OAKLAND — You would think that having Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson guarding Stephen Curry after a pick-and-roll switch would be a distinct advantage for the Golden State Warriors.
But through the first three games of The Finals, that wasn’t really the case. Curry had taken more shots against the Cleveland Cavaliers’ bigs than he did against their guards and wings, but he had shot almost twice as effectively against the smaller guys.
Getting bigs switched onto Curry hadn’t allowed Curry to get going offensively. Thompson and LeBron James had proved adept at containing the MVP (and even forcing some turnovers) after a switch. Curry hadn’t shot poorly through the first three games, but he had yet to bust out and score in bunches.
In the regular season, the Warriors set 19.5 ball screens per game for Curry, according to SportVU. And through the first three rounds of the playoffs, they set 20.4 ball screens per game for him.
But through the first three games of The Finals, that number was just 15.7 per game. And the Warriors had scored a paltry 0.67 points per possession when running Curry off a ball screen.
In Game 4 on Friday, things changed. The Warriors set 32 ball screens for Curry, they scored 1.39 points per possession when they did, and he scored 38 points, the most he’s had in regulation in this year’s playoffs (or in the 10 Finals games he’s played).
It wasn’t just the number of screens for Curry that changed. It was also the size of the teammates who were setting them. Through the first three games, 38 of the 47 ball screens for Curry were set by the Warriors’ bigs (Draymond Green or their centers). But in Game 4, 19 of the 32 were set by guards and wings (including combo forward Harrison Barnes).
Curry got off to a slow start scoring-wise on Friday. Through the first eight minutes, he had three assists, but was 0-for-2 from the field.
Then, with just under four minutes to go in the first quarter, Curry got a screen from Shaun Livingston on the right side of the floor. It wasn’t a called play, but rather a random action in transition. The result was an isolation on Richard Jefferson, who switched onto Curry.
Curry stepped back and launched a shot over Jefferson, his first made three of the night.
- NBA.com/stats video: Curry drains a three over Jefferson
Livingston set another screen for Curry on the very next possession. And more screens from other guards and wings would follow. Curry’s second three was on a play where he rejected a screen from James Michael McAdoo and chose to go one-on-one with Iman Shumpert rather than attack Love.
- NBA.com/stats video: Curry hits a step-back three over Shumpert
Curry actually shot better against Cleveland’s bigs (6-for-11, 5-for-7 from 3-point range) than he did against the Cavs’ guards and wings (5-for-14, 2-for-6) on Friday. But the Warriors were clearly taking a different tack in Game 4 in an effort to get the MVP going. Maybe those early looks against smaller defenders did just that.
And when the Warriors ran a couple of pick-and-rolls with Curry and Klay Thompson, the Cavs really struggled to defend them.
Midway through the third quarter, when Thompson set a screen for Curry…
J.R. Smith switched, Kyrie Irving didn’t, and Jefferson was slow to recognize the need for help from the weak side, leaving Thompson all alone for a catch-and-shoot three…
- NBA.com/stats video: Thompson hits a wide-open, pick-and-pop three
That was clearly a called play, as it was the Warriors’ first offensive possession after a timeout (before which Thompson had hit another three). On the next possession, they ran a similar play, with Draymond Green setting an initial screen for Thompson…
That detached Smith from Thompson and had him trailing the play. So even though Thompson didn’t set a real screen on Irving…
And because Smith couldn’t hit the breaks fast enough, Curry had a wide-open pull-up three.
He missed, but it was one of the best looks he’s had all series.
- NBA.com/stats video: Curry misses a wide-open three after another botched switch
The Green screen was little wrinkle that threw off the Cavs. When you have the skill and versatility that the Warriors have up and down their roster, you can do a lot of different things within the course of a game or series.
Attacking the Cleveland bigs on pick-and-rolls seemed like the best path to success for Golden State. But when that didn’t work, they had another way to help Curry break out and get within one game of their second straight championship.