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The story of the set play behind Steph Curry’s game winner against the Suns

Curry came through in the clutch. Steve Kerr did some elite play drawing. Brandin Podziemski performed a 400-IQ improvisation.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Golden State Warriors John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

On a random Friday night — back on October 20, 2023 — the Golden State Warriors were preparing to run an after-timeout (ATO) set against the San Antonio Spurs in the fourth quarter of a preseason game in Chase Center, with the Spurs well on their way to a win.

The Warriors didn’t have their main guys on the floor anymore — after all, it was a preseason game. In their stead, Steve Kerr had now-former-Warrior Cory Joseph, Brandin Podziemski, Moses Moody, Rodney McGruder (a training camp signing), and Trayce Jackson-Davis on the floor. With the Warriors down six, Kerr took the opportunity to practice a set play with his young guys, perhaps to familiarize them with end-of-game situations where execution reigns supreme.

With Podziemski inbounding the ball on the sideline, Kerr had the other four players aligned in this manner:

Podziemski’s role is to obviously get the ball in safely to its intended recipient. The four other players’ collective job is to make sure that the said recipient gets open for the inbound pass, using a series of decoys, misdirections, screen-the-screener actions, and ulitmately, an away screen for the recipient.

Imagine Kerr drawing this play up on his clipboard — and peek at how each player should be moving according to what was drawn up:

Spoiler alert: Each player was able to follow directions to a tee, leading to an open Moses Moody three to cut the deficit to three. Here’s how it went down:

Eagle-eyed and detail-oriented followers of the Warriors under the Kerr era may be familiar with this set — after all, its most famous use by Kerr was on Klay Thompson’s game-winning three against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of their Western Conference Semifinal series in 2022:

The lineage of this play — as described above by Gibson Pyper — started with Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns. D’Antoni used the play against the Spurs, which was witnessed by Gregg Popovich. Popovich himself then “borrowed” the play for his own team to use. It’s possible Kerr then saw the play and incorporated it within his own playbook during his time as the Suns’ general manager from 2007 to 2010, while also paying homage to the coach he played for from 1999-2001.

Popovich was asked by Jackie MacMullan — formerly of ESPN — about the play, as part of a piece she did on coaches’ tendency to “steal” plays from each other:

Popovich took a page from D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns playbook (see Pop’s hand-drawn play), one that would get the team a good 3-point look at the end of the game.

Popovich liked the play because it included an element of surprise: “When the point guard goes off,” he explains, “you hope his defender will come up a little bit and think, ‘Oh, maybe I need to switch on this.’ In other words, you’re hoping he’ll make a mistake.” It offers a little bit of subterfuge — at one point, the big goes over to set a screen, and, in Pop’s words, “stands there like a big dummy for a while” — and ultimately a clean, open look if all goes well.

“Phoenix”, as drawn up by Gregg Popovich
Jackie MacMullan, ESPN

It wasn’t too long ago that Kerr last used “Phoenix.” He used it for Steph Curry against the Lakers back on January 27, on what should’ve been the game winner if not for LeBron James getting fouled on the other end and sealing the game with free throws:

As you probably would’ve guessed, “Phoenix” was the set play Kerr drew up for Curry’s game winner against the Phoenix Suns tonight (and no, the irony of the situation isn’t lost on me). But he did try to run the play one other time in the game — during the third quarter for Thompson, who got off a great shot that just missed (with Podziemski as the decoy running toward the corner instead of being the inbounder like in the preseason game).

Note the similarities in how this particular “Phoenix” possession was executed compared to the Thompson game winner against the Grizzlies:

Kerr then drew up “Phoenix” during a timeout, with the Warriors down two points to the Suns and only 3.3 seconds left on the game clock. Of course, the usual alignment for “Phoenix” was used, signaling that the Warriors were about to go to one of Kerr’s favored end-of-game sets to get his best player an open look:

If the set went according to plan, the screen-the-screener action for Green that allows him to set an away screen for Curry should’ve gotten him a comfortable look just outside the arc — approximately near the slot area. But in an end-of-game situation against a top team, things rarely go according to plan.

Bradley Beal — guarding Green to start the possession — had an inkling of what the play was going to be. He knew that the pass was going to find its way to Curry and took measures to intercept the ball once it left Podziemski’s hands. He gambles by jumping the passing lane.

But Beal’s 200-IQ gamble was upstaged by an even bigger 400-IQ gamble by Podziemski.

Seeing that Beal was in prime position to intercept a normal pass according to script, Podziemski changed the trajectory so that the ball would find its way to Curry farther away from the arc — and nearly opposite to the side where he was supposed to get it:

When asked after the game if he did it on purpose, Podziemski answered in the affirmative.

“(Devin) Booker kind of played off of me and was just like in center field so I kind of had a clear vision of where Steph was going to be. Draymond actually screened Beal and Beal got through it so he kind of shot the gap. I should’ve asked the ref before if I could throw it in the backcourt. I didn’t know, so I just tried to figure out a place from like half court, that little window I had to give him the ball, and we made it happen.”

It’s not far-fetched to theorize that Podziemski’s experience as the inbounder in this set — dating all the way back to the preseason where he was the triggerman for Moody’s three against the Spurs — played a part in his improvisational pass that led to Curry’s game winner.

It certainly is a full-circle moment for the rookie, who has built trust with Kerr and is being rewarded with closing minutes against a team with bona fide studs.

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