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How the Warriors used classic hits to put the Celtics away

A huge win involved classic set plays and concepts.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Golden State Warriors John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Think of the headline grabbers in the Golden State Warriors’ 132-126 overtime win over the Boston Celtics — Steph Curry, who hit the dagger shot over Jaylen Brown to seal the game; Trayce Jackson-Davis, who finished with his first career double-double (10 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks) and was trusted as the closing center, during which he repaid that trust with key buckets and defensive plays; and even Klay Thompson, who deserves a nod for hitting big shots down the stretch.

But the one who arguably set the tone — and did so on the defensive end — was Chris Paul.

The very first possession of the fourth quarter was vintage Paul — but not offensively:

You typically don’t want Paul guarding Jayson Tatum — mostly because of the obvious eight-inch height disadvantage. But Paul is as tenacious as they come as a defender. He tries to “ice” Tatum and force him away from the screen, but Neemias Queta flips the angle to counter the ice. Nevertheless, Paul manages to go over the screen and stay on Tatum. He keeps Tatum in front, forces him to settle for a long mid-range jumper, and even manages to close space without fouling.

(Take note of “ice” coverage and flipping the angle of the screen to counter it — we’ll come back to it later.)

On the other end, the Warriors run their scripted half-court set typically drawn up in-between quarters. Take note of the personnel available to them at that point — Jackson-Davis, in particular — and see how a set play they’ve kept in the holster for a while was made possible:

The Warriors run an example of the concept of “shorting” the pick-and-roll, or “short” action. It simply means the ball is passed to a third party on the elbow — Paul in this instance — to create a better passing angle toward the roll man.

Jackson-Davis’ ability to create roll gravity — something that has been lacking beyond him on this Warriors roster — draws two defenders toward him, in an effort to take away the lob. This leaves Paul wide open on a mid-range look that he drills.

If “short” action looks familiar, it’s because the Warriors have run this concept before — namely for JaVale McGee and Gary Payton II:

A low-key development — and what also fueled their comeback victory — was how the Warriors leaned on a couple of staple set plays to fuel their half-court offense. The “short” action above falls short (no pun intended) of being considered a staple because of how scarcely it has been utilized; only with an above-the-rim lob threat can the Warriors truly unleash it, such as with Jackson-Davis, Payton, and McGee.

One play they have counted on for years — something that Steve Kerr borrowed from Phil Jackson, his former coach — is called “WTF”, which means exactly what you think it means.

This excerpt from retired sportswriter Jackie MacMullan’s article on the heritage of certain plays perfectly explains the heritage of “WTF”:

There’s a play in today’s NBA that can produce everything from a cut to the basket to a high-value 3-point shot. It’s a side out-of-bounds box set that features interchangeable positions and multiple options. And whenever the Golden State Warriors run it, they have to pantomime.

“I didn’t want my guys yelling out, ‘WHAT THE F---!’ with families and little kids sitting there,” says Steve Kerr, head coach of the Warriors. “So I told them, ‘Hold your arms up like you’re shrugging.’ It was a little less conspicuous that way.”

It’s called the “What the f---” play.

Jackson stole it from Holzman, and Kerr stole it from Jackson. Brian Shaw, who played for and was an assistant coach with the Lakers, passed it on to Frank Vogel when Shaw was on his Indiana Pacers coaching staff. Luke Walton, an ex-Lakers player and coach and ex-Warriors assistant under Kerr, copied it for use with his current Sacramento Kings roster.

“Almost everybody runs a version of it,” Kerr says.

The Warriors’ version of “WTF” can produce a backcut off of a screen set by a shooter — namely, Curry — who then runs off another screen to get open for a three. This simple screen-the-screener action can get Curry good looks if defenses don’t cover their bases.

The team has been running “WTF” for the entire 10 seasons that Kerr has been in charge. Most teams know when it’s coming — but they can’t cover it properly every time:

Another staple half-court set — a Thompson special — was used three times by the Warriors, each with a result different from each other but producing four of the most efficient looks a team can get: two open threes. a layup, and a dunk.

The Warriors call the play “51.” It involves a double-drag screen with an empty corner, where Thompson is the second screener in the double-drag alignment.

What made “51” work in this instance to great effect was — once again — the personnel involved.

Curry’s involvement as the ballhandler speaks for itself. His ability to draw two to the ball forces defenses to have to pick their poison. But having Jackson-Davis as the first screener and roll man makes it even tougher for the Celtics to cover their bases:

The Warriors are fond of spamming an action that has previously worked, as if continuously daring the defense and challenging them to stop it, even if they know what’s coming. They run “51” the next possession over, which the Celtics anticipate.

Jrue Holiday’s counter to the double-drag action: “ice” Curry away from the screens by jumping out and forcing him toward the sideline, while Al Horford plays a high drop behind him. Horford does so to remain in contain position, which also banks on Holiday being able to stay on Curry’s hip to take away his space and discourage him from pulling up.

In this instance, Holiday successfully “ices” the screen, forcing Curry to have to dribble along the baseline in Steve Nash fashion to keep his dribble alive. He draws Horford on the switch, relocates to the corner, and also draws Brown, who leaves Paul alone.

Seeing that a lane has opened for him to drive, Paul stampedes his way to the rim once Curry gets him the ball:

The Warriors run “51” for a third consecutive possession. Again, Holiday attempts to “ice” Curry away from the initial screen, hoping to contain him and force him toward Horford’s high drop like the previous possession.

But Jackson-Davis does something that few rookie bigs can do — and what most veteran screeners are aware of when faced with “ice” coverage:

Flipping the angle of the screen so it becomes “flat” — parallel to the baseline — forces Holiday to have to take a weird angle when trying to get past it. He virtually ducks under, which leaves Horford on an island against Curry.

And as most people know by now, playing a drop against the greatest shooter of all time is like pouring gasoline on a burning house.

The fourth and final time the Warriors ran “51” was during overtime. Again, Curry draws two defenders around the screens, with Horford keeping tabs on Jackson-Davis on the roll. The Celtics’ problem is sending someone to switch out and cover Thompson, who flares toward the wing after setting the screen.

Derrick White attempts to switch back and recover toward Thompson — but in a panic, he closes out hard, which allows Thompson to drive inside, leaving Horford once again on an island and having to rotate off of Jackson-Davis (located in the dunker spot) to help on the drive.

Thompson promptly feeds the rookie for a dunk:

Going back to the topic of the Celtics choosing to play drop coverage against Curry — something they’ve previously done against him, most notably during the 2022 NBA Finals — it certainly played a part in Curry getting hot and drilling bucket after bucket in crunchtime.

After a game where he went 0-for-8 on threes, Curry only needed to see a couple of threes go in before the status quo was restored. You can point to an otherwise nondescript possession during the third quarter that most likely lit the flame underneath him:

Simple “get” action with Kevon Looney — a pass and chase by Curry — freezes Brown and causes him to run smack into Looney’s screen. With Horford in drop coverage, it’s an easy look for Curry.

Later on, Brown himself chooses to play drop coverage on another “get” action possession — and Curry manages to turn the corner against him for a layup:

The downstream consequence of choosing to play conservative coverages on Curry — and as a result, letting him see the sight of the ball going in the hoop — ultimately manifested during the Warriors’ final offensive possession.

After falling prey to a couple of oldie-but-goodie plays and classic hitters, the Celtics were ultimately put to sleep by the oldest play in the Warriors’ playbook — but one that hit the hardest.

A Curry dagger three:

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