistry, morale, and camaraderie once the franchise superstar eventually returns to action.