Something needs to change for the Golden State Warriors. Far from the confident bunch that entered the NBA Finals, the third quarter of game three saw some heads hanging, some shoulders slumped. And while (another) fourth quarter barrage made for a nervous final few minutes in Cleveland, it hasn’t been pretty.
For all the fancy stats and analytics at work, much of the series has boiled down to the Cavaliers punching the Warriors in the face (metaphorically; Matthew Dellavedova has mostly swept the leg so far) and Golden State backing down. This blueprint to slow down the Warriors isn’t a surprise – the weakest part of both Steph Curry and Klay Thompson’s game is physical strength, so relentless physicality is key. Yet to their credit, Cleveland has executed this game plan in a far superior fashion to anyone else so far. Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert have been attached to the Warriors’ shooters like barnacles, regardless of what’s happening elsewhere on the court. Combine this with the crisis of either effectiveness, confidence or both facing Draymond Green, and Golden State’s offense has sputtered mightily.
Sure, the Warriors are missing shots (it is a Make or Miss League, always), but they aren’t the same shots, in the same rhythm the team is used to. Counting on Curry to get his shooting stroke together isn’t the worst plan, but there’s no reason to stop there. Getting more open looks and easier baskets is never a bad thing, so how can the Dubs do so?
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One thing they can certainly try is to simply allow Curry space to operate against Dellavedova. No ball screens, no fancy misdirection, just 1-4 low isolations. A big part of the fourth quarter run was Curry doing just this, almost visibly thinking “I’m the MVP, and you were a guy fighting for a roster spot in Summer League” and unleashing his arsenal of quick dribbles and pull up J’s. Even in previous games, the few times Curry was able to attack Dellavedova in a spread floor in semi-transition, it didn’t end well for the Aussie.
As a side dish, this will bear some fruit. Curry will get looks, or help will have to come from much further away than when Golden State has almost invited a double team on Curry by running high pick-and-rolls. But it’s probably asking too much from Steph (and as well as begging Cleveland to switch LeBron James onto him for a few possessions) to make this the main course. In fact, I would argue the Warriors should look to have Curry do more by doing less. Less with the ball, that is.
Curry’s most unique skill is his ability to shoot, especially from three, off the dribble. However, as with most players he is much more accurate in situations where his teammates set him up for shots. According to SportVU, his Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) is 64.4% on shots where he held the ball less than 2.5 seconds and thus likely was assisted by a teammate. Still, it has often been best for the Warriors as a whole to have Steph’s own shots being slightly lower efficiency as he shoots a faintly ludicrous 55.4% eFG on self-created shots, which usually bends the defense in such a way as to allow other players some openings. In the Finals, though, Golden State simply isn’t seeing those ancillary benefits of the attention Curry’s shooting draws. In fact, he’s almost bent Cleveland’s defense more by working off the ball:
A few things are going on here. First, Cleveland can’t “load up” nearly as effectively on Curry when he doesn’t have the ball. LeBron attempts a similar hedge as the Cavs’ bigs have been executing in the pick-and-roll:
This allows Andre Iguoudala to roll to the basket. The basket cut is more open for three reasons. Firstly, the whole play is starting closer to the basket so Iggy can just catch and dunk; the man making the pass, Shaun Livingston isn’t the player being trapped as Curry is when he’s initiating from a high pick-and-roll; and finally, Cleveland’s strategy of dropping off of non-shooters allows Livingston to have great passing vision for the play:
The Warriors have had similarly successful plays running Klay Thompson off of pin-down screens as well. That is, when they have set solid screens. Something which has been sadly lacking from Green.
Enter Andrew Bogut, who both by his mammoth size and ability to get away with subtle moves and slides is the Warriors best screener. Bogut has had a rough series, outquicked by Tristan Thompson, outmuscled by Timofey Mozgov and unwilling to even attempt to score on the other end. Yet even Bogut is not afraid to catch and dunk on a play like the above though. Getting good body-on-body screens should be readily achievable as well. That same chest-to-chest defense being played by Shumpert and Dellavedova make them “screen-bait” for a bruiser like Bogut.
In fact, to properly defend this kind of action, one of the Cavs on the other side of the floor might have to sag into the lane. Suddenly Cleveland is guarding two players, neither of whom has the ball with three of their own. Or perhaps the Cavs cannot bring extra help to one side of the floor because while Curry or Thompson is working off the ball on one side of the floor, the other is using the opposite baseline in similar fashion. The very help-and-recover situations Cleveland has largely been able to avoid all series are suddenly starting the in the face.
The Warriors lineup would look something like Curry, Thompson, Bogut, Livingston and Iguoudala. With Curry and Thompson running the baseline, either Livingston or Iggy would handle the ball at the top of the floor. Both players can set screens and take advantage should Dellavedova switch onto them. It also provides a credible defender or two to throw on James at the other end, but the bigger worry for Golden State has to be on offense still.
While there isn’t a huge sample (the trio of Curry, Livingston and Bogut has not shared the floor in the Finals and played only 82 minutes together during the season), indications are positive. In concert, those three were +17 per 100 in that short amount of time per NBAWOWY. Further, Curry has been able to work off the ball far more frequently. The proportion of Curry’s shots which were self-created was the lowest when sharing the floor with either player, and in his short time with both, only 40% of his shots (compared to 54% overall were of his own making (per a combination of SportVU and lineup data). Again, it’s a tiny sample (only 45 shots), but Curry’s eFG was 80%with that pair of teammates on the floor.
At the very least, this is a vastly different look which will pose different challenges to Cleveland’s defenders, who have become increasingly comfortable guarding the “same old, same old” from the Warriors. Further, it will almost force an offense that has become stagnant to have more movement, against possibly discombobulating defenders. And if it frees Curry and Thompson a few times, Golden State might finally start to see a couple of their patented scoring runs and start to retake some control over the style and tenor of the series. At this point, do they have much to lose?
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