The beauty of a high-level playoff game comes from the adjustments and counter-adjustments that are made on a per-possession basis.
The short shelf life of a given tactical move necessitates having back-up plan after back-up plan. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it anymore — but instead, keep it in your back pocket, try something else, and when the opposing team has adjusted to your adjustment, you go back to what the defense tried to adjust to in the first place and pounce on them while they’re on the backfoot.
The Golden State Warriors were exhausting the Memphis Grizzlies with their motion, fueled by constant ball and personnel movement. A 3rd quarter victory by the Warriors — sans Draymond Green, who was ejected in the 2nd quarter due to a controversial Flagrant 2 ruling — was the best they could’ve hoped for.
Green is paramount to the success of the Warriors’ motion offense. His topnotch decision making and playmaking foresight enable him to spot the defense’s weak spots; his pinpoint passing — whether it be up top as a decision-making big in a “Delay” configuration, on dribble-handoffs, or as the low-post passer in split action — completes the scenarios he illustrates in his head.
Without Green’s incredible ability to trigger the likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jordan Poole as off-ball scorers, the onus falls on the Super Splash Brothers to create many of their own shots, while also hunting for those weak spots that Green has a pulse on.
That... or you could have Kevon Looney as the one moonlighting as the trigger and fulcrum. Looney is no Green when it comes to being a playmaking hub, but years of familiarity with the system, coupled with his screening ingenuity, has made him a capable substitute.
Looney links up with Curry on a DHO in the possession below, but take note of when Curry starts moving:
As soon as Thompson kicks the ball back out to Looney, Desmond Bane — sticking close to Curry in the corner — is momentarily distracted by the kick out, swiveling his head to where the ball is going. Curry pounces on this split-second moment of inattention and receives the ball from Looney, who not only screens Bane, but seals Xavier Tillman, creating plenty of breathing room for Curry’s mid-range jumper.
Another key substitute for Green’s playmaking is Poole’s ability to get downhill and create a monumental amount of rim pressure. Getting two feet into the paint is an underrated and understated skill in the NBA; add a penchant for finishing, and you’ve got a man who can bend defenses solely by the threat of scoring at the rim.
Poole is that valued commodity for the Warriors. With the ball in his hands, the damage he can generate when paired with multiple ball screens can be astounding:
While Poole getting into the paint is key, Curry as the first “ghost” screener in the staggered Double Drag alignment also plays a significant role. Poole already demands defensive attention with his penetration, with Ja Morant on his hip and Jaren Jackson Jr. forced to account for both Poole and the rolling Looney.
Defenses are taught to “tag” the roll man to discourage a pocket pass, after which they recover back to their man in the corner. Dillon Brooks is caught between a rock and a hard place — he shows intent to tag Looney, but he also doesn’t want to sag too far off of Curry, for obvious reasons.
Curry pounces on Brooks’ indecision. Brooks has given him enough room to lift from the corner and relocate to the top of the arc. Brooks reacts late, and in his desperation, makes an ill-advised close-out that is whistled for a three-shot foul.
On any inbounding possession, the number one rule of thumb in terms of defending them is that the most dangerous man is almost always the one inbounding the ball. The Warriors take advantage of that fact by having Thompson be the inbounder on the baseline.
Thompson’s constant movement creates all sorts of chaos (pay close attention to Morant — covering Poole — on the weak side):
Bane falls behind Thompson, leaving Jackson to have to contend with both Thompson and Looney in the dunker spot. Thompson’s paint foray also draws Morant in from the weak side; he completely loses Poole at the top of the arc. With several bodies being sucked inside, Looney finds Poole with a kick-out, followed by a practice three.
Morant’s dynamic nature on offense is no doubt valuable to the Grizzlies, but he’s developing a notorious reputation as a significant pressure point for opponents to exploit — especially when it comes to his off-ball defense.
He gets victimized off the ball by a string of successive movements:
Curry cuts inside, at the same time as Poole’s relocation from the wing to the top of the arc. Morant loses track of Poole, who penetrates inside and scores using deft footwork and convincing fakes.
This possession is salvaged by the perpetual motion of the Splash Brothers:
Thompson botches his dribble and is forced to give it up to Otto Porter Jr. But a dribbling mishap doesn’t deter Thompson from maintaining his movement. Curry also moves in synergistic fashion with Thompson; his curl serves a double purpose: to serve as a decoy, and to act as a “brush” screen on Brandon Clarke, who can’t recover in time to get in front of Thompson’s cut.
But in true playoff fashion, the Grizzlies eventually made a key adjustment: switching almost every screen the Warriors set.
The Double Drag alignment the Warriors had success with in previous possessions was met with the switching treatment:
The Grizzlies switch the Double Drag — with certain conditions. Brooks and Bane have no qualms with exchanging assignments: Brooks onto Thompson, and Bane onto Curry. But when Porter tries to set the screen to force a switch onto Morant, Brooks fights through and ducks under the screen, which prevents Morant from being involved in the action.
The Warriors embrace the sudden shift in defensive philosophy by going to their shot-makers. The Grizzlies switch a ball screen for Curry, with Jackson taking the assignment. Jackson is a switchable big who can handle smaller perimeter guards using his length and lateral movement.
But Curry uses his craft as a step-back artist to gain separation from the slower Jackson:
With the Grizzlies entrenched within their mindset of switching and forcing as much stagnation as possible, the Warriors throw a sudden curveball at them, courtesy of a SLOB (sideline out-of-bounds) play.
A perfect defense to the play above would’ve been the Grizzlies switching the crucial screening action up top for Thompson. But what Gary Payton II did during this possession acted as an anti-switch measure:
Payton keeping Clarke occupied, coupled with Jackson roaming in the paint and in no position whatsoever to take away Thompson’s space, allows Thompson to drill the clutch go-ahead three.
The Warriors pushing all the right buttons and pulling the correct triggers — expected from a battle-tested squad with a winner’s pedigree — allowed them to squeak through and take home-court advantage away from the Grizzlies.
Contrast this with the final possession:
The Grizzlies run “Blind Pig” — a backdoor play typically used to counter pressure defense — that gets Morant downhill. Bane inbounds it to Clark, who manages to find Morant on the backdoor.
The problem, however, lies with who the Grizzlies chose as the trigger man.
Clarke is no outside shooting threat. Thompson is more than willing to leave him in order to switch onto Morant, which forces the missed layup. A more intriguing option as the trigger man would’ve been Jackson, a stretch big having a hot shooting night. Morant would then have the option of kicking out to Jackson for an open shot.
Such is an example of the Grizzlies learning how to win during high-stakes situations — and the Warriors giving them them an upfront lesson in that topic.