Modern NBA offenses tend to follow a fairly similar blueprint. It all starts from outside in, with an action that generally leads to the play that’s come to dominate the NBA: The high pick-and-roll.
The team’s best player, surrounded by at least three shooters, gets his screen from either a fearsome rim-runner or someone capable of stepping back behind the line and draining a three. The play generally ends with the star taking a pull up shot, getting to the basket for a layup or a foul, or kicking the ball to an ever-present shooter if the defense collapses onto him. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but that’s generally about how it goes. There’s nothing wrong with it. LeBron James, whom the Warriors beat in their first game of the season, has enjoyed plenty of success throughout his career through some variation or another of the high pick-and-roll.
This is not how the Warriors play offense. Their offense is based on timing, cuts, curls, constant motion and consistently and aggressively making the extra pass — it often seems like the Warriors care just as much about keeping the ball from touching the ground as they do about putting it through the basket.
Before Thursday’s home opener against the Clippers, their coach Ty Lue, who has plenty of experience coaching against the Warriors, described the challenge of playing defense against them: “I think the main thing and the main focus is just offensively taking care of the basketball. You can’t turn the ball over and let them get out in transition because they thrive on that, especially at home. Understanding you can’t relax. Steph is going to move constantly, their team constantly moves. You got to be aware of their cuts and their splits, the weakside movements. … They run great offense, they share the basketball, if you make you pay because they have a lot of great passing.”
The first key to the Warriors’ unique style of offense is Draymond Green. When Green is on the floor in the half-court, nearly every Warriors’ offensive set begins with Green surveying the defense from the middle of the floor just above the three-point line, waiting for a player to get open as the Warriors run their series of off-ball cuts and screens. When a teammate finds an opening, he instantly hits them with a pass that either leads to an open shot or puts the defense in a position to allow for the next pass, which the Warriors nearly always make. When the ball is in Green’s hands, he doesn’t look like the typical point guard; he looks like a quarterback running the West Coast offense sitting comfortably in the pocket and waiting for one of his receivers to spring open.
At the beginning of the Warriors’ Thursday night game, Green’s offensive talents were on full display. On the first play of the game, Green sat in his preferred spot atop the three-point line and threw a pass to Steph Curry, who came off a screen and drained a three from the right wing. On the Warriors’ next trip down, Green whipped a pass to his left and hit Andrew Wiggins for a three. Then he got the ball in transition, drew the defense to him, and found Wiggins in the corner for another deep ball. A few possessions later, Draymond got the ball in the post and instantly found Curry on a backdoor cut for a layup, and later set him up with another three-ball. In the first six minutes of the game, Green’s passing had accounted for 14 Warrior points, and he had yet to take a dribble in the half-court. Green didn’t so much as try to drive to the basket until there were just over five minutes to go in the second quarter, but he was still able be one the key factors in the Warriors’ offensive success.
Then, of course, there’s Curry. He and Green are, in many ways, basketball’s odd couple. As the hub of the Warrior offense, Green rarely moves in the half-court; no player in basketball moves without the ball in his hands as much as Curry, constantly sprinting around screens in the hopes of finding a sliver of space that would allow him to get his shot off. Green is a reluctant and often wayward shooter; Curry has a lightning trigger and happens to be the best shooter of all time. Steph’s slender frame allows larger players to bully him; nobody bullies Draymond.
There is no “right” way to guard Curry. In Los Angeles on Tuesday, the Lakers went into a full panic drill, throwing multiple bodies at Curry anytime he could have conceivably gotten a clean look at a jumper. Curry consequently struggled with his shot, but was able to pick apart the Lakers’ overaggressive defense by consistently finding the open man, and finished with 10 assists and a triple-double for good measure.
The final key component of the Warriors’ offense is that sometimes Steph can just flat-out cook. That happened to the Clippers after Green left the game in the first quarter; with their quarterback off the floor, the Warriors went to a stock-standard pick-and-roll with Curry as the ballhandler, and the Clippers had no issue getting around the screens and contesting his shots. The only issue for them was that it didn’t matter. Steph hit a contested three-pointer off a busted pick-and-roll, and from that point he went on the kind of run that only Steph can go on. At the end of the first quarter, he had 25 points on 9-9 shooting from the field and 5-5 shooting from beyond the arc. He finished the night with 45.
The Clippers were able to fight their way back in the game, but the Warriors’ two most important players were able to finish things off, with Curry nailing two incredible three-pointers in the last two minutes and Draymond hitting a layup to seal the game with 11 seconds left. They’re not your conventional pair of superstars, but especially until Klay Thompson comes back, the fate of the Warriors will rest in no small part on the shoulders of their superstar odd couple.
John Krolik is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.