The warriors have returned to their roots without Kevin Durant. Since squeezing his calf, they have played 4-0, closing down the Rockets in Game 6 of their second round and securing a 3-0 lead over the Blazers in the Western Conference final. It's not that they are better without Durant, except that the synergy between Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green is still enough to beat teams whose best players do not fit together so well. The original Big Three in Golden State are the perfect template to build a pick-and-roll guard like Curry. Neither Houston nor Portland have recreated it in the past four seasons. They will defeat Golden State only if they do.
The Warriors have returned to the curry-and-green pick-and-roll for the last four games to justify their offensive. It's the 21
Golden State wants to defend two defenders against Curry, as this creates a 4-on-3 chance for Green. He can bring the ball to the edge or find the open man if the defense collapses on him, whether it's a blow on the edge or a skip pass to the 3-point line. He is an elite passer-by who can make decisions in fractions of a second and attack the gaps in the defense before recovering. The warriors essentially move the ball from one point guard (curry) to another (green) without losing their sight or ability. The two are doing better than they could be alone. If he plays alongside a point like Green, Curry does not get stuck in pick-and-roll so often, while Green has more opportunities to play in space because he sets screens for an elite shooter like Curry.
Lillard has never had a pick-and-roll partner like Green. On his starting grid are a heavy-handed scorer (Enes Kanter) and two 3-D strikers (Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless) with shaky jumpers. Portland traded Kanter against Meyers Leonard in Game 3 to use a more dangerous shooter who could exploit the warriors' traps. He finished the game 16 points in 6-of-12 shooting and four assists, but it was not enough to change Golden State's defense strategy. Lillard still faced several defenders as he came off the screens. In such situations, his only option is to either leave the ball to a less talented passer-by or beat the doubles team themselves. He defeated Steven Adams, a less mobile big man, in the first round win over Oklahoma City, but that does not work against faster defenders like Green. Lillard did his job of forcing two defenders to protect him, even if it only takes a second. He just needs someone to cut the ball off.
Harden has the same problem in Houston. The only constant in all his postseason losses at Golden State is the absence of forward play next to him. It is more than just an answer to defense mechanisms that intercept pick-and-roll. The Rockets have no offensive play, as the frontcourt consists of players who finish the game better than they start. The Warriors cause Curry and Thompson to run off the ball through a maze of screens because Green has the opportunity to meet them for open fire. With defensive specialists like P. J. Tucker and Clint Capela that would not work.
The difference between Golden State and the two teams they defeated last week is that Curry plays with stars who complement it. Harden (Chris Paul) and Lillard (C.J. McCollum) have co-stars who replicate them. Instead of sharing a back space with a longer and more athletic shooter like Thompson, they play alongside a smaller version of themselves. The biggest advantage of playing with another elite pick-and-roll guard is that their teams can commit the same offense when out of the game. But that still means Harden and Paul and Lillard and McCollum have to attack each other. Curry and Thompson are not. They can be the best possible versions of themselves at the same time.
The Splash Brothers fit together perfectly. At 6ft-7 and 215lbs, Thompson is a great shooter of all time, scoring points without having to hold the ball, and at the same time having the size, speed and tenacity to track enemy point guards in defense. His defensive versatility allows Curry to hide from weaker offensive players. Thompson prevailed on Paul in the second round and led him to 8-of-19 shooting in 165 possessions when he was the main defender, and he did the same to Lillard in the conference finals, leading him to a 7-of-21 win Shooting in 113 possessions.
The partnership works both ways. Curry benefits from Thompson switching with him in defense, while Thompson benefits from Curry switching on offense with him. Most defenders try to give Curry a longer and more athletic wing, leaving the opposing point guards to Thompson. McCollum, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound combo guard, was Klay's main defender in the conference final. Thompson can take smaller defenders in the posts and shoot over them as if they were not even there, or run them off screens and use their size to create a breakup. The NBA is an inch game, and the four inches between Thompson and McCollum make the difference in the world.
Curry, Thompson and Green are better than the sum of their parts. Most big-threes have at least one star sitting in the backseat, be it Kevin Love with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland or Chris Bosh with LeBron and Dwyane Wade in Miami. That's not the case in Golden State. Neither Thompson nor Green would be so effective if they were the main option on an offensive, rather than playing a superstar point guard like Curry. This dynamic is also the other way round. Curry needs you as much as you need him.
It would be much harder for him to switch places with Harden or Lillard. In both scenarios, Curry would play on a tiny forecourt that would struggle to defend larger guards, and he would not have a big man to leave him alone. Who would he protect if Lillard or Harden carried out the Golden State Offensive and chased him to the defense? Curry was able to protect himself against Harden with impunity, since none of the strikers of Houston could play in 4-on-3 situations. He would not be able to do that if he played against the warriors instead of them.
This hypothesis should guide both Portland and Houston in the future. Golden State goes nowhere, even if Durant goes. A pick-and-roll guard who does not have the same kind of support as Curry is hopelessly superior to him in a playoff series. Of course, finding players like Thompson and Green is not easy. Hard decisions have to be made. I think the Blazers should trade McCollum for a player like Aaron Gordon, a young striker with playful skills who could make a big jump if paired with an All-Star Point Guard. And as good as Paul and Capela are against the rest of the league, the missiles probably need to make at least one move to find players who are more suited to the warriors.
These playoff matches should be a lesson for teams around the NBA. The next generation of great players will have more elite pick-and-roll point guards like Curry, Harden and Lillard. The question is not whether one will be as good as Curry, but whether he is in such a good situation as he is. Curry could have the best combination of pass, shooting and ball handling abilities of any player in NBA history, and he would still be a great outsider if he led Portland or Houston in a series against a team as good as Golden State is built. The key to success in the playoffs with a player like him is to pair him with a point forward and a long and athletic shooting guard. There is an upper limit for a team that does not have these types of players and instead tries to form two pick-and-roll point guards.
It's probably no coincidence that the one team that copied the key parts of the Warriors model is headed by one of its former executives. Atlanta Hawks GM Travis Schlenk designed Trae Young as his version of Curry, looking for players who could be his versions of Thompson and Green. It could be Kevin Huerter and John Collins, or the players he picks with the number. 8 and no. 10 tips for this year's design. The Hawks build their team on the synergies that exist between players with certain abilities. This might be the best way to work through the design, as the NBA has flattened the lottery probabilities to complicate the accumulation of superstars. The Warriors did not have to make top 5 picks to build their first championship team. The league can still learn a lot from them. Maybe they are really light years ahead.