February 15, 2019

One of the best offensive machines in modern NBA history just had a massive wrench thrown right into its gears. Widely considered title favorites precisely because of the fear MVP Stephen Curry strikes in the heart of defenses, the Golden State Warriors now need to adjust on the fly. Curry’s MCL sprain changes the Dubs’ offensive identity completely.

What can Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and recently crowned Coach of the Year Steve Kerr do make up for the absence of one of the game’s most impactful offensive players?

There are plenty of answers, but it might require them to take a “nothing is sacred” approach to how they think about their style. Judging from the early returns on Sunday night, Kerr has no problem making those adjustments.

A lot of what we consider quintessential Warriors offense won’t have the same deadly feel without the MVP. Nobody’s going to trap a Shaun Livingston pick and roll with the same fervor as they do with Steph, so the days of Dray surgically picking apart a 4-on-3 behind the trap are probably over. You can try running it with Thompson, but there are a couple of problems there.

First, while Klay is a deadly shooter, he’s not the same threat as Steph to pull up at any second – which is understandable since no other human is, either. Defenses know that Steph can pull up any time, off the catch or off the bounce, and his efficiency barely dips after extra dribbles. Thompson is nearly as good with 0-1 dribbles, NBA.com’s stats page tells us, but after that, he starts to drop off sharply. The moral here (other than that Curry is amazing) is that defenses might choose to live with a Thompson pull-up more than they’d concede that shot to Curry.

Chart

(Side note: Klay does shoot great with 7+ dribbles (71.4 percent), but it’s a pretty minuscule portion of his attempts, probably mostly in end-of-quarter iso situations.)

The second problem with having Klay run the pick and roll is it removes him as an off-ball threat, which is a key ingredient in the way GSW forces defenses to pick their poison after the initial screen. Part of the allure of the death lineup is that there are threats everywhere. The drop-off in “deathiness” from Curry to Thompson as the handler is one thing, but then the drop-off from Thompson to anybody else in the corner compounds the issue, making a lethal combination a lot less so.

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But Golden State has a lot of other stuff in its arsenal, as evidenced by the 41-point quarter they unleashed before Curry had taken his shoes off on Sunday night. They have ways to survive offensively, but it might require them to look a little more (*gasp*) traditional on offense.

Actually, that quarter informs pretty well as to how Kerr might be thinking about his team’s execution in a post-Stephpocalyptic world. The Warriors won’t always be as hot as they were for those 12 minutes, but we can see what kind of actions they ran and conjure a guess as to how they might look going forward.

One thing we saw a lot of in that third quarter was Golden State trying to get to the middle. The usual Curry-Green pick-and-roll is actually clever bait to do the opposite. It tempts a hard trap, pulling defenders away from the middle in sort of an outside-in approach to spacing.

With Curry in the locker room on Sunday, their offense looked a lot more like a typical drive-and-dish outfit, frequently running stuff to force paint collapses. They went up 83-69 when a middle pick and roll forced a soft trap, and Festus Ezeli’s dive forced help from the corner, freeing Barnes for a three. They also ran a middle pick and roll that forced a switch, and Mo Speights took a smaller guy down the block to draw a foul. Similarly, Barnes took a dribble-handoff into the paint to earn a trip to the line.

My favorite example of the Warriors getting back to traditional inside-out spacing came on their first bucket of the half. Andrew Bogut set a pindown and then turned right into a post-up. The strong side wings then split the post, forcing the defense to sag into the paint, and Green was open for the first of his three three-pointers in the quarter. It was a gorgeous play, but it was also indicative that they might be more focused on pulling the defense inward than they have often been.

There were two plays where players got to the lane and had the play broken up, but because of the crowd they drew, the Warriors were able to find open shooters once they recovered the ball.

They also have the option of running a 4-5 pick and roll with Green, a smart way to unlock his playmaking ability without necessarily negating Thompson’s off-ball threat. They only ran this once in that third quarter, with Speights screening (toward the middle again) for Dray. The latter missed a pull-up, but with the Houston bigs out of position, the rebound bounced to Andre Iguodala for a dunk.

The other thing that was clear in that quarter is how Curry’s absence will require them to rely on their defense to generate offense. They scored eight points off of Houston turnovers in that frame alone, and another 19 off of Rocket misses. Whether it was Thompson spacing to the angle three in transition or a great wraparound on a 2-on-1, the Warriors were great on the break and even the secondary break. For example, they ran a weakside pindown for Thompson to get a catch-and-shoot pass from a trailing Andrew Bogut. Perfectly timed, perfectly executed, but it worked because Houston’s D was still getting settled after a Bogut steal.

Bottom line: this team can still score, even if the tools they use feel less next-gen funky.

They also can’t bank on Thompson and Green combining for 70 percent from three, as they did in that amazing quarter. A couple of Green’s spot-up threes were decidedly from the “file that under R for ridiculous” category. But they’ve made their hay in a historical season precisely because they have high basketball IQs and skill at every position.

They have enough to survive Houston, especially since they’ve given themselves three chances at closing out the at times undisciplined Rockets. They’ve also caught a break in the next round, with injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin removing a major threat (even if they were somehow to advance), and the Portland Trail Blazers being a relatively inexperienced group.

But if Curry’s injury persists into the Conference Finals… look out. San Antonio plays relatively mistake-free basketball, and their defense is the best in a generation. Nothing will come easy if that’s their Round 3 draw without Curry. And if it’s Oklahoma City, they’ll face a team that is accustomed to using its length and athleticism to blow up middle pick and rolls. The few times on Sunday that Houston was successful in forcing them to the outside, they were far less efficient. That’s a nut they’ll have to be able to crack before (read: IF) they reach the conference finals.

In the meantime, it’s not all sad news in the Bay Area: the Warriors proved, if only for a quarter, that they can still manufacture greatness without their greatest. Whether or not they can continue to do so just became the prevailing plot-line of this spring.

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Dan Clayton

Dan covered the Utah Jazz for a decade for a number of Spanish-language media outfits, most recently as the team's Spanish radio analyst for game broadcasts. In 2014, Dan moved from Salt Lake City to Brooklyn and had to hang up the micrófono, but stays involved in the conversation by contributing regularly to Salt City Hoops, the ESPN TrueHoop affiliate covering Jazz basketball.

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