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Excellence of Execution: How well-executed set plays ignited the Klay Thompson explosion against the Suns

Thompson went on one of his signature unconscious binges, buoyed by scripted plays that got him to his spots.

Phoenix Suns v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It’s hard not to root for Klay Thompson considering what he’s been through — and how he’s bounced back this season after so many (including some of his own fans) wrote him off as washed.

Many considered Thompson to be quite a one-dimensional offensive player. Granted, that one dimension happens to be really, really good, but there was little room for growth beyond that singular skill set — at least, that’s what many people (including yours truly) thought.

Thompson’s responsibilities have grown beyond being an off-ball threat and catch-and-shoot merchant, especially during the stretch where Steph Curry was sidelined with ligament sprains. Steve Kerr penciled in Thompson as his number one option on offense and gave him multiple reps as a creator, both for himself and for others.

He played that role spectacularly. He was creating off the dribble in isolation, making good decisions off the pick-and-roll, and was touching the paint in a manner that collapsed defenses inward. His advantage creation was — at least, according to the eye test — the best it’s ever been.

Being more effective as the main man has made him more of an all-around threat. Oscillating between on-ball creation and off-ball chaos has thrown defenses around for a loop.

With Curry’s return, Thompson has stepped back a bit in terms of being an on-ball focal point, but his potency has remained at an all-time high. After this recent home win against the Phoenix Suns — in which he scored 38 points (33 in the first half) on 23 shots (6-of-9 on twos, 8-of-13 on threes) and 75.4 TS% — he’s only added to a calendar year 2023 that has arguably been his best offensive stretch of his career.

Since January 1, Thompson’s posted the following marks:

  • 25.5 points
  • 4.4 rebounds
  • 2.4 assists
  • 50.6% on twos
  • 44.0% on threes (11.3 attempts per game)
  • 87.0% on free throws
  • 61.5 TS%

He’s been on a high-efficiency tear, which makes it extremely difficult for defenses to ignore him. Being jumpy around screens only serves to create backline-disadvantage situations where the Golden State Warriors have feasted throughout their dynastic run.

On the other hand, failing to navigate screens perfectly allows Thompson the room he needs (which isn’t much) to pull the trigger:

The Warriors’ set to open the game above is ‘Floppy’. Thompson has the choice of running off the single down screen from Donte DiVincenzo, or to run off the double staggered screens from Curry and Kevon Looney.

Thompson chooses the latter with Josh Okogie switching and chasing him around the second screen. But Okogie makes the cardinal sin of ducking under Looney, allowing Thompson all the time he needs for the three.

The perfectly executed opening set above portended a first-half offensive explosion for Thompson and the rest of the team that was chock full of other perfectly executed sets in the half court.

The Warriors tested the Suns’ guards and wings’ screen navigation chops all night long. It wasn’t especially sharp in the first half (the second half was an altogether different story); Okogie was the culprit above, while Devin Booker had his moments of getting caught up in screens — both on and off the ball.

Curry feeds the ball to Looney in ‘Delay’ action (a big initiating at the top of the arc in a 5-out configuration). Curry then goes over to set the screen on Booker, after which Thompson runs toward Looney for a dribble handoff (DHO). This action is called ‘Chicago’ — a pindown followed by a DHO.

Booker gets massively delayed by the initial Curry screen, then attempts to recover toward Thompson but is way too behind to be in a position to contest. With Deandre Ayton in a drop, Thompson gets another easy look.

The Suns looked uncharacteristically lost on defense to start the game. The screen-navigation troubles were but a symptom of the larger illness; other problems included botched switches, questionable screen-and-roll coverages, and late rotations sprinkled in with overhelping.

The Curry-induced panic caused some of those symptoms. When Steve Kerr went to a Mike D’Antoni-inspired set, the Suns committed another mistake:

Curry runs toward the wing with Thompson setting the ballscreen, ‘ghosting’ it, then running off Looney’s flare screen — collectively, this series of actions is called ‘21 Dribble’, a staple of the 21 series (alternatively called ‘Pistol’ action) that was brought into the NBA by D’Antoni when he was — ironically enough — the head coach of the Seven-Seconds-Or-Less Suns.

The ‘21’ part of the action refers to the two guard (Thompson) and one guard (Curry) being involved in the wing action. The ‘Dribble’ aspect is Curry dribbling past the ballscreen, then finding Thompson on the flare.

Booker and Okogie switch the ballscreen, but Okogie falls behind on the supposed switch onto Thompson, which makes him vulnerable to Looney’s screen — and leaving Thompson with another wide-open practice shot.

Thompson’s always been at his best whenever he’s placed into movements sets like the one above, but never has he been at his most effective attacking switches out on the perimeter. Whenever he’s had isolation possessions, most of it has been against smaller guards in the post — but rarely has he had a big matched up against him away from the paint in isolation.

The fervor and verve he’s shown this season when attacking slower-footed bigs has resulted in many an efficient half-court possession. One mistake from the big — e.g., leading out with his front foot and being unable to swivel his hips to stay in front — can lead to a layup from Thompson or a paint touch that forces help away from a perimeter shooter.

The other outcome: Thompson pulling up with massive confidence against a big who gives him too much space to work with:

The Warriors run ‘Spain’ pick-and-roll action with Thompson setting the backscreen on the screener’s defender (Bismack Biyombo). The Suns defend it by triple switching: Cam Payne switches onto Draymond Green, Terrence Ross switches onto Jordan Poole, and Biyombo switches onto Thompson.

All things considered, the Suns did what they were supposed to do to nullify the Spain action. But Thompson — at this point in the middle of his volcanic eruption — was feeling it.

And whenever Thompson is on one of his unconscious scoring binges, it’s extremely difficult to drag him back to Planet Earth.

This isn’t only the old Thompson that comprised one half of the Splash Brothers that took the NBA world by storm nearly a decade ago; this is a version that has added a couple of novel skills to his offensive arsenal, even while Father Time continues to work against him and the effects of two lower leg injuries has seen him somewhat diminished in terms of lateral movement.

But Thompson — now a catch-and-shoot artist with occasional self-creation chops — is finding ways to prolong his career that was shortened by a couple of years. And he’s doing it with trademark aplomb.

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