The tactical battle between Steve Kerr and Tyronn Lue has been fascinating through the first two games of the 2018 NBA Finals. After Game 1, I wrote about how the Cleveland Cavaliers were able to hurt the Golden State Warriors in two specific ways: using their corner screening set and attacking Stephen Curry in pick-and-roll. Game 2 brought with it more interesting tactics and strategies from both coaches, building on what we saw in Game 1.
The 2018 playoffs have been constantly defined by matchups – teams hunt their opponent’s worst defensive player and force him to switch onto their offensive star. The Cavaliers did it with Terry Rozier in the Eastern Conference Finals, are doing it with Curry, and the Warriors are doing it with Kevin Love. There are tactics defenses can use to get out of having to switch into bad matchups, but most of them involve the ball handler’s man getting back into the play as quickly as possible while briefly leaving the roll man open. But what happens when the ball handler’s defender is also a big man and doesn’t have the speed nor agility to get through the screen and get back in front of his guy?
The Warriors broke out a “rescreening” set in Game 2 that was devastatingly effective at getting Love switched onto Curry, even if Golden State’s actual efficiency wasn’t as strong as one would expect in that matchup. First, another player would set a ball screen for Curry to get a bigger player switched, like James, Jeff Green, or Tristan Thompson, then Love’s man would come up to the top and set a second ball screen, forcing the switch. The Cavaliers were happy to switch the first screen because it wasn’t as much of a mismatch, but once the second screen arrived, that bigger guy was unable to get back to Curry, leaving Love on an island:
The Warriors also ran this same idea with Kevin Durant as the ball handler, though he wasn’t particularly successful either:
Overall, Love had a decent game defensively, especially in isolation situations, but the Warriors will continue to go after him as the series continues and it’s hard to not assume they’ll be able to be more successful in doing so than they were in Game 2 with this particular set.
Tristan Thompson on the short roll
At halftime, the Warriors switched up their defensive strategy against James-Thompson pick-and-rolls. Thompson isn’t known for his ball handling, passing, and decision making, so the Warriors tried to force him to do all three by trapping James on the ball screen to make him give up the ball to the open Thompson on the short roll. Golden State is very, very familiar with this from the other side; teams do this all the time to Curry and part of what makes Draymond Green such an invaluable piece of their offense is his ability to make the right decisions on those plays to finish the four-on-three advantage. Thompson is no Green on the short roll, but both times he was put in that situation, he was able to find the right pass.
To open the third quarter, Durant and JaVale McGee trapped hard on James near halfcourt and Thompson was able to find the open J.R. Smith on the right wing, as Green helped down into the paint to stop Thompson from rolling in for a dunk. Smith caught the ball and immediately swung it to the corner, where Love was wide open for three, as Klay Thompson had rotated up from Love to Smith. Surrounding Thompson with three shooters in Love, Smith, and George Hill makes the decision as easy as possible on him: none of his targets are moving, the defense is mostly at a standstill once Green rotates into the lane to take away the dunk, and any of the three players around him can shoot or make the right decision once the ball gets to them.
Later in the third quarter, the Warriors went after James again, but Thompson had a slightly more difficult task:
This time, James was trapped by Durant and David West and gave the ball up to the rolling Thompson, but because of the hard ball pressure on James, West was able to get back into the play and stay with Thompson from behind as Green rotated over. To make matters worse, there was no Hill in one corner; it was Jeff Green standing in the right corner, so Klay Thompson didn’t have to rotate down to take that pass away, instead sticking to Love on the right wing. Green made a smart backdoor cut and Thompson found him between two guys for a layup, which he promptly missed. Still, with the focus on Thompson’s perceived inability to make plays for his teammates on the move, he passed the Warriors’ test with flying colors both times he was called on to do so.
On their first possession of the third quarter, the Warriors went back to an old favorite: a fake dribble handoff (DHO) hammer set to get Thompson a wide open three-pointer.
Durant brought the ball up the right side of the floor before pitching to Green at the top of the key. Durant curled around Green to distract the Cavaliers with one fake DHO before sprinting toward Curry in the corner, who simultaneously started his movement up the floor toward Green. Instead of handing it to him, however, Green cut off his movement early and started toward the basket. Meanwhile, McGee set the hammer screen for Thompson the back side, leading to the first of many Warriors’ three-pointers in the second half.
On the initial fake DHO to Durant, James switched with Tristan Thompson to take Green, but read the play perfectly and never flinched in pursuit of a possible DHO to Curry. Still, Love was so focused on the strong side action that he never saw McGee step up into the hammer screen for Thompson and wasn’t there to switch. It’s not necessarily terrible defense from Love; if Green does hand the ball to Curry and rolls to the rim, it’s Love’s responsibility to rotate over and take away that roll. Golden State knew Love was the help guy and used it to their advantage to create the open shot for Thompson.
Oklahoma City’s Hawk set tore through the NBA like wildfire this season, with every team putting their own twist on the action. The standard Hawk set requires James to set a ball screen for Hill on the left side while Smith curls around two down screens on the right side, but instead Hill hits James at the top and lets him make the best decision from there, much like they do in their Corner action.
Once James catches the ball at the top of the key, there are lots of possibilities: James can take his man one-on-one while the defense is distracted with the screening action, Smith can come off the screens for a three, Thompson can step into a quick pick-and-roll with James, or Love can slip the first screen for a layup, which is what happened in this instance. Green, Love’s defender, stayed on the top side to contain Smith’s run around the screens, which Love and James recognized simultaneously to draw a foul as Green hit Love on the recovery.
Whether there are two or five more games in this series, Kerr and Lue will be duking it out in the film room and on the court until the final whistle, constantly adjusting to their opposite’s tactics to put their teams in the best position to take home the title.