- The Golden State Warriors were forced to play Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell bigger minutes in the Western Conference Finals after Andre Iguodala got injured.
- The Rockets used that to their advantage by ignoring the two non-shooters and sending extra help to the Warriors’ more significant threats.
- The Warriors countered that defense with a brilliant adjustment, involving Looney and Bell in the action, then using them to get their star players open.
The Golden State Warriors were able to stave off elimination and beat the Houston Rockets in seven games to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
The Warriors had to do so without Andre Iguodala, their versatile, do-it-all wing who, despite not being one of their four All-Stars, is just as critical to making the Warriors the Warriors. Iguodala suffered a knee injury in Game 3 and missed the rest of the series.
Without Iguodala, the Warriors had a void in their rotation. Shaun Livingston had an ill-timed slump and can’t space the floor; Nick Young wasn’t trustworthy; Quin Cook is inexperienced; their other big men were too slow and hulking to keep up with the Rockets.
The injury to Iguodala forced head coach Steve Kerr to play Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell extra minutes. Though neither was a perfect fit for the series, they were the only big men outside of Draymond Green who were quick enough to stay on the floor with the Rockets.
Still, playing those two presented a problem for the Warriors. When either was on the court, the Rockets paid them no mind. The Rockets’ goal was to switch everything on defense to prevent the Warriors from getting even a sliver of daylight from three-point range. And if the Warriors were forced to drive the ball, the Rockets had an extra body in the paint by playing off Looney and Bell to make things difficult.
However, as The Athletic’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss noted, the Warriors came up with a brilliant counter to the Rockets’ defensive strategy. Instead of making Looney and Bell useless on the perimeter, they tossed them the ball. From there, the Warriors’ shooters, namely Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, in perpetual motion, ran back to the ball and used Looney and Bell as screeners to get open via dribble-hand-offs.
With the Rockets’ defenders paying no mind to Looney and Bell, when Curry or Thompson received a screen from one of them, there wasn’t a Rockets defender close enough to close out on Curry or Thompson.
Strauss pointed to this play as an example:
The Rockets-Warriors series featured a lot of confusing criss-crossing, but the play began with Rockets center Clint Capela on Stephen Curry (with the ball). P.J. Tucker was “defending” Looney but drifted into the lane, waiting for Curry in the paint. Trevor Ariza stuck with Kevin Durant, and as Draymond Green came into the play, Tucker switched onto him, leaving Harden on Looney.
As Curry threw the ball to Looney, Looney engaged in a dribble-hand-off, then turned to set the screen on Capela. Harden, because he was playing off Looney, was nowhere near to contest the shot.
It happened again in Game 7, this time with Curry and Jordan Bell.
Curry beat Capela and Harden off the dribble, and Eric Gordon was waiting in the paint, playing off Bell. When Curry dumped the ball to Bell, he could have tried to attack the basket. Instead, he did something likely counterintuitive for most big men – back-tracked to the corner and dumped a pretty through-the-legs pass to Curry for the open corner three, walling off Houston’s defenders.
And a fun anecdote about Bell’s pass – Warriors center Zaza Pachulia told him to give it a run (via Strauss).
“Zaza was letting me know, ‘That no-look pass is a good decision but understand that with shooters, if the ball is up here, they got to come back down with it. But if it’s a bounce pass, it’s more in rhythm,'” Bell said.
Curry appreciated it, saying the shot and pass got him into a rhythm. He scored 14 of his 27 points in the third quarter.
The Warriors have been masters at making adjustments in the postseason throughout their run. They played the Memphis Grizzlies’ best defender off the floor by ignoring him completely in 2015. They helped the “death lineup” blossom in the 2015 Finals to loosen up an otherwise rigid offense.
This year’s key adjustment – turn the players the Rockets were ignoring into weapons.
More NBA playoffs coverage:
- The Rockets lost to the Warriors when they repeatedly failed to hold off Golden State during a key stretch of the games
- Ted Cruz is sitting courtside for Game 7 between the Rockets and Warriors and everyone is making the same joke
- LeBron James takes immaculate care of his body, and the NBA world is in awe of it
- LeBron James just pulled off what his former GM called ‘unprecedented’ and perhaps the most impressive accomplishment of his career
- Kevin Durant and Draymond Green wanted nothing to do with a postgame question about the Warriors-Thunder series 2 years ago