NBA Finals: Warriors run away with Game 2 vs. Celtics by embracing the most conventional kind of offense

When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant in 2016, they did so ostensibly to cover up their lone remaining weakness: one-on-one scoring. As brilliant as their motion offense looks 99 percent of the time, it came up short for them in the last stages of the postseason. An offense that scored nearly 114 points per 100 possessions in the regular season dropped to nearly 101 in the seven fourth quarters it played against Cleveland in the 2016 Finals. Durant is one of history’s greatest shotmakers. With him mixed in a year later? That figure jumped back over 120.

When Durant signed with Brooklyn in 2019, he had some choice words for the scheme he left behind. “The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,” Durant said to the Wall Street Journal’s JR Moehringer at the time. “We can totally rely on our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play. We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of playoffs.”

The pre-Durant Warriors struggled with that individual creation, though not for lack of talent. Egalitarianism was simply so ingrained into Golden State’s DNA that deviating into a more traditional offense became a struggle. The 2016 Warriors devoted the fewest possessions in the NBA to pick-and-roll ball-handlers (10.5 percent), the third-fewest to roll men (5.1 percent) and the eighth fewest to isolations (6.3 percent). How did they make up for that? By leading the NBA in practically every passing statistic: assists (28.9), secondary assists (4.1), potential assists (54.2) and points created by assists (72.9). The Warriors got so good at creating shots for each other that they never bothered to learn to create them for themselves.

Well, just as the 2016 Cavaliers figured out how to stifle Steve Kerr’s beautiful game, the 2022 Boston Celtics are uniquely qualified to bottle up Golden State’s motion. Their seven core defenders can all switch across at least three positions on or off of the ball, and after their schematic struggles in the first quarter of Game 1, they managed to hold the Warriors to a fairly modest 25.6 points per quarter through the first half of Game 2. Golden State’s impressive defense allowed the Warriors to generate enough turnovers to take a two-point lead into halftime, but the Celtics can’t be beaten on one side of the floor. The Warriors were going to need to score points in a half-court setting if they planned to even the series in Game 2.

They did it in a way that the pre-Durant Warriors never would have dreamed of: by playing like everybody else. With 4:28 remaining in the third quarter, the Warriors held a six-point lead. When the quarter ended eight possessions later, they led by 23 points. Seven of those possessions produced points. Six of those possessions were, schematically speaking, as vanilla as NBA offense gets.

Play No. 1 was a generic high pick-and-roll, albeit with the twist of a guard (Gary Payton II) setting the screen. The idea was to either get Marcus Smart off of Stephen Curry so he could cook or to draw a double that would create an open 3. The Warriors got the latter when Grant Williams jumped off of Andrew Wiggins to help on Curry, and Jayson Tatum rotated over to Wiggins and left Otto Porter Jr. in the process. Swish.

Play No. 2 was a double pick-and-roll. Draymond Green’s illegal moving screens keep Derrick White and Al Horford out of the play, and Payton buys Curry just enough time away from Grant Williams to walk into a 3.

Wiggins screens Williams out of the next attempt, and Porter Jr. takes out White. The real offender, though, is Daniel Theis, who commits the cardinal sin of attempting drop coverage against Curry. I bet you can guess what happens next.

It’s one thing when Curry decides to torture you like this. It’s another when Jordan Poole takes the kidneys. The next three possessions, arguably the ones that clinched the game, belonged to him. Play No. 4 was a simple pick-and-roll in which Kevon Looney bought Jordan Poole a matchup with White. He ran with it, attacking the switch before White could get settled and slicing to the basket dangerously enough to draw in Theis, who abandoned Looney in the process. A quick pass leads to two more Golden State points.

By now you’re likely sensing how excited the Warriors were to see Theis on the floor rather than Horford or Robert Williams III. There’s hardly even a play called on possession No. 5. Porter just sets a screen because he knows it will put Theis on an island with Poole. Poole sinks the easy 3 against the overmatched big man.

Poole saved his best for last. This time, there’s not even a screen to spring him. He’s so hot that he just crosses half-court, sees four nearby Celtics, shrugs, and launches a prayer.

Did it have anything to do with Golden State’s newfound offensive simplicity? Probably not. Did empowering him over the two previous possessions give him a bit of confidence that carried over into this heave? We can’t say, but it’s certainly possible. The outcome is the same. Three more Warriors points. A 23-point lead.

These are tactics ripped straight out of the playbooks of their former conquests. Switch hunting? That’s James Harden 101. Bulldozer screens against multiple defenders? A favorite Tristan Thompson. The Warriors generally play as though they’re above such pursuits. Boston forced their hand. The Celtics may not have many matchups to hunt, but they’re so good at defending five-man offense that Golden State’s easiest path to points was finding their weakest links one-on-one. It’s not as though the Warriors have eschewed these tactics entirely under Kerr. It’s just exceedingly rare to see them play this way for an extended stretch with such apparent intentionality.

There’s some irony in suggesting that, for one brief stretch, the Warriors played like everybody else when within that stretch, they hit shots that practically no other team would even dare to take, but in a purely schematic sense, it’s true. For a few minutes, the Warriors showed us that when they want to play like a normal team, they’re capable of doing it as well as almost anybody else.

In truth, Kerr has been making slight concessions in this direction ever since Durant left. Golden State’s offense had to become a bit heavier on pick-and-rolls and isolations in 2021 in particular, when Klay Thompson wasn’t around to buoy their motion. They devoted 14.8 percent of their possessions to pick-and-roll ball-handlers last season, and while this season’s numbers dipped, they haven’t approached pre-Durant levels. Poole’s growth as a secondary attacker makes traditional basketball far more plausible. He can do things as a backup point guard that Shaun Livingston simply couldn’t. Together, he and Curry have armed the Warriors with a weapon they just weren’t all that interested in wielding before the Durant era even if deep down, Kerr knew they probably should have.

“I wasn’t at all offended by what Kevin said because it’s basically the truth,” Kerr said in 2019. “You look at any system, I mean, I played the triangle with Michael Jordan. The offense ran a lot smoother all regular season and the first couple rounds of the playoffs than it did in the conference finals and Finals. It just did.”

Golden State won’t be abandoning its system any time soon. It’s what got the Warriors here after all. But after watching Boston solve it over the course of Game 1, the Warriors proved in Game 2 that they have counters waiting in their back pocket… even if those counters are far more traditional than they’d typically prefer.

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