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The Warriors’ ‘micro-ball’ lineup that sparked their rally against the Grizzlies

Steve Kerr took a huge risk that mightily paid off.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Golden State Warriors John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

At the 5:10 mark of the fourth quarter of the Golden State Warriors’ Chase Center rematch against the Memphis Grizzlies (with the Warriors trailing by a score of 111-102), Steve Kerr subbed out Kevon Looney and Anthony Lamb for Draymond Green and Jordan Poole. That left the Warriors with a five-man crew consisting of:

  • Steph Curry
  • Jordan Poole
  • Donte DiVincenzo
  • Klay Thompson
  • Draymond Green

Before this game, this particular lineup had played a grand total of 11 possessions together this season, per Cleaning the Glass. It’s an extremely small sample size that didn’t spend enough time together for anyone to form any sort of viable conclusion about it — but you also don’t need much to see how it could be a problematic combination.

For starters, playing a four-guard lineup with Green as the lone center (an undersized one, at that) is like cutting random wires while defusing a bomb. The wheels could fall off at any moment with such an undersized “micro-ball” lineup: a series of offensive rebounds here, diminutive backline help there, and vulnerable point-of-attack defenders who don’t have the luxury of multiple wing and frontcourt help behind them.

Still, Kerr decided to roll the dice and risk the lineup being defensively compromised in order to generate a consistent stream of fast-paced offense. For all its pitfalls, having three deadly movement shooters — two of which are also capable ball handlers and shot creators — can put tons of pressure on defenses, even one that gives up the fewest points per 100 possessions in the league (110.1 in non-garbage time).

Coupled with two high-IQ distributors, the potential for an offensive explosion was too hard to pass up.

Kerr’s decision was justified almost immediately through this baseline out-of-bounds set (BLOB):

Thompson sets the “Rip” screen (backscreen) for Poole. No switch occurs and Dillon Brooks sticks to Thompson around the Green screen — but take note of how Brooks elects to follow Thompson.

Brooks shoots the gap and top-locks in an effort to deny Thompson space. But in the process, he leaves himself vulnerable to a backdoor cut. Green promptly recognizes the cutting window and delivers a precision pass to Thompson, who finishes around Ja Morant’s contest.

After a fruitless half-court possession by the Grizzlies (Morant failing to get anything and forced to throw up a long three that doesn’t hit rim), the Warriors respond on the other end by targeting Morant and testing his screen-navigation chops:

Take note of how fast Curry shakes Brooks off and pushes the pace in order to force the switch onto Morant. All it takes is for Green to set a downscreen for the always-moving Curry for Morant to commit the cardinal sin of ducking under it — which isn’t recommended if you’re tasked with guarding the greatest shooter of all time.

After a timeout, the Grizzlies score on an effective half-court set that leveraged the distraction of a second-side action in order to eliminate weak-side help on a Brandon Clarke layup. Curry responds with a layup to return the deficit to four.

Jordan Poole then has one of his better defensive possessions of the night:

This stop was buoyed by questionable half-court process by the Grizzlies — in particular, by Brooks. I see no logic in giving the ball to Brooks when Morant is much better at generating advantages and creating shots either for himself or his teammates.

Nevertheless, Poole moves his feet, stays in front, and doesn’t foul. Brooks misses the layup and Poole pushes the pace in the break for a layup, cutting the deficit to a single possession.

Continuing the theme of questionable half-court process by the Grizzlies, they manage to get absolutely nothing on this possession:

For all the success they’ve been having this season — especially on the defensive side of things — the dirty little (not-so) secret behind their offense has been a difficulty in half-court efficiency. Having a dynamic talent such as Morant masks those struggles on occasion, but the overall process has been lackluster.

They’re ninth in non-garbage-time offensive rating (116.2). But most of that has come from a transition attack (17.7% of their possessions, third in the league) that is 10th in points per 100 possessions (128.6).

Contrast that with their half-court efficiency: 95.1 points per 100 half-court possessions, ninth worst in the league.

The possession above was an example. The Grizzlies get into their “set” late, which burns clock and generates next to nothing. A long Desmond Bane three misses badly.

To add insult to injury, Green is fouled by Jaren Jackson Jr. on the rebound, which fouls Jackson Jr. out and eliminates the Grizzlies’ best defender.

Even while plagued with occasional lulls that involve bad offensive process, the Warriors themselves are actually a much better half-court offense than the Grizzlies. They score 99.8 points per 100 half-court possessions — 10th in the league.

A huge part of that is having Curry on the team, but credit must also be given to knowing how to take advantage of having Curry on their team. That occasionally takes the form of leveraging his gravity to create shots for his teammates.

Other times, the answer is quite simple: use him to attack the lowest-hanging fruit on the opposing team:

Poole — with Morant guarding him — goes over to set the screen for Curry. The Grizzlies offer the switch without much resistance, and Curry makes them pay by drilling the stepback long-two.

Morant tries to respond on the other end by driving inside, but Green — arguably the latest help defender of all time — sends him back and causes a turnover (an overturned out-of-bounds call):

After the challenge review confirms the Warriors getting the ball, Kerr dials up an after-timeout (ATO) set for Curry:

This set — involving “Quick” action (Poole setting the screen for Green to come toward the ball) and “Get” action (Curry passing the ball to Green, chasing it, and getting it back on a handoff) — forces the Grizzlies to make a decision.

Do you switch Morant onto Curry again? Or do you stay home, have Brooks fight over the screen, and risk Curry pulling up if the navigation goes awry?

As the possession above displayed, the Grizzlies chose the latter option. Brooks tries to duck under the screen to take a shortcut, but he crowds Curry’s landing space and fouls him on the three-point attempt. Curry drills all three of his free throws to give the Warriors a three-point lead.

The end of this audacious “micro-ball” decision came on a rather controversial note. Frustrated that Poole pulled up with plenty of time left on the shot clock, Curry threw his mouthpiece in anger, which ended up in the crowd — an automatic ejection.

With under a minute to go and the game knotted at 116-all, the Grizzlies attempt to hunt for some low-hanging fruit of their own. They have Brooks set the screen for Morant to force the switch onto Poole.

For a moment, it looked as if the Warriors were making the same mistake of offering the switch and letting things play out as is. That didn’t turn out to be the case:

Poole and DiVincenzo blitz Morant immediately after the switch — termed as “switch-to-blitz” — and Morant is forced to cough up the ball to Brooks, who shoots below league average on threes for his career (34.4%) and is shooting 32.7% this season on nearly six attempts per game.

After a Morant free throw gives the Grizzlies a one-point lead, the Warriors dial up a staple Thompson set:

A double drag/double ball-screen alignment with Thompson as the second screener is the tell. With Poole drawing attention around the first screen, Thompson flares out makes use of Green’s screen to free himself up for the three.

This has been a set the Warriors have used throughout the season for Thompson and Andrew Wiggins, termed as “51.”

After a Morant assist to Clarke re-ties the game at 120-all, the Warriors call timeout and Kerr draws up another ATO. When that initial set fails, the Warriors get the ball back and have another opportunity to win the game.

However, with no timeouts left, the Warriors are forced to audible into one of their BLOB sets. Green calls a set that, according to Kerr, they haven’t practiced in a long time. It involves Thompson curling off multiple screens and running toward the corner.

Thompson serves a decoy — with the real threat being Poole, being overplayed by Ziaire Williams. Morant pays no heed to the inbounder and is distracted by Thompson:

Kerr took a risk by playing an extremely small lineup. It paid off mightily — a 14-3 run that allowed the Warriors to close within striking distance of the Grizzlies. A couple of timely play calls and astute tactical decisions that followed gave them their second win of the season against a heated rival.

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