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Boxed in: How a 3rd quarter adjustment helped the Warriors close out the Nuggets

Adjustments either work or fall flat; this one succeeded tremendously.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

A few days ago, former head coach and current TNT analyst Stan Van Gundy had time to go on Twitter and refute the notion that coaches “don’t make adjustments.”

Of course, true to NBA Twitter fashion, there was pushback on Van Gundy’s assertion, without taking into consideration that they were arguing against an actual NBA head coach whose basketball knowledge is more expansive than theirs combined (this writer included).

Coaches make mistakes. They may make the wrong choices. Not all of their adjustments work — but the fact of the matter is that they do attempt to adjust to the situation in front of them.

Steve Kerr is no different. He makes lineup adjustments, shifts tactics and schemes on a per-possession basis, and draws up plenty of effective ATOs. He’s not perfect by any means — the failed ATO in Game 4 that turned a potential Andrew Wiggins lob into a turnover was all kinds of bad — but he pushes the correct buttons more often than he does the wrong ones.

Game 5 against the Nuggets was one such example of Kerr pushing the right buttons — and one key adjustment during the 3rd quarter may have helped the Warriors win.

The attention was all on what happened during the endgame. Stephen Curry closed it out like the superstar that he is. Gary Payton II was a boost of defensive energy who also happened to drill big-time shots; his involvement in crunch-time was another instance of Kerr playing the right cards.

But before the Warriors could come back from a deficit, they had to stay well within striking range of the Nuggets. After starting the 2nd half all even, the Nuggets went on a 16-6 run to garner a 10-point lead, 64-54. The danger of letting the Nuggets win on the Warriors’ home court was looming, with a potential series-tying loss at Denver becoming a concerning and realistic possibility.

It was from that point — at around the 7:40 mark of the 3rd quarter — that the Warriors went to a radical defensive approach. After Curry scored 2 points to cut the lead to 8, Klay Thompson was tasked to pick up Nikola Jokić.

The other 4 defenders? Well… see for yourself:

Against the prohibitive MVP favorite and destroyer of worlds, the Warriors were bold enough to whip out a box-and-1. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, a box-and-1 simply means that one player is face-guarding a specific player — usually the opponents’ most dangerous offensive threat — while the other 4 defenders are zoned up in a “box” configuration.

The goal: you deny the singular threat from gaining possession of the ball. If he manages to get it anyway, then the zone helps accordingly — in the form of shading, shadowing, stunts, digs, late doubles, etc. — to force the ball out of the threat’s hands.

Simply put, this approach aims to let anyone but the threat score or control half-court possessions at all costs. It puts the onus on the supporting cast to make their shots, make plays, or self-create in ways that they may not be accustomed to, or is well beyond their role.

The Warriors aren’t new to box-and-1s. They were infamously on the receiving end of one against the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals, with Curry being the recipient of the faceguard treatment. They’ve embraced it as a change-of-pace tool against certain teams this season: against Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks, and Zach LaVine/DeMar DeRozan and the Chicago Bulls, to name a few.

They’ve even went one step further by employing a triangle-and-2 against Kevin Durant and James Harden during their first regular-season matchup with the Brooklyn Nets.

They whipped it out previously in Game 4 against the Nuggets, but it seemed less of a well-executed schematic adjustment and more of a panic button. Jokić was able to exploit the gaps in the scheme, finding his teammates on cuts and open perimeter shots while being able to position himself (mostly in the middle, which is a classic counter to a zone) to make those passes, or to score himself.

In Game 5, the box-and-1 was sturdier.

The Nuggets tried everything — setting screens for Jokić, Jokić himself setting screens, etc. — to shake Thompson loose and to get the ball into the hands of their star. But Thompson was unrelentingly persistent with sticking to Jokić around screens.

When Jokić receives the ball just outside the right block in the clip below, pay close attention to Wiggins, Kevon Looney, and Curry:

Once Jokić touches the ball, Wiggins immediately closes in, ready to spring a double should Jokić press the issue. Looney denies a potential release valve to Aaron Gordon in the paint, after which he roams in the low post to “shadow.” Curry parks himself at the “nail” — the spot in the middle of the free-throw line.

Curry stationed at the nail is key. It allows him to provide additional help toward Jokić, but is still a good enough position from which he can recover toward the weak side and contest a swing-swing shot attempt, as he does on Monte Morris’ shot.

After the drive-and-kick three by Draymond Green, the Warriors set up another box-and-1. But with Wiggins held up on a Jokić screen and Morris threatening to get open up top, a slight adjustment is necessary:

Thompson opts to switch onto Morris, with Wiggins taking Jokić at the elbow. Looney, who’s guarding Gordon, opts to stay close by and shadow in case Jokić tries to push inside. Gordon relocates to the wing, and Jokić — an instinctual and assertive passer who rarely hesitates — finds Gordon.

However, Looney ignores Gordon, who shot 33.5% on threes during the regular season — well below league average. Looney’s calculated choice pays off, and the Warriors garner another stop that eventually leads to Wiggins free throws, courtesy of Jokić’s 4th personal foul.

Thompson wasn’t always able to keep constant tabs on Jokić. When Jokić was set free to do what he could to loosen the proverbial chains, he did so by setting a screen for a teammate and generate open looks.

Peep at what he does below:

Jokić sets the screen on Curry for Morris, but Curry is able to navigate over it and close off Morris’ path. A swing pass to Barton on the wing is the last-ditch option, but Green is close enough for a hard contest that forces a miss. Even when the Nuggets find a gap to exploit, the Warriors — as a collective defensive unit — has the collective discipline and knowhow to close it shut.

The Warriors target Jokić on the other end through constant ball-screen/handoff action, and the fruit of their efforts is a Curry three. They set up their box-and-1 again:

Thompson’s tenacity and insistence on sticking to Jokić is palpable — to the point that Thompson has Jokić literally boxed in within the middle of the paint, with Jokić obviously attempting to seal Thompson and obtain valuable real estate from which he can dissect the zone.

Once that attempt fails, the Nuggets are forced to swing the ball around until a passable look is obtained. Morris has a decent look from the right wing, but the Warriors will take that shot, as long as Jokić continues to be denied. They score in return, courtesy of another Curry three with Jokić in his crosshairs.

With Jokić being subbed out after the timeout, the Warriors’ 11-2 run — buoyed by their box-and-1 and fueled by free-throws and long-range shooting — eliminated the Nuggets’ double-digit deficit. Despite the Nuggets winning the 3rd quarter, 30-22, the mid-quarter adjustment and offensive burst went a long way toward preventing the Nuggets from pulling away and making the game out of reach.

Such micro-adjustments — often unnoticed by the casual observer — are what makes the playoffs a whole different beast, and can spell the difference between victory and defeat.