At the 7:24 mark of the fourth quarter of the Golden State Warriors’ riveting win against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Steve Kerr subbed Steph Curry and Draymond Green back into the game. With them on the floor were Jordan Poole, Gary Payton II, and Donte DiVincenzo.
This lineup of Curry, Poole, DiVincenzo, Payton, and Green had played a grand total of zero minutes together before this game. More importantly — this lineup was small.
A quick reminder of the listed heights of the players in this lineup, per Basketball Reference:
- Curry: 6’2”
- Poole: 6’4”
- DiVincenzo: 6’4”
- Payton: 6’3”
- Green: 6’6”
The players at the two and three positions — Poole and DiVincenzo — are taller than Payton, the virtual four in this grouping. Nothing else can best describe this lineup other than the words “wild” and “risky.”
This wasn’t the only instance of Steve Kerr experimenting with lineups against the Thunder. With Klay Thompson sidelined due to lower back soreness, Kerr took this opportunity to throw out a starting lineup of Curry, Poole, Anthony Lamb, Jonathan Kuminga, and Green.
To be fair to Kerr, this experiment wasn’t born out of blind faith nor out of unfounded hypothesizing. Prior to this game, the three-man grouping of Lamb, Kuminga, and Green had been outscoring opponents by nearly 41 points per 100 possessions in 252 non-garbage-time possessions, per Cleaning The Glass. That is a non-insignificant sample size, so Kerr deemed it worthy of a shot.
But that experiment fell flat right out of the gates. The same three-man group above was outscored by the Thunder by a total of eight points and largely failed to generate efficient offense (92.3 offensive rating) and limit the Thunder offense (166.7 defensive rating) in seven minutes of play.
Which is probably why Kerr quickly shelved the lineup — and shelved Lamb completely in the second half — in favor of a more traditional lineup of Curry, Poole, DiVincenzo, Green, and Kevon Looney after the half.
The Warriors proceeded to outscore the Thunder by six points in the third quarter, followed by winning the fourth quarter by a commanding 15-point margin — enough to (temporarily) shoot them up to the fifth seed in the chaotic Western Conference.
The lineups preceding the micro-ball lineup did their part to keep the gap manageable. Notable contributors included Moses Moody, who chipped in 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting, 3-of-5 on threes, and one block.
This was perhaps the most jaw-dropping sequence out of Moody — not just this game, but of the entire season:
ALWAYS READY pic.twitter.com/D6GeNo0tvP— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) April 5, 2023
But it was the lineup that entered the 7:24 mark of the fourth that put the hammer down on the Thunder. It transformed a close game into one heck of a runaway victory for a team that sorely needed it.
In approximate three-and-a-half minutes of time on the floor, the micro-ball lineup outscored the Thunder by seven points. Once Looney entered the floor for Payton, the Warriors had turned a tie game of 115-all into a 126-119 lead — an 11-4 run.
The first possession that involved the micro-ball lineup was born out of the Thunder being extra jumpy out of screening actions both on and off the ball. They were burned by a couple of threes due to being a beat late to get around screens — and in an effort to not make the same mistake, they put more emphasis on top-locking and jumping out toward ball handlers to force them away from the screen and funnel them toward the backline.
Poole — who had made a couple of threes before this possession — correctly deduced that the downhill drive was made available to him because of the Thunder’s jumpiness:
Isaiah Joe jumps out in an effort to stay attached to Poole — but in the process, he leads too far out with his left foot. Poole rejects the screen to take advantage and gets the layup over the ineffective low-man help from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who couldn’t do much due to foul trouble.
This possession later down the line had a similar goal, albeit executed in a different manner:
Green and Curry set double drag screens for Poole. The Thunder switch the first screen involving Green — but having Curry set the second screen gives them something to think about.
Luguentz Dort — Curry’s man — is reticent to switch off of him, while Jalen Williams tries to fight over the screen but is caught up in Curry’s rock-solid screen. With no switching involved, Joe is forced to step up as the low man and rotate. He tries to draw a charge but is too late to get to the spot and is assessed a blocking foul, sending Poole to the line.
The Warriors run the same play the next time over — double drag screens with Green as the first screener and Curry as the second screener — but seeing Gilgeous-Alexander in front of him, Poole rejects the screens and goes hard at Gilgeous-Alexander, who commits his fifth personal foul:
In order for this super small lineup to work, the Warriors had to pay attention to the tiniest of details, especially on the defensive end. That meant knowing their personnel: stay attached to those who can shoot the ball, run them off the line, and let the ones who aren’t as dangerous shoot the shots that aren’t their specialty.
This possession was a harbinger of the Warriors paying close attention to detail — and forcing a turnover out of it:
The Thunder attempt to have Joe set a screen for Gilgeous-Alexander, in an attempt to not only bring Payton off of Gilgeous-Alexander but also to bring over Curry into the action. Once the switch doesn’t materialize, Joe attempts to “ghost” the screen and perhaps get himself open for a look if Curry and Payton botch the coverage.
But Curry sticks to Joe, runs him off the line, and forces the turnover with Green jumping out to help.
More than just the details and per-possession tactics, however, was the effort to keep possessions alive. This lineup — with an average height of 6’3” — was able to navigate the size disadvantage with sheer heart and determination.
The presence of Payton in this lineup can’t be overlooked. The gratification was delayed by a considerable amount of time, but having him be involved in this team — whether as a defensive savant who finds ways to get his hands on the ball and cause all sorts of havoc upon opposing teams, or as an auxiliary contributor on offense who knows where to be and which roles to play at all times — has been fun to watch, as it was last season.
Having someone who lives, breathes, and exudes the Warriors’ ethos on offense as a key connecting piece has been key. Payton knows all the tenets of the Warriors’ offense, including its “automatics” and progressions:
Payton gets the ball at the wing and sees DiVincenzo in the corner next to him. Without a hitch, he initiates dribble handoff (DHO) action, with two defenders jumping out toward DiVincenzo, which generates the backline advantage.
Payton makes himself available on the short roll with Green at the dunker spot. With only one defender left to defend the backline, Payton calmly delivers the pass to Green for an easy layup.
A key tactical matchup the Warriors made on defense was having Green defend Dort, who shoots less than league average on threes this season (33.3% on 5.5 attempts per game) and is considered to be a non-spacing threat. Having Green “defend” Dort allowed him to roam off and act as a virtual free safety who discouraged attempts at the rim, plugged holes, and erased mistakes made at the point of attack.
This possession was a team effort in terms of running the Thunder off the line with pristine rotations and hard scrambling. But watch Green throughout this possession:
I counted four instances of Green discouraging and contesting drives at the rim. The man is an absolute workhorse as a backline defender — but complements it with unmatched intelligence and knowhow.
(As evidence of how much of a rim-deterring force Green has been this season, look no further than opponents shooting 51% at the rim against him — third out of 50 players who have played at least 47 games this season and contest at least four shots at the rim per game. With him on the floor, opponents attempt 5.1% fewer attempts at the rim — fourth among qualifying bigs, per Cleaning The Glass.)
Even though this following possession isn’t part of the micro-ball run — Looney had subbed in for Payton beforehand — it’s worth showing to compound the importance of Green to this team.
You can’t help but be awed by Green here:
His ability to single-handedly shut down an opponent’s half-court possession is uncanny. He sticks to Joe throughout the possession — even temporarily denying him the ball — and makes sure to switch back onto him to relieve Poole of potential isolation-defense duties.
Once he gets Joe back onto him, Green not only shades Joe toward his weak left hand — he also baits him into a crossover by leading out with his left foot. Most defenders would get burned by leading out with their foot like that, but not Green, who likes to bait ball handlers into taking advantage of his “mistakes.”
Once Joe tries to blow past Green with a crossover, Green has him where he wants him. He pokes at the ball mid-crossover and forces the turnover, leading to a Poole layup on the other end.
The Warriors are now 42-38 — temporarily fifth in the West. No matter the result of the game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers tomorrow, the Warriors will end up sixth by the end of that game.
But winning this game against the Thunder ensured that they are able to hold on to an outright playoff spot for a while longer, fueled by a micro-ball lineup that powered the Warriors to a win and could have macro ramifications in terms of their playoff chances.