Buried Treasure - Golden State Warriors (06/17/16)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz
On a cold winter evening in Cedar Rapids, tens of fans, or rather parents, are kept warm by the hotly contested Division III men's basketball matchup between the hometown Coe College and an opponent that shall remain nameless. In the middle of the second half, needing a bucket to swing the elusive momentum in our favor, I whisper in the ears of my teammates like Gary Walsh in between opponent free throws, setting up our most potent weapon. With the choreography already under way, a shake of the head as I bring the ball up the court overrules the coach's signals, for he, like our opponent, had yet to realize the fate of this possession had already been decided. The ensuing layup could only be met with a smile from coach, as our most potent play had downed another foe en route to another victory for the Kohawks. Imagine my joy watching the defending NBA champions slicing up opponents with the very same play. Fallen opponents of the Iowa Conference can love the misery of humiliation in the company of the elite from the so-called Association. While I cannot take credit for the use of the play this season by the Warriors this season – although Warriors' owner Joe Lacob's son was once on an opposing bench versus my Kohawks, just putting that out there – I am in a unique position to break down this play. It is fitting that league's most dominant team possesses the league's most devastating secret weapon.

The Setup

Much like an Ocean's movie, the success of NBA sets is based largely on not getting made. Similar to a great heist, what makes any play – I use the term play and set interchangeably –great is the effectiveness of the contingency plan in case the play gets made. What makes this particular set unique is, just as in Ocean's Twelve, success on the possession is secured before the play even starts, no matter how fox-like the defense may be, the Warriors are virtually guaranteed to score. But enough with the introductions, let's take a look at this play:

The diagram above is drawn using the Warriors' starting lineup, but they run this play with a variety of lineups. One of Klay or Steph will always be the one setting the back screen in the lane because the root of the success of this play grows from the way opponents defend those two off the ball, which usually involves no help. All other spots are flexible. The giveaway for this set is the man in Bogut's position in the diagram, whose back is to the ball standing near the elbow, a position unique to this set. Also, they ALWAYS run this set on the left side, which is odd because it sets up a left handed layup for the right-handed Green; however, I believe the intention is for the passer - #11 in the diagram above – to be able to throw a quick one-handed pass with his right hand because the catch comes with the left shoulder serving as the inside shoulder on the catch. To get a full sense of what I've described, take a look at the play in action, executed to perfection:

Keys to Success

Brooklyn's defense never stood a chance. Let's use the above clip as reference to break down what exactly makes this play so unstoppable:

Timing – careful rehearsal coordinates the initial cuts with the point guard so the first pass is made somewhere near the hash mark on the sideline, a reasonable distance, especially if the ball handler is pressured. More importantly, the baseline cross allows for the back screen to happen as the first pass is received. In doing so, the pass for the layup can be made quickly, before the on-ball defender can disrupt vision. Most crucially, the choreography of the play is such that the back screen connects as a surprise. The back screener flows into the screen without telegraphing it and the cutter sells a lack of involvement by trailing the play and slowly moving into position before exploding into his cut. Green executes this perfectly in the clip. There is no waiting around or stopping, which makes the back screen - already one of the hardest screens to defeat – additionally near impossible to anticipate.

Spacing – when Iguodala catches the ball in the clip above, notice how all four off-ball defenders are at the free throw line or above. This is accomplished by placing the center on the strong side elbow and by using the gravity of the back screener to keep potential help defenders occupied, even for just a moment – all that's necessary for a hoop. In the clip above, Brooklyn's Brook Lopez is staring down the action as it unfolds and recognizes the danger, but due to the initial spacing he is too late to stop the layup. Taking it a step further, even if Lopez was successful at stopping the pass to Green, he would have been out of position to help on the second option down screen – putting the defender in Lopez' position in quite the conundrum.

Scarcity – after going through the NBA.com video game logs for every game the Warriors played this season including the playoffs, I found that they only ran this play 25 times, always after a timeout or a free throw. It is true that a hallmark of this play is the ability to defeat opponents who anticipate it, the set is most effective when it comes as a surprise. In order to maximize its effectiveness, it can only be used sparingly as to not allow teams to prepare for it. The great irony of this play is that the best defense against it may be the Warriors coaching staff.

NBA Finals

As we are in the midst of a suddenly compelling Finals, we should delve into the two instances the Warriors have attempted this play against the Cavs through six games. Together they serve as a microcosm for the evolution of the series. Starting in game three:

The Cavaliers switched the back screen, the most effective strategy to shut down the first option. However, cracks already begin to show in Cleveland's defense as a close viewing suggests JR Smith is unsure whether he is supposed to switch onto Green. Golden State flows seamlessly into the second option, which Cleveland does not switch, but rather employs an inappropriately common strategy from early in the series, shooting the gap on the screen – a tactic responsible for many open Klay three pointers. One of the biggest issues for the Cavs defensively early in the series was inconsistency of coverage of screens, opening up opportunities the Warriors exploited to gain a 2-0 series lead. When Klay and Barnes run an impromptu pick and roll up high, the Cavaliers switch, highlighting their coverage inconsistency – LeBron's three screen coverages were switch, shoot gap, switch. Perhaps most disconcerting, the lack of communication by Cleveland exacerbates what seems to be general defensive confusion that the Warriors capitalize upon thanks to the design of the play, which can put their most dynamic scorers in the middle of the floor with the ball. As Klay drives right by Tristan Thompson, the Cavaliers roll out the red carpet to the basket as was the policy in games one and two versus Warriors drivers.

With LeBron and Kyrie grabbing all the headlines, the Cavaliers defensive improvements flew under the radar heading into game six, but they are apparent when the Warriors attempt to run the play again:

The most noticeable and immediate difference from Cleveland is the physicality. As I mentioned earlier, one of the keys to the success of this play is timing, which, if disrupted, gravely impacts the play's effectiveness. Steph is fighting off grabs and holds on his entire cut, forcing him to catch the initial pass too high on the court, which also forces Klay to wait to set his back screen to maintain the timing. This slight delay subverts the surprise of the back screen and allows Cleveland to communicate – a new revelation from the clip above and the beginning of the series as a whole – and defeat the back screen. No wonder Steve Kerr not-so-subtly called for Arrested Development “no touching” officiating in his game six post-game press conference. While there is still inconsistency in the Cavaliers defensive coverage, at least there is noticeable communication mitigating potential advantages for the Warriors. Finally, when Klay once again roasts Tristan, the red carpet has been replaced by a contest at the rim, forcing a miss – another marked change from earlier in the series for the Cavaliers defense.

Notice that despite all these improvements by Cleveland, the Warriors get to the same spot and basically the same look at the rim. The only difference is Klay failed to finish in game six, which speaks to the difference for the Warriors offense from earlier in the series – they are not capitalizing on their open opportunities. Just as the play was still effective against improved Cavs defense, the Warriors offense has continued to be effective throughout the Finals. Golden State simply needs to finish, which they will have the opportunity to do on Sunday in Oakland and cap off a historic season, perhaps with the aid of their secret weapon.