While it's understood that the Golden State Warriors are a fantastic, historically good team, those outside the die-hard NBA community may not fully grasp what makes them so good. Sure, having arguably the greatest shooter of all time in Stephen Curry doesn't hurt. Nor does it hinder their chances having the top flight, prototype, playmaking forward in Draymond Green.
Clearly a team consisting of good but not great players wouldn't be as successful as this team has been this year, but there's more to it than just talent and execution. It's the constant give and take between teammates.
The trust and unspoken understanding that when one play is made, the next read is already in place. This comes from a bond built over years of playing and practicing together. You often hear of the family like atmosphere among championship teams. It's this basic understanding that translates onto the floor for the Warriors that make their overwhelming talent become truly dominant.
No place is this more evident than in both their pick-and-roll scheme (which leads into spot-up and off screen opportunities) as well as their motion, or cut offense.
To truly appreciate how much the Warriors factor screens into their offensive game plan consider this: per SynergySportsTech data the Trail Blazers were No. 10 in the league in terms of offensive possessions that were deemed "off screen" at 538 possessions. However, they finished the season ranked No. 18 in Points Per Possession at 0.908.
The Warriors? They had 1073 possessions off screens (11.8 percent of their total possessions), the most in the league by a ridiculous margin (the Indiana Pacers were No. 2 at 744) and they finished with the second highest PPP at 1.062, trailing only the New Orleans Pelicans' 1.07, who had a paltry 440 possessions.
So basically they do it a lot and they're REALLY good at it.
Take this out of bounds play here from the last game of the regular season against the Memphis Grizzlies. There's a back pick for Shaun Livingston by Andre Igoudala that appears to be a decoy action, then Steph Curry inbounds to Festus Ezeli. Igoudala continues up above the break after setting the screen for Livingston, and this time he's the benefactor of the screen from Draymond Green.
This frees him up to receive the ball from Ezeli who moves now to pin Curry's man (ever heard the idea that the inbounder is often the most dangerous man?), the defender gets caught as Ezeli slides in front of him and half rolls back up top. With that much air space and time, it's a foregone conclusion as Curry buries the uncontested 3-pointer.
For those keeping track, that's six seconds of clock run off, three screens, three passes, and three points for the reigning MVP. Now, there has been doubt about Curry's status heading into this series, but the same basic concepts maintain true whether it's Curry, Klay Thompson, Igoudala, Leandro Barbosa, or Green. Pass, move, screen, pass, move, screen, shoot. The Warriors have seemingly perfected passing up a good shot for a great shot.
It's not exactly surprising to see that the Warriors rate at or near the top in nearly every category (PPP) where screens are involved; the pick-and-roll (No. 1), off screen (No. 2), spot up (No. 1) and hand off (No. 1). Their offense, when it's humming is truly a sight to behold. Whether you're a die hard Warriors fan or just a basketball fan in general it's easy on the eyes and an exciting brand of basketball.
What's truly impressive is that if you try to key in on that type of action they'll destroy you with the cut. Generating 1.249 PPP on the cut, they rank No. 8 in the league, meaning that if you try to over play that screen, they'll feint and cut back door for the easy two.
All of these numbers came during the regular season, when Steph Curry was a major factor in juicing them way up. During the playoffs, the Warriors have appeared mortal on some fronts. When you look at their stats against the Houston Rockets in the first round - Spot Up (No. 8), off screen (No. 8), pick-and-roll (No. 4), hand off (No. 1), and cut (No. 5) - a few dings appear in their armor.
The obvious question concerning Portland fans here: How do the Trail Blazers stack up against an attack such as this? During the regular season the Blazers, particularly their guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, both struggled at times defending the pick-and-roll (something that has been documented and talked about ad nauseum, and while I'm not going to dive into that it's worth highlighting). However, with the Warriors the pick-and-roll is only the sixth-most used possession type in the playoffs.
Whereas the Los Angeles Clippers are/were predicated on the pick-and-roll with Chris Paul and either Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan, the Warriors are more diverse in their attack. This more than likely aids Portland (Lillard and McCollum particularly) as they aren't going to run into the same screens 60+ times a night. Instead it becomes a team-wide concept where all five players on the court have to communicate and move on a string.
During the regular season the Blazers rated from Top 10, to middle of the pack or worse when defending the areas we've covered: spot up (No. 23), cut (No. 10), off screen (No. 16), hand off (No. 30), and pick-and-roll (No. 29). The Blazers' strength here shows on cut defense.
They're not prone to overplay opponents, instead preferring a more compact scheme which eliminates some of the backdoor cuts that would normally open up against a high pressure defense. On the flip side, they tend to get burned on the hand off because they play underneath, attempting to close out and chase after it's too late.
This narrative has changed somewhat in the playoffs for Portland. So far they've performed significantly better in the hand off, albeit in a small sample size.
Credit here is due to McCollum in particular, who at times pressured both JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford better than he did in the regular season. While the Blazers struggled mightily in the series to create consistent offense, for the most part the Blazers acquitted themselves well defensively.
Here, Redick knocks down the shot under duress and pressure from McCollum. That doesn't change the fact that McCollum still recovers from a bad angle to contest Redick and force him into an incredibly difficult shot.
Dave Deckard highlighted the many threats the Warriors have up and down their roster and their successes and failures against the Trail Blazers head-to-head this season. On the offensive end, screens play a massive part in the Warriors' offensive attack. With that in mind, let's address the elephant in the room: The Warriors and moving screens.
Like Chris Paul and "physical defense," if you do something well and do it for long enough you're probably going to get the benefit of the doubt. With the Warriors, setting a screen is a lot like the Pirate's Code; the rules for screens aren't really rules... they're more guidelines than anything. The Warriors do push the boundary of the rules, and because they're at the top they receive the brunt of the criticism, but it may not be totally due.
Coach Nick of BBallBreakdown sat down with 19-year veteran NBA referee Ronnie Nunn to discuss how the Warriors screens were no different than the rest of the NBA (well worth the watch!). One exerpt of note courtesy of FTW.USAToday.com:
The officials love to see it cut-and dry ... but they're not. There are situations in this type of screening going on that puts a little doubt in where they can make this confirmation. When you start doubting and try to confirm at the same time, guess what happens? The play is gone."
Basically, the Blazers better figure out how to deal with this type of screening, because A) the Warriors do it a ton, and B) they've been pushing the boundary all season so they shouldn't expect officials to call it any differently than they have been.
Against the Clippers, the Blazers stepped up their game defensively, limiting transition opportunities and pressuring out at the 3-point line better than they did during the regular season. However, they let up on cut plays and continued to struggle against spot-up opportunities.
Without Steph Curry out there to constantly put pressure on the defense the Warriors have one less (incredibly lethal) round in the chamber, so to speak. It allows the Blazers' defense to be more aggressive at times, but also sag off of less dangerous threats and apply more pressure and attention to the likes of Thompson and Green.
If Portland is going to have success against the Warriors, not only will the team have to continue to limit transition chances - something Golden State is also elite at - but they'll have to shore up their defense to handle the overwhelming amount of screens and off-ball movement the Warriors will throw at them.