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How the Grizzlies have defended Stephen Curry in the pick-and-roll

They’ve been doing something differently compared to most teams.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Much has been made about putting Stephen Curry into more action as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll during this exceptionally torturous series against the Memphis Grizzlies.

It’s not unique to this series. People have been clamoring for the Warriors to run a considerable amount high-ball-screen action for one of the most efficient operators out of pick-and-rolls. Curry averaged 1.02 points per possession (PPP) on such playtypes this season – 9th among 99 players who have recorded at least 100 possessions as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll.

The bottleneck is the Warriors’ offensive philosophy itself. A motion offense predicated on ball and personnel movement – fueled by playmaking hubs in the low and high post, as well as up top in a “Delay” configuration – is their bread and butter, which naturally eschews the pick-and-roll and relegates it to a secondary/tertiary option.

Draymond Green’s playmaking and passing chops has made such a philosophy possible and highly effective. He is virtually the Warriors’ lead decision maker, allowing the likes of Curry and Klay Thompson to wreak havoc off the ball. But Green’s role also has an element of necessity to it.

Green’s low scoring rate and low willingness to shoot are products of his pass-first mentality, but also because his effectiveness in both areas has also declined. Defenses have used such a glaring flaw against the Warriors in the past; the Grizzlies are the latest in a long line of teams to have treated Green as a virtual non-entity on the offensive end, preferring to ignore him and overplay off-ball actions, pack the paint, and stick a wrench into the Warriors’ offensive machinery.

Look no further than this possession from Game 4:

Green shoulders most of the blame on the turnover above, but the key takeaway should be the less-than-ideal spacing Curry has to work with. Steven Adams is perfectly ready to intercept Curry’s backdoor cut – buoyed by not having to worry about Kevon Looney on the weak-side slot. Jaren Jackson Jr. is also empowered to drop back and intercept a possible pass or cut by Jordan Poole, buoyed by Green picking up his dribble and his reputation as a non-shooter – both in effectiveness and willingness.

Without Ja Morant, the Grizzlies have morphed into a stout defensive unit, with virtually no one on the team as prone to being singled out and targeted as Morant was. That should come to no surprise – an excerpt from my series preview:

The Grizzlies have outscored opponents by around 4 points per 100 possessions during Morant’s 1,889 regular-season minutes, buoyed mostly by an offensive rating (115.3) that would be the equivalent to the 3rd best in the league.

Without Morant on the floor, their offensive rating (111.7) dips to the bottom half of the rankings, equivalent to 19th in the league — but they outscore opponents by a larger amount: 6.4 points per 100 possessions.

The key difference lies on defense. With Morant, the Grizzlies sport a defensive rating of 111.2, equivalent to 15th in the league. Without him, their defensive rating improves to 105.3stingier than the Boston Celtics’ league-leading 106.2.

The Grizzlies’ scheme versatility evolves without Morant on the floor. They can switch both on and off-ball actions. Their pick-and-roll coverages diversify. The quality of their help-side and backline defense turns up a notch.

But I want to focus on their pick-and-roll coverages — particularly when it comes to Curry.

Per InStat, Curry has recorded 47 possessions as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll against the Grizzlies, which amounts to 9.4 possessions per game. Of those 48, 37 involved Curry calling his own number, on which he scored 35 points — 0.95 PPP.

The question concerning these numbers: Are those enough?

For reference, let’s go to three players who theoretically run a heavy diet of pick-and-roll possessions: Chris Paul and Devin Booker from the Phoenix Suns, and Luka Dončić from the Dallas Mavericks.

PnR Ball-Handler Possessions

Player PnR BH possessions (last 5 games) 5-game average
Player PnR BH possessions (last 5 games) 5-game average
Stephen Curry 47 9.4
Chris Paul 39 7.8
Devin Booker 50 10
Luka Doncic 58 11.6
*Per InStat

Over the first 5 games of their respective series, Curry has been involved in more ball-screen action than Chris Paul, and has recorded only 2 fewer than Devin Booker; both Paul and Booker exchange reps as primary ball-handlers in a ball-screen-heavy offensive scheme.

Dončić lords over everyone on the list, but that’s to be expected from the focal point of the Mavericks’ heliocentric spread pick-and-roll scheme.

The answer to the question of quantity most probably lies somewhere in the middle. Curry runs more pick-and-roll possessions than most people think, but as the Warriors’ main offensive threat, such numbers should probably be closer to Dončić’s 58 (but not as many).

What’s more interesting than Curry’s frequency as the pick-and-roll ball handler, however, is how the Grizzlies have defended such actions.

The widely accepted primary scheme on Curry ball screens is some form of aggressive coverage — i.e., hedges or doubles. But curiously, the Grizzlies haven’t been keen on throwing out aggressive shows or traps toward Curry.

Per InStat, the Grizzlies have recorded only 4 instances of sending two defenders around a Curry ball screen:

The Grizzlies have largely shied away from taking the ball out of Curry’s hands around a screen, and instead have opted to mostly switch a big onto him. InStat has recorded 23 instances of switches — both the intentional kind and the forced late-switch variety — onto Curry.

What stands out on these switches is how some Grizzlies bigs have fared better than others:

Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke — both highly capable switch bigs — have performed relatively well against Curry, although some of the shots Curry took against them were plain misses, even while garnering ample separation.

On the other hand, Xavier Tillman and Steven Adams both have had much tougher times on Curry. Adams, in particular, has found it quite difficult to crowd Curry’s space and keep up laterally, allowing Curry to turn the corner and go all the way to the rim. Again, while Curry has been able to gain separation from Adams on some of these shots — especially against Adams’ screen-level step ups — some shots are just plain misses.

There’s enough evidence around to conclude that the Warriors should involve Adams in more ball-screen action and make him defend in space. It’s both a question of quantity and assertiveness: Will the Warriors target Adams more? Will Curry double down on his aggression once he has Adams in his sights?

More importantly, will Curry’s shot-making be good enough to make such mismatches productive endeavors? After all, Curry is shooting 17-of-53 (32%) on threes this series — around 10.6 attempts per game on a below-league-average clip.

Another underexplored aspect of the Curry ball-screen experience has been his partner in the pick-and-roll. The Grizzlies have gone over on screens for Curry 17 times, per InStat:

Any sort of hard-hitting (figuratively and literally) ball-screen action — whether it’s a single high with Green setting the screen, or on double-drag screens — forces the on-ball defender to have to make a decision, and that decision is almost always to go over the screen for the greatest shooter in history.

That forces the roll-man defender — often stepping up to screen level or in some form of drop — to engage Curry around the ball screen, setting Green and/or other roll partners free to dive to the rim.

Curry and Green have run 22 ball-screen possessions together, per InStat, which seems like a low number. An uptick in the classic 2-man combination should be in the diet for Game 6 — especially if Adams spends a significant amount of time guarding Green.

InStat records only 3 instances where the Grizzlies ducked under a screen for Curry — understandable, given how it’s not a recommended coverage for him.

Interestingly, Curry failed to generate a scoring possession on a single ducked screen:

While the conclusion from all of this is that the Warriors should grab the lowest-hanging fruit there is and run more ball screens for Curry, this isn’t a call for the Warriors to shelve their intricate offense altogether — rather, it should be complemented by a considerable dose of high pick-and-rolls to give the Grizzlies different looks.

The Grizzlies — especially without Morant — have keyed in on the Warriors’ motion and off-ball movement; sagging off Green and giving him the Tony Allen treatment is a testament to that. Some sort of adjustment and change of pace is needed to give the Warriors’ half-court offense (91.1 ORTG, 7th among the 8 teams remaining in the 2nd round) a much needed jolt. Perhaps the easiest solution is that boost of energy they’ve been looking for.