It is widely thought that as a seven-game playoff series reaches its later stages, there’s few things both teams can do to make earth-shattering adjustments.
It makes a ton of sense. Each coaching staff has most probably unloaded every bullet in their chamber, put most of their cards into play, and have run out of secrets to hide. There’s little each of them can keep from each other, at least on a macro level.
As the Game 5s, Game 6s, and Game 7s approach, execution and star power both come into the forefront. It’s not rich fodder for deep analysis, but such is the nature of a high-level NBA Playoffs series — when push comes to shove, poise, shot-making, and greatness all take center stage.
This series between the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers — with the Warriors staying alive for at least one more game — is reaching its later stages, which means that adjustments on a macro level more than likely have run their course of relevancy. But it doesn’t mean that small, micro adjustments on a tactical level stop being relevant, either.
One theme of this series — a problem the Warriors had to pay heed to and constantly try to address — was the world-destroying defense of Anthony Davis. A supreme rim protector, Davis has anchored a Lakers defense that has given the Warriors’ offense plenty of fits.
It was paramount that the Warriors consistently find ways to draw Davis away from the rim to open up the paint and take away what he does best: deter and discourage paint touches and up-close shots. The simplest way to accomplish that was to find ways to involve Davis as a defender in screen-and-roll action against Stephen Curry, whose nature as the greatest shooter of all time commands unique defensive attention.
To play conservative coverages against Curry is akin to asking to be punched in the face — as the Boston Celtics can attest to during last season’s NBA Finals. Playing conservative coverages with personnel that struggle to navigate ballscreens adds further complications; Jarred Vanderbilt was one such example in Game 2, where a heavy diet of Curry pick-and-roll forced Vanderbilt to constantly navigate — something that is known to be not in his wheelhouse.
In Games 3 and 4, the Lakers adjusted by moving Davis away from Draymond Green and stashing him onto the fifth starter: JaMychal Green in Game 3 and Gary Payton II in Game 4. JaMychal couldn’t do much of anything to punish that adjustment, while Payton — a more willing roller and better short-roll decision maker — was more up to the task.
In the first half of Game 4, the Warriors involved Davis in 24 instances of screen-and-roll action. They scored 1.13 points per possession on them — an efficient mark.
But they only involved Davis in six pick-and-roll possessions in the second half of Game 4. After having Andrew Wiggins set ballscreens to account for Davis switching onto him, the Warriors stopped going at Davis and instead set their sights toward LeBron James, who spent considerable time guarding Draymond.
According to Steve Kerr, they felt the need to go to their bread-and-butter Curry-Draymond pick-and-roll — no matter who was involved in the action:
Steve Kerr said they “for sure” could’ve gone to the Andrew Wiggins, Steph Curry high screen game more in the second half of Game 4 after Lakers put Anthony Davis on Wiggins, but “part of the thinking is that Steph and Draymond are our bread and butter.”— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 11, 2023
Full answer pic.twitter.com/9EVD8ml198
Even if the Curry-Draymond pick-and-roll was a tried-and-tested formula, the Warriors’ reluctance to involve Davis heavily in the second half felt like a missed opportunity. It wasn’t the only reason they lost — but not going to it robbed them of potential advantage situations in the half court that could’ve helped them secure the victory.
Heading into Game 5, Kerr and the Warriors were aware of that fact and didn’t wait long to involve Davis in the screen-and-roll by having Wiggins come over to set a ballscreen for Curry:
With most of the Lakers’ eyes focused on the pick-and-roll involving Curry and Wiggins — and with Davis occupied with the on-ball action — Draymond cuts baseline and makes himself available for the Curry pass. Vanderbilt is caught off guard and fouls Draymond on the and-1 possession.
A few possessions later, Wiggins comes over to set another ballscreen. Davis comes up to the level of the screen in an attempt to discourage a pull-up attempt. Curry, however, doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger:
In addition to conventional pick-and-roll possessions where a larger big or wing sets the screen for Curry, the Warriors went to something I felt they should’ve explored more in this series, especially with the Lakers’ increased frequency of switching Curry pick-and-rolls: have Curry be the one setting ballscreens.
Inverted ballscreens are an option in the Warriors’ pet play called ‘Head Tap’ (because the signal for this play is Kerr tapping the top of his head) which is typically run for Wiggins in the form of cross-screen action to get him into good low-post position.
But if the post option is denied, the second option is then triggered: a ‘zipper’ cut toward the top of the key, followed by an inverted ballscreen by a guard:
Warriors run "Head Tap." With Jordan Poole ghosting the inverted screen, Wolves are forced into rotation but forget the final rotation toward DDV. Draymond seals Reid to make sure he doesn't close out. pic.twitter.com/Y0dNnuTmS6— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) November 27, 2022
The Warriors ran the second option of ‘Head Tap’ against the Lakers with Curry setting the ballscreen:
The Lakers switch the ballscreen with Dennis Schröder guarding Wiggins, who sees the mismatch and turns up the aggression, resulting in an and-1.
While involving Wiggins takes advantage of Davis being forced into more active roles on defense, the Warriors still wanted to find ways to have Draymond be the screener for Curry, with the only obstacle being that the Lakers were fine with switching James onto Curry if that were the case.
They had to get creative with their targeting methods — and the solution to that problem finally came in the form of ‘ram’ screens (screen-the-screener action):
With James on him, Draymond comes over to set the screen for Wiggins near the dunker spot, which forces the switch: James onto Wiggins, and Davis onto Draymond, who then goes over to set an immediate ballscreen on Davis.
This unlocks Draymond on the short roll, who forces James to help off of Wiggins in the dunker spot. Draymond finds Wiggins open underneath for another and-1.
The Lakers countered another ‘ram’ screen possession simply by having Davis switch onto Curry. Draymond responded by freeing up the lane for a Curry layup:
Generally, the Warriors responded much better whenever the Lakers resorted to switching Davis onto Curry. Instead of Curry trying to attack Davis in isolation, he found ways to circumvent the Davis switch.
The simplest of which was to find Draymond — aggressive on mismatches against Curry’s defender — on seals down low:
To hitting Wiggins on the roll to punish Austin Reaves being on the wrong end of a switch:
More complex methods of punishing the Davis switch out on the perimeter was running low-post split action in order to make Davis into an off-ball screen navigator — a role he isn’t accustomed to:
And making sure he gets lured away from the paint on the primary action, before swinging the ball to the other side and taking advantage of a Lakers backline without its safety net:
It’s no coincidence that the two Warriors players who were involved heavily in trying to get Davis into constant action — Draymond and Wiggins — flourished. Draymond finished with 20 points on 11 shots, his second 20-point game of these playoffs; Wiggins scored 25 points on 18 shots, to go along with seven rebounds and five assists.
The Warriors not only went to the Curry pick-and-roll button more this game; they ramped up the creativity by finding new methods to involve Davis and prevent him from doing what he does best defensively. Whether those are the last of the creative juices we’ll see from this series remains to be seen — but it’s something the Warriors can build off of heading into another do-or-die game.