In a series-clinching win that boasts plenty of winning moments, one in particular stood out to this writer.
It wasn’t from the inaugural Western Conference Finals MVP, Stephen Curry, even if his award is very much well deserved. It wasn’t Klay Thompson, who continues to solidify his billing as one of the most dependable big-game players in NBA history. It wasn’t Draymond Green, whose resume as a playoff performer is becoming more and more extensive. It wasn’t even Andrew Wiggins, who is proving with each passing playoff game that he is indeed a 16-game player.
It was Kevon Looney on this possession:
A very crucial mistake opponents have made throughout the course of Looney’s career is being fooled into thinking that Looney has a huge target behind his back. To be fair to them, it’s hard not to take the bait.
Whatever ounce of athleticism Looney had left him after extensive hip injuries. His feet seemingly move at the speed of molasses. He jumps no higher than 5-10 inches off the floor.
But the Warriors are full of these “non-athletes” (in the traditional sense of the word, at least) who’ve more than made up for their deficiencies in other ways. Curry’s small stature and lack of vertical explosion are offset by his dribbling skill, fast shooting release, and otherworldly endurance. Green’s lack of explosion and height is more than compensated for by his brilliant basketball mind.
Looney’s lack of mobility and verticality is supplemented by experience, know-how, and a knack for being at the right place at the right time.
Looney dominated the boards against the Mavericks all series long. He put up another double-double of 10 points and 18 rebounds, 7 on the offensive boards (and 1 more than the Mavericks).
In Looney’s 140 minutes of time on the floor against the Mavericks, the Warriors rebounded 31.4% of their own misses. That would translate to the 3rd-best offensive rebounding team in the league during the regular season. Without Looney on the floor, that number drops to 20.5% — equivalent to the worst offensive rebounding team during the regular season.
No offensive rebound was arguably bigger during Game 5 than this one that got Thompson a wide-open three:
Thompson finished with 32 points on 25 shots — 4-of-9 on twos, 8-of-16 on threes — on 64.0% True Shooting. His usual Game 6 shenanigans came one game earlier; in any case, he continues to prove that no light is too bright for him, even while coming off of two devastating lower-leg injuries.
Two of those 8 threes come to mind. The first is a callback to Thompson’s deadliness as an off-ball operator:
This is your run-of-the-mill staggered-screen action for Thompson — “Motion Strong Dribble option,” if we want to be technical about it — that gets Thompson a catch-and-shoot three. This is a deliberate play call to target Brunson, who’s hidden on Looney and is too short to contest Thompson’s shot.
Or this one, where the Warriors ran a classic half-court set:
Peep at Thompson starting from the weak-side wing, move all the way to the strong side to be involved as the shooter in split action, and drill the three while drifting to his left.
Credit must also be given to Nemanja Bjelica for recognizing the opportunity, running the Warriors offense, and setting the screen for Thompson. Bjelica has been an unexpected positive during the latter stages of this series, even while the general consensus on him has been about his inability to survive on the floor due to a glaring deficiencies as a defender in space.
Bjelica looks like cannon fodder against athletes with burst and athleticism that jumps off the page. But against Luka Dončić — a superstar who relies on craft and guile to make up for his lack of first-step quickness — Bjelica was able to use his sturdiness to keep Dončić largely in front.
Seemingly more than in previous games, the Warriors eschewed playing zone and were content with matching up. They still weren’t keen on giving up the easy switch — Curry and Jordan Poole, for example, continued to hedge and recover when the Mavericks tried to hunt them on mismatches.
But if it was a switch onto Looney or Bjelica, Steve Kerr and the coaching staff trusted them enough to keep their man in front. That trust was repaid with interest.
The diminishing returns of an isolation-heavy heliocentric offense that banks on Dončić as its central offensive figure means that habits can be scouted. Patterns are brought to light; a team with extensive experience such as the Warriors can adjust accordingly to those patterns.
Green’s aggression on the offensive end was commendable. He finished with 17 points on 7 shots — 5-of-6 on twos, 1-of-1 on threes — 6 rebounds, 9 assists, and a 97.0% True Shooting mark. He finished in double-digit scoring in 4 of the 5 games in these Conference Finals.
But his defense continues to be his calling card. Whenever the Warriors are beaten on the initial move, Green is there to clean things up on the backside — mostly because it’s him who rapidly recognizes the patterns:
Green’s defensive clairvoyance shines through in the possessions above. In the first clip, Dončić gets the step on Looney and has a lane to the rim. But Looney trusts that he has help behind him; Green, as the low man, comes over from the weak side and stays vertical on his contest, forcing the miss.
In the second clip, Green expects Dončić to make a move on Wiggins and keeps close tabs on the post up. Dončić finds an angle for a drop step, and it seems as if there is no chance for anyone else to do anything about the easy layup.
But Green is already there. He pounces on Dončić’s blind side and rejects the layup.
The Warriors emphasized help-side defense, strong-side overloading, conditional switching, and other forms of defense that kept the Mavericks largely out of the paint and away from the rim. The Warriors kept the Mavericks to a 15.6% rim frequency throughout the series — the best mark out of the 4 conference finalists.
In terms of defensive schemes, the Warriors frequently switched from various zone configurations (1-2-2 and 3-2) to man-to-man with conditional switching. If Curry and Poole were hunted, it would mostly be a hedge and recover; otherwise, the Warriors were fine with passing off the ball handler to the screener’s man.
Game 5 marked a departure from the various zone configurations and mid-possession switch-ups. More man-to-man was played, and more switching was involved.
While Curry’s Western Conference Finals MVP was heavily contingent on his unique floor-warping abilities on offense, part of that award deserves to be credited toward his defensive contributions.
This particular defensive possession against Brunson is representative of Curry’s remarkable evolution as a one-on-one defender, especially at the point of attack:
During these Conference Finals, Curry averaged 23.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 7.4 assists, on 44/44/84 shooting splits and 58.9% True Shooting. In the 174 minutes of Curry being on the floor during the Conference Finals, the Warriors outscored the Mavericks by 10.7 points per 100 possessions, including an offensive rating of 122.1 — easily surpassing the best offense in the league during the regular season.
Without Curry on the floor against the Mavericks (66 minutes), the Warriors were virtually a net neutral, with an offense that goes from the best in the league to the equivalent of 17th during the regular season.
Those numbers are more than enough to justify his selection as the first ever Conference Finals MVP — and for the 6th time in 8 seasons, the Curry-Thompson-Green core will have another shot at solidifying their place in the history books.