The Golden State Warriors’ embarrassing defeat in Game 5 had an element of physicality to it.
The Memphis Grizzlies finally realized they were the much bigger team. They already had the recipe for defending the Warriors’ intricate offense: constant overplaying/top-locking off the ball, packing the paint by leaving non-threats alone on the perimeter, dominating the possession battle through crashing the boards, and lording over the paint against their relatively diminutive opponents.
The Grizzlies outrebounded the Warriors by 18, which included an emphatic 18-4 advantage on the offensive boards. For the first time in the series, they won the points-in-the-paint battle, 50-36. The Warriors committed 22 turnovers — turned into 29 points by the Grizzlies, who forced a considerable amount of wasted possessions amid a bunch that were self-inflicted.
With the Grizzlies finally finding their physical edge, coupled with executing the age-old strategy that has stagnated the Warriors’ motion offense in the past, it seemed momentum was swinging toward their favor, even while facing elimination. A team with nothing to lose and everything to gain is often considered the most dangerous kind of opponent, and the Warriors were in danger of letting that spark evolve into an uncontrollable wildfire.
Several problems needed to be addressed. The turnover predicament seemed like the easiest one to solve, but that had to come from within. The Grizzlies overplaying the dangerous threats and leaving the non-scoring entities alone caused rushed decision making; the more rushed they were, the more prone they were to making mistakes.
The necessity of shelving half-court possessions initiated from the low or high post, as well as up top in a “Delay” configuration, was compounded by such a problem. Sometimes, the easiest solution is the lowest-hanging fruit — and such fruit had high-ball-screen-action written all over it.
But not just any high ball screen would do — it had to be targeted toward specific personnel.
A quick headcount of the Grizzlies’ bigs and their primary role/coverage in a pick-and-roll situation against Stephen Curry:
- Jaren Jackson Jr.: switch
- Brandon Clarke: switch
- Xavier Tillman: screen-level
- Steven Adams: screen-level
Jackson Jr. and Clarke provide a unique luxury in that they can survive on switches against Curry and keep actions flat and under control; the other big not involved in the direct action is left to perform the role of the roamer/help-side defender.
Tillman and Adams are both less defensively versatile and are limited to screen-level meetups or other forms of drop coverage. With Tillman out of the rotation due to Adams’ return, the onus was on the veteran center to deal with the possibility of defending multiple ball screens for Curry.
For the Warriors, it wasn’t a matter of “if,” but a matter of “how often.”
It was promising to see them dial up a 1-5 pick-and-roll between Curry and Kevon Looney to get Adams involved straight away:
Dillon Brooks is able to navigate around the initial pick, with Adams meeting Curry at the level of the screen to take away his space. Curry and Looney know the counter to this: a give-and-go handoff action that amounts to Looney flipping the angle of the screen.
After the initial action, Adams settles back toward the paint and into a deep drop configuration. Looney’s re-screen connects solidly on Brooks, and Curry has all the breathing room he needs to pull up.
There was a considerable amount of consternation and doubt concerning the choice of Looney as the 5th starter, but logic (and hindsight) tells us that it was a sound choice all along. Looney’s presence as a screening partner for Curry is extremely valuable — not only because of his ability to set rock-solid screens, but also due to the nature of how Adams was going to defend Looney.
Looney has zero equity as a shooter; running him in screening actions, whether they’re of the ball-screen variety or through handoffs, is taking advantage of Adams sagging off and playing deep drop coverage. Should Adams step up to take away Curry’s space, it can generate a 4-on-3 situation and place pressure on the Grizzlies’ backline defense.
The Warriors had trouble generating their patented backline advantages. Part of that is not attacking the matchups that automatically force the Grizzlies to have to send two bodies toward Curry; part of that is the Grizzlies finding ways around having to resort to aggressive coverages.
The Warriors did a much better job of forcing the Grizzlies’ hand. They didn’t wait for the aggressive coverages to happen — they made it happen themselves, mostly through zeroing in on Adams.
It also helped that Draymond Green took the shots that were there for the taking.
Contrast Adams with a switchable big such as Clarke involved in the action — not a drop, but an intentional switch:
Curry’s individual brilliance made sure this switch was futile, but he had to work just a tad harder for it — compared to getting a good look right off the bat with Adams dropping back.
A run-of-the-mill ball screen being set wasn’t the only way to initiate screening action. One of the Warriors’ pet plays — termed “Thumb Out” due to the sign the coaches make to call it out — is an intentional quick-hitter to punish bigs who are casually dropping back.
Not only does it force the on-ball defender on his toes trying to navigate multiple screens — it also forces the defending big into the action. The sudden nature and quickly-induced involvement often catches dropping bigs unawares, resulting in a wide-open look.
It wasn’t only Curry and Jordan Poole who were the beneficiaries of direct screening actions. Klay Thompson had one heck of a performance: 30 points on 22 shots (3-of-8 on twos, 8-of-14 on threes), while putting up an efficient 68.2% True Shooting. Game 6 Klay feasted on the usual diet of catch-and-shoot and transition threes.
He also garnered reps as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll, with Adams as the main target:
Per InStat, the Warriors ran 25 combined instances of ball-screen action and handoffs, and managed to score 25 points — 1.00 point per possession (PPP). While that isn’t quite out-of-this-world efficient, it proved to be enough of a solution in a series where half-court offense was hard to come by.
Other factors obviously helped the Warriors. Another turnover-laden night (17) was offset by a dominant rebounding performance (70-44), including 25 offensive boards. In a series that was often a battle of who was able to control the possession battle, the Warriors came out on top against the team most equipped to win such a battle.
But in my opinion, the biggest takeaway was how much more willing the Warriors were able to mix in the simplest form of offense and exploit the weakest link. In a high-stakes environment such as the NBA Playoffs — full of stagnant possessions and defensive mudslinging contests — the lowest hanging fruit, whatever form it may be, is often the key to advancing deeper into the playoff rabbit hole.