Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Stephen Curry and James Harden.
- The Warriors’ best version of themselves whips the ball around with dizzying speed. They got away from that in Game 2.
- Look for the Warriors to run more pick and roll with Steph Curry as the screener for Kevin Durant in Game 3.
- If “the Steph Game” hits on Sunday, which seems likely, then Warriors (-7) will seem woefully off base.
OAKLAND — If the Warriors’ real haymaker is coming, Steve Kerr is trying to disguise it. The best version of this Warriors team — the awe-inspiring, mow-you-down, reign-of-fire-from-the-basketball-gods version — has been trapped in these Western Conference Finals behind a deliberate Kevin-Durant-led isolation slog.
Kerr, however, wasn’t suggesting a shift in Game 2.
“We didn’t have a different game plan in Game 2, but [the Rockets] played a lot better and sharper,” Kerr said Friday at practice. “We let them off the hook early. I thought some early turnovers gave [Trevor] Ariza some transition points. Second half, we broke down with our coverages, which got [P.J.] Tucker a couple of open 3s.”
Two of Tucker’s five 3-pointers came as a result of David West guarding him and being unable to close out effectively. Don’t be surprised if West plays less time in this series. He has a minus-11.3 Net Rating through two games, worst of the bench unit.
Meanwhile, some plays featured “awful” on-ball defense, in the words of Kerr. Durant just lets Ariza get past him in the clip below, and Ariza makes a great pass to the corner. The Warriors will continue to dare Ariza to make this exact play and have faith it will work out on their end over the long run. (It will.)
“So it wasn’t so much game-planning, though there are some things we will tweak,” Kerr said. “But mostly the team that brings the force, the energy and the desperation has the advantage. I thought we had that in Game 1, and they had that in Game 2.”
What’s interesting about the Warriors’ isolation-heavy approach built around Durant is that it’s so far away from what they do well. Yes, they took Game 1, stole home court and are two Oracle defensive performances away from taking a commanding 3-1 series lead. (Jokes aside, the Warriors have now been up 3-1 three times — vs. the Cavs in the Finals and twice in these playoffs — since their epic collapse in 2016 and have not blown the lead.) But the Warriors’ best version of themselves whips the ball around with dizzying speed. It’s Curry pull-ups from deep in transition, and rapid-fire movement to create Klay Thompson shots off screens. It’s slip screens to the rim for cuts from the pinch post.
What it is not, is this:
No movement. No flow. No chaos. No energy.
The Rockets switch everything, which means they’re daring Durant to beat their mismatches one on one in iso, the same way the Rockets are trying to beat the Warriors with isolation.
In last year’s playoffs, the Warriors generated 128 shots out of isolation plays, according to Synergy Sports. Kevin Durant has 27, 21% of their 2017 total, in two games. And the efficiency isn’t working out, either.
Western Conference Finals, isolation points per possession (including passes out to shooters or cutters):
Houston Rockets: 1.284
Kevin Durant: 1.138
The Rockets are winning that battle. So when Kerr says the game plan is sound, it seems a bit crazy.
On the other hand, Kerr did say this:
“I want Steph (Curry) shooting every time he’s open. We have to do a little bit better job getting him open, and we have some thoughts on that front.”
Curry works on all number of things in post-practice shootaround. And he works on the same stuff all the time in the narrow window when the media gets to see him. I did find one sequence illuminating, though, even if he always runs the same drill. Curry, working with long-time assistant coach Bruce Fraser, came off a simulated screen from Fraser into the paint.
Against the Rockets, this would be where they switch Clint Capela on him, and where Curry has been forced into tough, falling layups (which he’s mostly made) all series. In the drill, Curry whipped an over-head pass back to Fraser, then burst to the corner off another screen from an assistant. Fraser hit him with the pass, rise, fire.
This isn’t something new or something Curry never does in drills: I’ve seen him do this hundreds of times in the eye-glossing down time in-between post-practice interviews.
However, it does provide a window of exactly what Kerr is talking about. Do not be surprised if the Warriors run more pick and roll with Curry as the screener for Durant in Game 3. In Game 2, we saw the screener backing out and spacing the floor, as Klay Thompson does here with Curry at his side:
Durant got the bucket, but there was zero movement. Expect the Warriors to make a concerted effort to use the switch against Houston going as the series moves on. Curry going one on one vs. the switch hasn’t worked because it’s kept him off the 3-point line where he’s most dangerous, and it’s exhausted him on offense, which has its toll on defense (where the Rockets are constantly picking on him) and has cyclical effect.
But if Curry screens for Durant and forces the switch from Ariza — or Luc Mbah a Moute, or, honestly, even Chris Paul who has preemptively matched up with Durant to try to anticipate the switch at times — expect Curry to start bursting. If the pass is there and the Rockets slip their anticipatory switches on off-ball screens, Curry’s going to have open looks.
He’s missed makeable shots so far in this series. He’s slumping. But he’s back at Oracle, a connection Kerr called “special” on Friday.
If “the Steph Game” hits in Game 3, which seems likely, then Warriors (-7) is going to seem like a quaint underestimation compared to the havoc they will throw down on Houston’s head. At home in these playoffs, the Warriors have won by 13.3 points. The Rockets have been great on the road, with only one loss and a blistering +9.3 point differential in these playoffs. But the Warriors at Oracle seem primed to ramp up the “chaos” that Kerr talked about Friday.
So when Kerr talks about not switching up the game plan, he’s right. If the Warriors are focused on defense, which they clearly weren’t in Game 2, they’ll get stops, and can run. If they run, they can find open 3s because it’s impossible to track down all their shooters in transition, and if Curry’s hitting, it doesn’t matter if you track him down anyway.
From there, adding more movement after they force the switch on Durant, and Durant looking to pass a little more when the Rockets help, will yield what the Warriors want. They can have their isolation cake with Durant and eat on off-ball movement, too, but they have to be precise. It’s why this series still feels like it hinges on whether the Warriors do what they want and what they’re supposed to do, as opposed to a real tug of war.
The Rockets can hit shots, and that will give them a fighting chance. Their switches and containment have been on point all the way through these playoffs.
But Golden State has a lot more counters left to throw, and the biggest one may simply be “getting Steph Curry going,” an option no one has truly figured out how to counter when Curry is healthy, which he says he is.