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Killswitch: How the Warriors won the switching battle vs. the Heat

Warriors edge the battle of two similar teams.

Golden State Warriors v Miami Heat Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Even without Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, I was interested to tune into the Warriors’ matchup against the Miami Heat, for several reasons.

This is a battle of two teams with highly similar offensive concepts. Both run heavy motion that often eschews traditional pick-and-roll-centered schemes in favor of off-ball movement, passing and playmaking out of both the low and high post, and neverending dribble handoffs.

A peep at the play-type data backs up the fact that these two teams are highly conservative when it comes to running ball screens. The Warriors run the second-least amount of pick-and-rolls in the league (14.1 possessions per game, 12.8% of their possessions), while the Heat are 22nd in the league when it comes to pick-and-roll frequency (16.0 possessions per game, 14.8% of their possessions).

The similarity between these two teams’ offensive schemes is uncanny — to the point where they have run into similar problems. Motion-heavy offenses run the risk of stagnation; teams who know how to defend it — with the proper personnel, to boot — will simply switch almost every screen and copiously top-lock shooters to deny them space.

Despite the potential potency of both offenses, they’ve run into occasional problems in the halfcourt. The Warriors are *only* 11th in the league in terms of half-court offense (97.4 ORTG).

Meanwhile, the Heat — even with a versatile playmaking hub in Bam Adebayo, self-creation chops from the likes of Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro, and a plethora of shooters headlined by Duncan Robinson — are *only* 13th in half-court offense (96.6 ORTG).

The Heat incorporate slightly more pick-and-roll within their offense. They are fond of running a specific kind of pick-and-roll: the “Spain” pick-and-roll, also known as the “Stack” pick-and-roll. The difference between this modified version and a typical ball screen is the addition of a back-screener — usually a shooter — who sets a backscreen for the roll man. The back-screener then pops out beyond the arc and presents himself as a kick-out option.

The Heat ran Spain to end the first quarter. Watch how the Warriors defend it:

Before the actual Spain action commences, focus on Andrew Wiggins and Nemanja Bjelica. The Heat try to involve Bjelica — a subpar defender in space — in the ball-screen action. But Wiggins and Bjelica avoid that by “pre-switching,” which results in Wiggins being involved in the ball screen instead.

Instead of Bjelica having to defend in space against a downhill ball-handler, he is tasked with sticking with the back-screener (Max Strus) and running him off the line. Meanwhile, Wiggins switches onto the ball handler (Victor Oladipo), and cuts off a potential drive.

The weak spot in this possession — Chris Chiozza getting switched onto Adebayo — is addressed by Damion Lee “tagging” the roll, which momentarily discourages any kind of high-low pass to the much-taller Adebayo.

With his open look denied, Strus passes back to Oladipo. Wiggins runs Oladipo off the line, and Oladipo’s drive is nullified by the shot-clock violation.

Half-court stagnancy was bound to be a problem for both the Warriors and the Heat — almost like two immovable objects being thrown at each other but failing to make even a single mark. The battle wasn’t going to be won largely on who would heavily be successful with their half-court offense — rather, it was whoever garnered the most stops on defense and translate such stops to offense in transition or semi-transition.

Knowing your personnel is key. Jonathan Kuminga had several noteworthy defensive possessions on Butler. What made the possession work below was Kuminga not opting to switch the ball screen for Butler, but instead ducking under the screen against someone shooting 20.2% on nearly 2 attempts per game from beyond the arc.

Ducking under the screen allows Kuminga to trail Butler from behind, while Bjelica stays vertical and bottles Butler’s drive. The stop results in the Warriors gaining an advantage against a non-set defense; Bjelica hands off to a streaking Jordan Poole, who has enough downhill momentum to blaze past Markieff Morris for the layup.

Another instance of excellent half-court defense — this time involving a key switch:

Dribble handoffs between Robinson and Adebayo are a Heat staple — in the possession above, the Heat run “Chicago” action (a pindown into a DHO) for Robinson. Poole chases Robinson around the pindown screen, but he gets caught up in Adebayo’s screen after the handoff.

This is where Looney playing Adebayo a bit higher than what is typically recommended comes in. Adebayo is no long-range pop threat, but Looney plays him close not because of that — but because the threat of Robinson shooting around a handoff screen is real. Looney denies that from happening by switching and closing out on Robinson.

From then on, the Heat fail to gain an advantage and resort to an Adebayo fadeaway jumper that bricks.

Whereas the Heat largely failed to create their own shots to temper the stagnancy that resulted from the Warriors’ heavy switching, the Warriors were able to find scoring from individual matchups. The Heat themselves heavily switched screens — but having the likes of Kuminga and Poole to create their own scoring opportunities despite the switching was key.

Adebayo is the ultimate switch-big, and is the reason why the Heat are so confident with switching almost every screen that opponents run. His ability to defend up and down the positional spectrum has him well within the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.

When Kuminga finds himself having to face Adebayo on a switch, however, he doesn’t care one bit about Adebayo’s defensive pedigree:

The sudden acceleration and burst of speed from Kuminga catches Adebayo off guard. Kyle Lowry is the only help available on the backline — but he’s obviously too small to affect Kuminga’s downhill drive.

The importance of getting stops and securing the possession is also magnified when the result is getting favorable cross-matches in transition. The rule of thumb if you’re the defense is to pick up the man closest to you in transition. On several occasions, Kuminga ran the floor in transition, with the closest defender to him being Robinson.

Robinson being forced to pick up Kuminga resulted in favorable matchups:

Knowing the Heat were going to switch virtually every ball screen, the Warriors made it a point to pick on Robinson — and the Heat were more than willing to give them the switch almost every time.

The Warriors set a series of screens in the possession above: first, a Looney screen to get Adebayo switched onto Poole, followed by a Lee screen to get Robinson matched up against Poole.

Robinson seems hesitant to commit to the switch; that small window of hesitation gives Poole enough time and space to pull up for the three, with Robinson’s close out too late and too far out to affect the shot.

Poole was on another scoring tear: 30 points on 18 shots (3-of-5 on twos, 7-of-13 on threes) and 77.6% True Shooting. He has now scored at least 20 points in 11 consecutive games. His scoring efficiency and shooting splits over those 11 games have been, to say the least, absolutely jaw dropping.

Kuminga himself had 22 points on 17 shots. The Warriors outscored the Heat by 26 points during his 30 minutes on the floor, despite fouling out with just under 6 minutes to go in the 4th quarter.

Even without their best players on the floor, the Warriors were able to give the Heat a bit of their own switching medicine. In the battle of two teams whose schemes on both ends of the floor are near mirror images of one another, the Warriors were able to squeeze a bit more out of their individual matchups, while getting the requisite stops to keep the Heat defense constantly on the backfoot.

With the emergence of both Poole and Kuminga, answers were garnered but more questions popped up: How do you find a suitable starting lineup that includes Poole, without marginalizing any of the usual starting crew? Has Kuminga proven himself to be a playoff rotation staple, despite his status as a rookie?

Steve Kerr and the coaching staff will be happy with this win, but it may also force them to make hard decisions.