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How the Warriors’ big three went big-game hunting against the Clippers

The big three did their thing on 11-30-23.

Los Angeles Clippers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/NBAE via Getty Images

November 30 in a year that ends in 23 comes along only once in a century. By the time the next one happens, the likelihood that myself, the ones reading this article, and most of the people on this planet are alive is close to zero.

Which is why the Golden State Warriors took the time to celebrate 11-30-23 — three numbers that represent the talismanic trio of Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, and Draymond Green. Their legend is forever secure in Warriors lore because of how they collectively brought the franchise from the doldrums into the ranks of all-time-great dynasties in NBA history.

It’s appropriate to celebrate their achievements and look back at the history they were able to make together. Nostalgia is a strong emotion, evoked occasionally to bring back good memories and happy emotions. At times, it can be too strong.

This season has definitely questioned their linkage like no other. An 8-10 record going into the game against the Los Angeles Clippers is shifting some of the narrative when it comes to said nostalgia.

Has this trio run its course? Are Thompson and Green doing enough to support Curry, who still looks like he can be the centerpiece of a championship team? Is it time for the once unspeakable to finally be spoken — that is, for them to split and go their separate ways?

If 11-30-23 was the only indication to go by, the trio answered those concerns with a definitive “no.” It was a vintage Big-Three performance from Curry (26-7-8 on 68.6% TS), Thompson (22-6-2 on 55.7% TS), and Green (13-5-5). All of them contributed in manners befitting of who they were and still are as players, albeit older and — at times — having to struggle against Father Time.

Thompson has arguably been the biggest lightning rod for concern — sometimes delving into outright vitriol and blame. The concerns were valid — prior to tonight’s game against the Clippers, he was averaging 15.3 points on 46/36/87 shooting splits (2P/3P/FT) and 54.2% TS. Thompson has always been considered a slow starter — but this start had a different, somewhat more ominous feeling to it, as if it represented a finality to his status as a high-level scoring option.

Some of the changed perception toward his play has even brought audacity levels to a point where outright false statements are being made — ones such as this, for example:

It’s fair to look at Thompson’s slow start and criticize aspects of it, such as shot selection and defense. What’s not fair, however, is to make statements (such as the one above) that film evidence completely rebuts.

While Thompson may not be at the same level of two-to-the-ball generation as Curry — who draws attention both on and off the ball — Thompson still manages to draw attention off the ball on a variety of screening actions. Despite him shooting significantly lower than his career percentages on threes, defenses still treat him as a DEFCON-1 threat.

This is a perfect example of looking at perception rather than the numbers. If Thompson keeps getting two defenders around off-ball screens like in the possession below, his importance will be understood better despite his struggles:

A wide pindown action with an empty corner for Thompson draws both his defender (Russell Westbrook) and Dario Šarić’s defender (Kawhi Leonard) toward him. Šarić rolls and receives the quick pocket pass from Thompson. The weak side must then come over to cover the roll, with Norman Powell rotating over to get in front of Šarić and James Harden sinking in to cover Brandin Podzemski along the baseline. This leaves Jonathan Kuminga open in the corner, with Šarić making the one-handed skip pass to create the shot for Kuminga.

But all of it started with Thompson drawing two to himself — something that he has been doing this season and in previous seasons:

Another thing to praise Thompson for against the Clippers was his decision making. He was 2-of-7 on threes and had a stretch where he missed two good looks from beyond the arc. He could’ve easily tried to hunt for shot after shot in an effort to get himself going.

Instead, he did this:

And — later on — this:

Attacking hard closeouts — something he almost always manages to garner because of how defenses perceive him as a shooter — is something of an opportunity for Thompson to make himself valuable in more ways than one. To his credit, he was able to recognize those opportunities against the Clippers.

While Thompson will continue to attract attention, Curry will remain the focal point of opponents’ schemes and gameplanning. On the Warriors’ part, it’s paramount that Curry continues to be the tip of the spear to counter said gameplans.

There may truly be no definitive answer for Curry ball-screen actions. For obvious reasons, deep drop coverage is a no-no. Screen-level meetups, hedges, and outright doubles do manage to get the ball out of Curry’s hands, but often at the cost of an outnumbered backline defense:

The Warriors went into hunt mode against the Clippers, using heavy ball-screens with a spread floor (with Šarić at the four as a floor spreader) targeting the lowest-hanging fruit on the floor. In the possession above, Ivica Zubac was forced to be in the ball-screen action against Curry, daring him to step up higher to the level of the screen — which, in turn, unlocked Green on the short roll in a 2-on-1 situation.

Other instances of Curry hunting Zubac did not go well for the Clippers’ big man:

Forcing Zubac to have to late switch onto Curry — resulting in him having to chase him on a relocation possession, something he’s quite unaccustomed to doing — is just plain unfair:

The other glaring low-hanging fruit the Warriors targeted: James Harden.

The Warriors employed a heavy dose of guard-guard or guard-wings actions — whoever Harden was guarding would set a screen for Curry to force a switch — to create favorable isolation matchups for their main shot creator:

When the Warriors hunted Harden in the fourth quarter with guard-guard actions, the Clippers tried to counter by having someone come over to double Curry after the switch (switch-to-blitz or switch-to-double coverage). But Curry simply dribbled away from the doubles, before they could effectively trap him:

While Green mostly played the role of Curry’s screening partner, he also got a few shots in as a spacer. He’s shooting 13-of-28 on threes this season — 46.4%. While that is on a low volume of attempts, any made three from Green is a bonus, considering how defenses have opted to guard him on the perimeter.

He’s even making shots from the weak-side corner as a play finisher off of paint touches — such as the one Curry creates here:

Of course, defense is still the side of the floor where Green butters the bread. With Leonard at the four for the Clippers, Green was tasked to defend him one-on-one. The Clippers tried multiple times to get Green off of Leonard by having Curry’s man come over to force the switch — but more often than not, the Warriors were able to blow up such attempts by having Curry hedge out and recover back to his man. This either got Leonard to settle for a matchup he didn’t want, or to get the switch with only a few seconds on the shot clock remaining, which forced him to rush his shots.

When Leonard was forced to isolate and create against Green, he found it hard to do so because of Green’s length, physicality, and absolute doggedness as a defender:

Perhaps the best possession that best displayed why — at their best — the Warriors’ big three can still create situations that are hard to defend by opponents was on another Curry-Green ball-screen half-court set.

Let’s return to the aforementioned switch-to-double coverage the Clippers tried to employ as a counter against the Warriors mismatch hunting Harden — and try to see why it was so difficult for them to send an immediate double, before committing to one coming from the weak side:

As expected, Curry hunts for Harden by having Green set the screen. Terance Mann can’t come over to double Curry after the switch because Green holds his screen long enough for the window to close. Mann is then forced to take Green due to the threat of the roll. With no immediate double at the point of attack, the double must then come from Leonard — but he’s coming over from the weak side, which makes it easy for Curry to go the other way to avoid it.

He’s able to get to the rim with little trouble — with help from Thompson on the strong-side corner, whose presence doesn’t allow Westbrook to help one pass away. The space he creates for Curry allows his Splash Brother to go all the way to the cup.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a possession like this from the Big Three. Despite the struggles, the perceived decline in skills, and the clock ticking down toward the end of the dynasty — it’s safe to say this won’t be the last.

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