The checklist of things a defense has to do from one play to the next in order to stall the Warriors’ offense — arguably the best in basketball history — is exhaustive.
If Stephen Curry brings the ball up the floor, someone has to pick him up as soon as he crosses half-court, or else risk the idea of his drilling a 30-footer.1 And while surviving that step alone is admirable, it’s often just a precursor to Curry’s passing the ball to fellow sharpshooter Klay Thompson, who also must be tightly guarded on the perimeter. That usually means All-Star Draymond Green, an incredibly gifted passer in his own right, will have an open floor and a mismatch to work with, and with all the attention going elsewhere, center JaVale McGee has morphed into a scary lob target under the basket. If all four of these weapons are disarmed, the only thing left to worry about is four-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant.
But execute perfectly — stay glued to your man, keep your eyes on the ball and be willing to offer help when necessary — and you still may fail. And that stems from how well the Warriors set off-ball screens, and the unusual spots from which they spring them.
Even though defenses have grown more sophisticated, the NBA is still very much a pick-and-roll league. The play forces opponents to make challenging split-second choices about which man to guard. The set works especially well for teams with several shooters they can spread the floor with, to stretch defenses thin with both the pass and the 3-point shot.
Golden State obviously uses pick and rolls, too, but the club relies on them less than any team in basketball.2 Instead, the Warriors prefer to confuse their opponents by setting screens away from the ball, a strategy the Dubs used 400 times more3 in the regular season than the next-closest team.
You don’t have to be Red Auerbach to figure out why the Warriors love running these sorts of plays. The biggest reason: Golden State’s dominant 3-point shooting, which becomes even more unguardable when aided by a screen that simply blindsides the defender.
Generally, we think of screen setting as a big man’s task. But Golden State breaks that mold, by having Andre Iguodala set off-ball picks for a player like big man David West, or even having former MVPs Curry and Durant screen for lesser players like Ian Clark or Patrick McCaw at times. “We constantly look for things that we feel will work to our advantage, and try to take teams out of their comfort zone,” Iguodala told FiveThirtyEight. “All we want to do is put teams in positions that they might not be used to seeing or guarding.”
Watch this play, for instance, where Curry bumps Heat guard Wayne Ellington just enough to disrupt his effort to stay with Clark. It serves as a misdirection in two ways: First, Clark’s curl back toward the basket seems to surprise Ellington, who played the screen as if Clark was going to pop out to the 3-point line. Beyond that, Curry’s mere presence as the planet’s best shooter freezes two opposing players, Rodney McGruder and center Willie Reed, allowing Clark a clear path to the basket. All because no one was expecting Curry, of all players, to try to screen for Clark on an out-of-bounds set.
Curry, who led NBA guards with 108 screens that led to baskets despite often being the smallest player on the floor, is the linchpin for many of these plays. That’s because defenses, wary of the shooting threat Curry presents, sell out to make sure he doesn’t get an open look. Watch this one, about two minutes into Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against the Spurs, when Curry initially looks as if he’s coming to set a screen for Thompson but then turns back out toward the 3-point line after getting a pick from center Zaza Pachulia. San Antonio’s Pau Gasol and Patty Mills close out on Curry extremely hard, to prevent the 3-point shot, and the Warriors’ star simply turns what would have been a shot attempt into a jump pass instead, feeding a wide-open Pachulia for a dunk.
“Our guards aren’t afraid to get in there and get dirty4,” McGee said of the team’s screening work. “That’s important, because guys don’t know where they’re going to hit from.”
If it seems as if the defense is thrown off by where Golden State’s screens are coming from, and the players that are setting them, it’s because even the Warriors themselves don’t always know. Mike Brown, their acting head coach, told me the screens are a high-level form of unscripted, playground basketball.
“Steve [Kerr] has really empowered these guys with the way he teaches them. It’s not, ‘You go to this space; you here, you here and you here.’ Not at all. He teaches guys the way you would imagine guys learning back in the day on the playground. … So where I’m going with this: It’s not scripted. And when you have something that’s not scripted, your opponents break down, because it’s different every single time.”
None of this is to suggest that every Warriors’ screen is a work of art. Plenty of their screens away from the ball should get whistled for fouls, but don’t. Watch Pachulia’s screen — it might be more accurate to call it a shove — on Mills in Game 1, which frees up Curry for a 3-pointer. (That said, for all the warranted critiques of Pachulia lately, he does often get whistled for things. He owns the NBA’s third-highest offensive foul rate on a per-minute basis5 this season6 among those whistled for 25 offensive fouls or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group.)
Pachulia’s shove slowed down Mills for just a fraction of a second, but milliseconds matter when defending an offense this good. It’s the difference between getting out to a shooter or surrendering an open look.
Consider the fact that the Warriors shot 41 percent from deep in their wins, but just 27 percent in their 15 losses. If anything, that shows the Warriors can be beaten but also that you basically have to take away the 3-point line at all costs in order to have a chance against them. (This is how the Spurs defended Golden State last season.) Defenses that allow Golden State the slightest bit of room or time usually end up paying dearly as a result.
Thompson, for instance, launched an NBA-high 302 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers within eight-tenths of a second of receiving the ball during the regular season, connecting on better than 43 percent of those attempts, according to an analysis run by SportVU at FiveThirtyEight’s request. There’s no room for error in navigating defensive assignments when someone can get a shot off that quickly and accurately.
Watch here, as a Blazers assistant yells “Screen! Screen! Screen!” in vain to help his players identify a Warriors pick in advance. There is so much chaos happening away from the ball — in particular, defenders seemed most concerned about potentially surrendering a backdoor layup — that they have no real chance at getting out to Thompson in time to stop him.
“You can’t go under a screen on Klay Thompson, because he licks his chops and bangs a 3,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder told me, adding that his club misplayed seven screens in a second-round game with Golden State, and watched the Warriors hit a three on every single mishap. “It really requires a collective mindset [to stop them] because of all their shooting, their skill, their passing and their ability to read situations. They’re great shooters, but beyond that, they’re great thinkers.”