December 16, 2017
Curry, Durant, Warriors
Jun 4, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates with forward Kevin Durant (35) against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second half in game two of the 2017 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

By Eric Apricot

Golden State Warriors fans have been begging for the Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant pick and roll all year. Well-wishers and ill-wishers alike all wonder why it isn’t run more often.

Why would you NOT put two MVPs into the same on-ball action? After all, it works great in the NBA2K video game!  And 2017 Finals Game 5 seemed to be the explosive vindication for everyone who pines for the play, when Steve Kerr finally unleashed this (not so) Secret Weapon to finish off a valiant Cleveland Cavaliers team. 

This article will analyze why you wouldn’t want to run the play and examine what really happened in Game 5.

Short version: It wasn’t that the Curry-Durant pick and roll had unique effectiveness. The Cavs jammed up the flow offense with violence, then double team blitzed Curry and Durant in the pick and roll and Curry was the guy who could beat the blitz. Durant couldn’t beat the blitz, so to keep him in the action, the Curry-Durant pick and roll was a natural.

Why Not Run The Play More?

Here’s Coach Steve Kerr himself on Zach Lowe’s podcast:

We could go Steph – KD pick and roll all season and get open shots, and I understand that. But if you think about our team, if we were built like Cleveland, if we had Kyle Korver, Frye and Love, that makes perfect sense. Now you’ve got the floor spaced, you just have 3-point shooters everywhere but we have playmakers everywhere. Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston. I want those guys making plays. I want them with the ball in their hands. I learned this from Phil Jackson and the Triangle. When everyone is involved, touching the ball, and cutting and screening, there’s a magic that happens, there’s something special, where guys feel empowered. Their defense gets better because they’re involved. What’s important for me as a coach is to play the style we do. Draymond getting eight assists a game makes his defense better. When he’s making a play, we’ve got Steph and Klay on the perimeter spacing the floor, it works. We had the greatest offensive rating in the history of the league this year, so it obviously works.

That’s the philosophical and team psychology reason, and we shouldn’t second-guess one of the greatest team-spirit coaches in history.

What are the basketball reasons not to run it?  Basically, Kevin Durant doesn’t get good contact with his screens, so if a team plays it correctly, they just fight through the screen, or they switch, and now you’re playing mismatch isolation basketball unless you’ve carefully set up your offense to keep flowing.

As Kevin Durant concisely remarked on the Bill Simmons podcast:

Simmons: When did you and Steph master how to do that high screen? What point in the season was that? Because by the Finals it was pretty much unstoppable.

Durant: We only really worked on it in the Finals. Because a lot of teams would have bigger guys on Steph and they would just switch it. It would be hard to run it because they have a bigger guy on Steph, or they might just switch the point guard on me and load up. But Cleveland knew that if they switched Kyrie on me I would, you know —

Simmons: You could take him down.

The point is, this play is not a cheat code that has destroyed the NBA. It’s a good simple option, but can be defended if run all the time and it unbalances the team. This could be mere correlation, but it’s striking how Klay Thompson’s shooting slump seemed to coincide with Mike Brown’s head coaching stretch, where the team heavily relied on pick and roll basketball. It’s easier to take someone like Klay out of the game if his role is to stand around spacing.

Let’s reflect on Game 5 now, which was a showcase for all the positive results from the play.

Why Did GSW Run The Play So Much In Game 5?

More from Kerr and Zach Lowe:

I think it’s something that happens in the playoffs that you really have to consider. It’s so much easier in the regular season… Cleveland did a really good job of… blitzing with Kevin Love and switching with Thompson and zoning up behind the play… But you get to the playoffs and get certain things taken away, absolutely you have to make adjustments.  Mike Brown put in the play we kept running over and over again. He put that in at the beginning of the series. We talked about it. It was different from a lot of the things we’d done. We just unleashed it in Game 5, and I give Mike a ton of credit because it changed the look and changed the scheme defensively of what Cleveland had grown comfortable with. And we just kept going over and over, we probably ran it more in that game, literally more than we’d run it all season combined. It was obviously effective and it was good as a total change of strategy and pace, and it was incredibly helpful for us.

Let’s break down exactly what things were taken away. Tyronn Lue said right after Game 5:

“But overall I thought that after the first two games our team really did a good job of locking in defensively, trying to take away what we wanted to take away, and they played a different game. Wasn’t a lot of splits, wasn’t a lot of movement. It was 1-3 pick and roll with Curry and Durant or pick on our weakest defender and try to attack that.

So for that we took them out of a split game and things they did well, and they went to a different game, and that’s what happens when you add Kevin Durant.”

So the Cavaliers were able to gum up the flow offense by grabbing and wrestling off-ball cutters and switching when needed. This left the Warriors with options of isolation offense (which Durant is great at, but it bogs down the whole team) or pick-and-roll offense. 

Kevin Durant Is Not Good At Beating Double Teams

In Game 4, The Cavaliers introduced a new strategy to double-team blitz Curry and Durant when they were the ball-handler in pick and roll. And they continued this strategy in Game 5, and it continued to throw off Kevin Durant.

Here’s Durant getting double teamed and having trouble slipping the pass to the short roller Zaza Pachulia.

And here’s another example of David West trying to slip the screen and Durant not getting the pass through the double team.

One more, where Durant doesn’t turn it over when double teamed, but is too slow to pass to West’s short roll, he picks up his dribble and has to get rescued by Klay Thompson.

It’s a dirty little secret that Durant has trouble with double teams. The Warriors exploited this famously in the improbable comeback in 2016 WCF Game 6 versus Oklahoma City:

Curry came with the double team and Durant threw a bad pass to the cutter, and the Warriors tied up the game and never looked back.

So it was wise and correct for the Cavaliers to double team Durant.

Stephen Curry Is Very Good At Beating Double Teams

In contrast, it is not wise and correct to double-team Stephen Curry. He has been battle-hardened for years: first, in the painful loss in the 2014 playoffs to the Los Angeles Clippers, he was double-teamed constantly and worked out counters on the fly.

Then in the 2015 Finals against the Cavs with David Blatt coaching, he repeatedly drew the double teams and dished to teammates for baskets, especially Andre Iguodala, who got the Finals MVP due to open shots from Curry’s passing. 

In the big comeback from 3-1 in 2016, the Cavs figured out Curry’s injury allowed them to switch screens and single cover him with Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. This year, Curry was spry again and they had to go back to the double teams. And in Game 5, Curry torched the double teams with practically everyone willing to set a screen:

Here is the classic recipe with Draymond Green on the short roll:

(Notice Curry didn’t even get an assist from that play.)

Here’s your 2015 Finals throwback edition with Andre Iguodala:

For goodness sake, even the rookie Patrick McCaw could score on the resulting 4-on-3:

Therefore, The Warriors Use Durant To Screen For Curry

So, in this context, Curry is annihilating the Cavaliers blitz with everyone who even fakes a screen with him. Would Durant be good on the short roll? Of course, he’ll be even better. So it’s a very good play, but it makes particular sense in this context, where Durant can’t beat the blitz as the handler, so let Curry beat the blitz and Durant can roll.  Two guys are getting blitzed, so in the same play, the Cavaliers can’t blitz both of them!

Golden States beat all kinds of defensive coverage with the play: blitz, hard hedge, going over, under.

Here the Cavaliers blitz Curry and, like everyone above, Durant gets a good shot as the short roll man.

I don’t know what you call this non-defense by LeBron James, but it’s functionally the same as a very poor double team. Durant gets the ball in the short roll, forces rotation and nicely hits the open man.

When the Cavaliers soften the double team to a hedge and recover, Durant is still the short roll man, and here he shrugs off the rotating help to hit a jumper from his favorite spot.

When Cavs defend it straight and Shumpert goes under the screen, Curry shoots an open 3-pointer:

When Kyrie goes over the screen, Curry strolls to the rim for a layup:

The play works!

Conclusion

It’s a great play, but it works better as a change of pace play for all the reasons described above. Now, there is a legitimate basketball argument for whether the Warriors should run the play more often than they do, or at least do it more in high-leverage situations, and I’ve certainly made that argument before (this from January):

There’s been a noticeable uptick in Curry-Durant pick and rolls since the Grizzlies collapse. Earlier in the year, it was important for Kerr to get the team’s motion offense gelling and not to have them relying on simple pick and rolls. But at some point, you need to actually develop game chemistry around the play.

And it’s going to be a crucial play in the playoffs. Sometimes when all the offense has been scouted, and it’s the fourth quarter, you just want a simple play that puts your best players in position to make a play. It turns out to be difficult to put Curry off-ball in the playoffs because defenses just grab and wrestle him. The refs are not calling those fouls, so they need a play with Durant and Curry on the ball, one screening for the other.

And that’s more or less what happened in the Finals. Except, it turns out the Warriors were able to quickly install the play for the Finals with only very occasionally practicing the play before. It was only the special circumstances of the Cavaliers defensive scheme that led to the Warriors using the fabled Curry – Durant pick and roll so much, so don’t expect to see it much next year, except for in its Use Only In Emergency case for the Warriors’ title defense.


Eric Apricot

Eric Apricot likes to think about basketball strategy, and can be read here at BBallBreakdown and GoldenStateOfMind.com. He’s written over 170 Explain One Play articles, one for almost every Warriors win since 2015. Not bad for a little pug dog.

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