With 15 seconds left in a fourth quarter they once led, the Golden State Warriors were preparing to run a ‘Hammer’ set out of a timeout.
A ‘Hammer’ set is named as such because it involves a ‘Hammer’ screen, which is a flare screen for a shooter on the weak side that should result in an open corner three. This was a set popularized in the NBA by Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs during the heyday of their dynasty.
While ‘Hammer’ is used by several NBA teams nowadays, the Warriors — under former Popovich protégé Steve Kerr — have made good use of it to get the Splash Brothers open looks. But in order for the duo to get open in the corner, the action banks on a near-perfect set-up job.
These clips of ‘Hammer’ all have one common denominator that allowed them to be effective. Can you guess what that is?
Posting this again because it's such a beautiful set play. Steve Kerr and the coaching staff have been killing it with their play calling this season.— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) December 25, 2021
Their version of "Hammer" action just might be my favorite set this year. Easy way to get Steph Curry an open corner 3. pic.twitter.com/1Jmhli577C
Almost all versions of ‘Hammer’ — including the ones above — rely on successful dribble penetration that generates a paint touch, which in turn draws in help from the weak side. Baiting a weak-side defender toward the paint isolates another defender and makes him vulnerable to being screened by the ‘Hammer’, which frees up the shooter sprinting toward the corner and gives him an open look.
One must also take into account the situation and context. All of the ‘Hammer’ sets above were in the middle of their respective games where the choice to go for a two or a three didn’t make or break the game. As such, defenses aren’t wired to take away the ‘Hammer’ screen – they follow their natural defensive instinct of stopping the ball, thus the help rotations.
Which makes Kerr’s choice of running ‘Hammer’ to generate a three curious and somewhat baffling for several reasons.
- The Warriors felt like they needed a three and drew up a play for one – but since ‘Hammer’ relies on dribble penetration and forcing help off the weak side, the Los Angeles Lakers were fine with switching the screen and letting Draymond Green ‘keep’ the ball on the handoff and drive to the rim. At worst, they would give up a layup and would still lead by one; at best, someone manages to stay in front of Green to force a miss or a turnover.
- The choice of running ‘Hammer’ for someone who was cold and wasn’t having a good shooting night was odd. Klay Thompson – who chucked two threes in previous possessions that played huge roles in the loss (more on that later) was the intended recipient in the corner.
- ‘Hammer’ felt like the obvious play – too obvious, as evidenced by LeBron James sniffing out the set and telling Anthony Davis to switch the flare screen.
The ‘Hammer’ action they ran against the Lakers in Game 4 was a bit different compared to the ones above in the sense that it was a sideline out-of-bounds set (SLOB) instead of a bona-fide half-court set. For reference, here’s one they ran last season against the Cleveland Cavaliers:
The key difference between the half-court set and the SLOB is how the paint touch is created: a ballscreen in the former, and a ‘keep’ action (basically a fake handoff) in the latter.
Kerr tried the SLOB version against the Lakers. He attempted to use Steph Curry’s pull to generate the ‘keep’ advantage for Green – but again, the difference in context and quality of opponent was glaring:
The Lakers didn’t fall for the ‘keep’ action, allowing Dennis Schröder to switch onto Green and stay in front — a win-win situation for them especially with James and Davis switching the flare screen and Davis not intending to help off of the corner.
An additional bonus: Schröder manages to stay in front of Green and forces the turnover, which seemed to be for an Andrew Wiggins cut to the rim in what was expected to be a slip to the rim (slips are, after all, the best way to beat switches). But James is also on top of that, hugging Wiggins and not letting him have any breathing room to cut inside.
The shoddy execution of the set — no doubt forced by exceptional play recognition and defensive countering by James and the Lakers — was one thing. But as mentioned above, making Thompson the focus of the ‘Hammer’ action was questionable given how he pretty much shot the Warriors out of the game during its closing stages.
Two badly missed threes — one that came as the shot clock winding down, and another that was early in the shot clock with the Warriors down by only a single point — defined Thompson’s night.
The latter shot came on a staple Warriors set they run frequently for Thompson which they call ‘51’ — double-drag screens into a flare screen. One of Thompson’s made threes came on a ‘51’ possession during the first half:
Again, context and situation play a huge part as to why the possession above was warranted and successful — in contrast to this one:
The former generated an in-rhythm Thompson shot over a contest by the smaller D’Angelo Russell and was during a point of the game where a three was a welcomed shot choice. The latter was against an excellent contest by Lonnie Walker IV against a Thompson that wasn’t in rhythm, had to take a dribble, and rushed the shot with 14 seconds left on the shot clock — with the Warriors down by only one point.
It’s these pockets of disappointing offensive process and decision making that makes losses like this one painful and dispiriting. After leading in the second half by as much as 12 points, the Lakers went on to close the game with a 39-24 run. The Warriors scored a paltry 17 points in the fourth quarter.
What largely worked in the first half — having Gary Payton II (or whoever Davis was guarding at any given moment) set ballscreens for Curry to force Davis into the action — was bafflingly decreased in volume in the second half.
From 24 instances of Davis as the screener’s defender in the pick-and-roll in the first half, the Warriors involved Davis in only six pick-and-rolls in the second half:
First half attacking AD in PNR pic.twitter.com/odOjQzkCpn— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) May 9, 2023
Second Half— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) May 9, 2023
Should have "hammered" that a bit more imo. pic.twitter.com/5bkgaKEkdi
The Lakers came out with an adjustment out of the half: shifting Davis over to Wiggins instead of Payton. But the Warriors went ahead and had Wiggins set the ballscreen anyway:
But possessions like the ones above were few and far in between in the second half. By the time Curry had an opportunity to once again handle the ball and involve Davis in the action, the Lakers had one final adjustment to make: have Davis switch and trust him to contain Curry on an island.
The Warriors not hammering the pick-and-roll button enough until it was too late — and instead going for a different kind of ‘Hammer’ — is a microcosm of how their offensive process and decision making, or lack thereof, has plagued them all season long.
It’s coming back to haunt them at the most inopportune time, at a crossroads of a dynasty that is now hanging on a thread.