Shortly after Stephen Curry checked back in at the 8:48 mark of the 4th quarter of Game 5 between the Golden State Warriors and the Denver Nuggets — with the Warriors down by 4 — the Warriors garnered a stop by forcing an Aaron Gordon paint jumper that fell short.
After hauling in a crucial defensive rebound — crucial because of the Nuggets’ overwhelming dominance on the offensive boards up to that point — the Warriors kept it simple by running Curry and Draymond Green in their legendary 2-man balletic dance of death.
They did so because one hulking low-hanging Serbian fruit was there to be attacked:
Putting Bones Hyland and Nikola Jokić into the action was the right call. Hyland isn’t a premier screen navigator, while Jokić was treading a thin line with his 4 fouls. Curry turns the corner on Jokić, slows down just enough to cause Jokić’s momentum to bump into him, and draws a crucial whistle — Jokić’s 5th personal foul.
From then on, the Warriors’ offensive philosophy transformed from being a highly complex tapestry of movement and passing, to that of letting their best player dictate the half-court possession and deciding whether to go with a solitary attack, or use his pull to generate open shots for his teammates.
It was an appropriate choice by both Curry and Steve Kerr. Why not give it to your best closer in a close-out game, one that was in serious danger of returning to the high-altitude environment that is Denver — and where the cards were in favor of the prohibitive MVP favorite?
If you want to go to the numbers, it also favors Curry. Despite not being in an offensive environment that runs a high frequency of isolations or pick-and-rolls, Curry makes the most out of every isolation or ball-screen that he receives.
Among 103 players who tallied a minimum of 50 isolation possessions during the regular season, Curry has the highest efficiency: 1.20 points per possession. Among 99 players who tallied a minimum of 150 possessions as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, Curry has the 9th-highest efficiency: 1.02 points per possession.
In pick-and-roll possessions with Curry dishing the ball to a teammate, the Warriors have scored an efficient 1.04 points per possession.
Contrast this with the Warriors running split-action for Curry. The reasoning behind running it against a big limited to drop coverage such as DeMarcus Cousins is mostly sound, but what if defenders crowd Curry’s space and sell out to take away a look?
That’s exactly what the Nuggets did below — and a last-gasp three from Gary Payton II saved what could’ve been a dud of a half-court possession:
Choosing Payton to close over the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole was an inspired choice, but one that proved to be the correct button pushed. Payton’s value as a point-of-attack hound, a screen navigator, and clutch shot-maker helped take some of the load off of Curry.
Payton’s defensive combination with Green proved crucial. With Jokić checking back in at the 6:22 mark and the Warriors up by two, the Nuggets run simple high ball-screen action with Jokić and Monte Morris.
Payton and Green blow up the possession with precision:
Payton takes away Jokić as a possible release valve courtesy of a late “peel switch.” Green crowds Morris’ drive and uses lateral movement to keep his man in front — and with the shot clock winding down, Morris’ desperation jumper meets Green’s excellent contest.
From then on, the tenor of the Warriors’ half-court possessions was headed toward a singular goal: target Jokić as much as possible, force him to defend in space, and create all sorts of advantages generated by him having to tread carefully around a 5-foul predicament.
Out of a timeout to settle things down — the Warriors and the Nuggets missed a combined three shots in succession beforehand — Kerr drew up something simple, based on the knowledge that the Nuggets were bound to hide Jokić on Payton.
Payton sets the solid ball-screen to draw Jokić into the action. Jokić is forced to pick up Curry on a late switch due to Gordon’s slow recovery. Curry almost garners the successful mid-range bucket — but is called for a push off.
Despite the result, it’s the process that was key. The Warriors would continue to go back to such a process during what was considered clutch minutes (the score within 5 points, with under 5 minutes left to go in the game).
Another stop gives the Warriors an additional opportunity to attack Jokić in space. This time, Klay Thompson takes a shot at it — but not as the primary ball-handler.
Notice how it’s not only Jokić who was the target of the Thompson-Green dribble handoff (DHO) — Will Barton’s lackluster screen navigation forces Jokić to have to take Thompson’s downhill drive by himself. Barton’s lack of trail and recovery places Jokić in a bind, and with 5 fouls, he can’t fully commit to a hard contest on Thompson’s layup.
After two made free throws from Jokić, the Warriors go to another screen-and-roll involving Curry — initially disguised as a corner stagger for Thompson. This is where the subtle chess-match nature of a half-court possession kicks in:
The Warriors initially call for a Payton ball-screen, but Jeff Green pre-switches onto Payton, which takes away the Jokić matchup. This triggers the fake corner stagger, with Draymond getting open in the paint and Jeff Green deciding to take him — which leaves Payton as the man on Jokić once again.
Curry takes the opportunity to attack Jokić in drop coverage, pulls up, and drills the mid-range jumper.
After Jokić ties the game at 90-all, the Nuggets make a slight adjustment by having Jokić play higher up — above the three-point line — to lift the meet-up point and take away Curry’s space even further. This proves to be a fatal mistake, considering Payton’s speed advantage over Jokić.
Payton’s counter of setting the ball-screen higher — almost grazing the edge of the half-court logo — forces Jokić to have to pick up Curry even higher, all while Payton is content with speeding past Jokić, receiving the pocket pass, and finishing over the late help rotation by Jeff Green.
Knowing that having Jokić as the help defender isn’t ideal, Curry opts to isolate against Gordon in a subsequent offensive possession. Once he has Gordon on his hip, Jokić can only watch while being wary of getting whistled for an infraction:
The Jokić onslaught, however, kept the Nuggets close and within striking range, which placed pressure on the Warriors to deliver in the half-court.
With the Warriors opting for “HORNS Twist” — a ball-screen from one elbow teammate, followed by another ball-screen from the other elbow teammate — a wide-open dunk or layup for Green was on the table, right after Thompson drew a trap in the corner on an exit screen. But Green perplexingly passes out of a point-blank shot.
Thankfully, Payton was there to save the day:
Finally, Curry took matters into his hands by escaping out of a softly executed double:
Curry continuously running ball-screen action, his constant movement, and the absolute panic he generates in the half court took a significant toll on the Nuggets, who leaned on their MVP candidate (30-19-8, 69.7% True Shooting) to extend the series.
But the Warriors had a former MVP of their own. Curry (30-5-5, 59.8% True Shooting) delivered in the clutch, as was expected of their franchise superstar. With help from his supporting cast, Curry became the tip of the spear that sent a resilient Nuggets team home.
Finishing with averages of 28.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 5.4 assists, on 50/40/74 shooting splits (74% shooting on free throws is one heck of a confusing anomaly from the greatest free-throw shooter of all time, but expect a full return to the mean) and 64.1% True Shooting — all on a mere 30 minutes per game — Curry still has room left to further sharpen the spear, especially against much tougher opponents in the second round and (hopefully) beyond.