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The bench lineup that kept the Warriors afloat against the Kings

So far, the bench is proving to be a massive strength instead of a crippling weakness.

Sacramento Kings v Golden State Warriors Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors were up by a solitary point against the Sacramento Kings at the half, fueled by something that’s been quite against the grain as of late.

With all starters on the floor in the first half, the Warriors outscored the Kings by a healthy amount — while the Warriors were outscored by the Kings with the second unit on the floor. Based off of the first four games of the season, this was quite an unusual trend.

(Never would I have thought that I would type the paragraph above, considering that the Warriors have been historically drowning in deep water — or fighting ever so hard to stay just below the surface — without Steph Curry on the floor.)

But those figures flipped in the second half, due to a lethargic start by the starters out of the halftime gates. After leading 56-55, the Kings went on to outscore the lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, and Kevon Looney by seven points in the first six minutes of the third quarter — all without their best player in De’Aaron Fox, who was sidelined due to an ankle injury.

That slow start contributed to a deficit of five by the time the third quarter ended. At the start of the fourth quarter, Steve Kerr inserted this lineup that he also began the second quarter with:

  • Chris Paul
  • Gary Payton II
  • Thompson
  • Jonathan Kuminga
  • Dario Šarić

The second-quarter stint from this lineup helped flipped what was a three-point deficit at the end of the first quarter (28-31) into a one-point lead (39-38) in three-and-a-half minutes of action, before Paul, Payton, and Šarić were subbed out for Curry, Wiggins, and Green.

The first thing that immediately stood out with this group was the exceptional defense in drop coverage by Šarić — not usually who comes to mind when the word “defense” is uttered. But Šarić was solid as a drop-back center during these minutes.

He played the middle ground between the ball-handler and the roll man near perfectly, while also staying vertical with his contests to force tough shots over him:

The effort in transition defense also stood out with Šarić, sprinting hard and being able to get back in position to contest another layup vertically against a smaller and speedier guard:

Another thing that stood out — the Warriors running what is usually an end-of-quarter set very early in the second quarter.

The play that Kerr and the Warriors call “Fist” involves a “ram” screen (an initial screen set for the ball screener), followed by an “exit” screen in the corner for the player who initially set the ram screen. The team usually prefers to run this mostly for Thompson.

This is another example of the non-traditional ways in which they produce empty-corner action — that is, screen-and-roll action with an empty corner, which eliminates the defense’s ability to employ a “tagger” to help on the roll man.

Šarić’s jump-shooting chops means that he can either roll off of Thompson’s exit screen, or stay put and pop out for an open shot after his defender is forced into stepping up toward Thompson around the screen:

Šarić has institutional chemistry with Paul, built over a couple of seasons as teammates with the Phoenix Suns. It was not an uncommon sight to see them link up on ball-screen action — Paul is one of the all-time-great decision makers in the pick-and-roll, while Šarić’s versatility as a roll man knows no bounds.

With this particular lineup built around Paul’s knack to make good decisions with the ball in his hands, a built-in automatic action off of defensive rebounds is to have Paul run drag screen action with Šarić in transition.

(A drag screen is a ball screen set by a trailing big in transition.)

A quick slip by Šarić puts the Kings’ defense in rotation. They are forced to have someone slide over in the backline to stop his roll to the rim, which draws a foul:

Several reps as Paul’s screening partner gives Šarić the knowhow in terms of how to set his ball-handling partner free. When the Kings prepare to “ice” Paul toward the sideline and away from the side ball screen, Šarić immediately goes straight to setting a “flat” screen to counter the “ice” coverage, which completely erases Paul’s defender from the equation.

When the defender then scrambles to recover and double Paul in the corner — with Šarić’s roll drawing in an additional defender in the paint — Paul finds Jonathan Kuminga open up top for a three:

The sequence that helped the warriors re-take the lead involved exceptional screen navigation and lateral movement by Thompson. His man is forced to pass out of a dicey situation — only for Kuminga to jump the passing lane and go all the way to the rim for the and-one (initially called a charge but was challenged and reversed to a block).

When Kerr reinserted this lineup at the start of the fourth quarter, the Kings were fresh off a 24-18 third quarter that gave them a 79-74 lead. Out of the gates, Kerr attempted to take advantage of another empty-corner situation via “Double Loop”, but the Kings were better prepared to take it away.

In response, Kuminga — largely ignored by the defense — audibles into a middle-paint flash. An up-fake gets JaVale McGee up in the air, and Kuminga draws the foul on another fake:

A nifty quirk of this lineup on defense is that they are able to switch off-ball actions (and ball screens that don’t involve Šarić) almost endlessly. The Kings run multiple screening actions on both sides of the floor, but the Warriors — who have seen plenty of switch-everything schemes back in the day in attempts to stifle their patented half-court motion — are also drilled in switching seamlessly to take away cuts, slips, and pindowns.

The Kings then default to a ball screen for Malik Monk, and the Warriors respond with a conventional drop coverage since they would rather not have Šarić defend in space on a switch. Monk gets to the rim, but an up-and-under attempt misses:

The Kings also conditionally switch whenever their center (in this case, McGee) isn’t involved in the action. Sasha Vezenkov — guarding Šarić — switches out on Paul and contests a pull-up three. But a Thompson offensive rebound puts the Kings’ defense into disarray. With Vezenkov being the nearest man to Paul, he is forced to pick up.

Instead of settling for a pull-up, Paul attacks Vezenkov in space and gets all the way to the rim:

A healthy Payton on the other end can put defenses in proverbial hell, as everyone witnessed during the 2021-22 championship season. No one else on the team save for Wiggins puts extensive amounts of pressure on the ball the way Payton does — and even then, his brand of ball pressure is quite unique.

Watch Payton “ice” Monk away from the screen. He hounds him, doesn’t let him get to the middle, and forces him along the sideline. With the shot clock winding down, Šarić steps up to help — and Monk is unaware that he is about to commit a turnover:

When Mike Brown reinserts Domantas Sabonis as a foil for Šarić, the Warriors know not to leave their backup big on an island. It’s different when it’s Looney or Green defending Sabonis — the Warriors are content with single coverage in those situations — but Šarić needs an extra bit of help against Sabonis in the paint.

Which is why whenever the Kings fed the ball to him against Šarić, they sent at least one extra body to help:

Again, the Paul-Šarić ball-screen pairing is a tried-and-test automatic after a stop. The Warriors empty the corner and have Paul orchestrate the two-man action. Monk stays with Paul around the screen, with Sabonis containing — but the lack of either a veer-back switch toward Šarić by Monk or a recovery by Sabonis (who, as a traditional big, is not used to closing out or monitoring his assignment out on the perimeter) leaves a window for Paul to kick out to Šarić, who drills the three to re-take the lead.

(Also, peep at Payton setting the flat screen in transition to get Paul the Monk matchup instead of Davion Mitchell, an exponentially better defender.)

The Warriors continued to go at Monk — the lowest-hanging fruit in terms of matchup-hunting targets — by running handoff action for Thompson:

And in an effort to prove that he can hold his own against Sabonis in the post, Šarić was able to poke and strip the ball away — which triggered the stoppage that ended this lineup’s stint for the game:

In seven minutes of action, this bench lineup of Paul, Payton, Thompson, Kuminga, and Šarić outscored the Kings by a total of 11 points (20-9). They are a plus-16 in three games overall.

It was enough of a cushion for the Warriors’ main moneymakers to take the reins and keep the game within striking distance — but it was the one holdover from that lineup who stepped up and closed the deal.

Thompson — the only positive plus-minus starter against the Kings (+10) — had the last word:

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