The Golden State Warriors beat the Miami Heat on the strength of a beautifully designed set play that was notable for multiple reasons. First, as Couper Moorhead of HEAT.com pointed out on Twitter, was that the Warriors actually ran the same exact set earlier in the game.
The play the Warriors used to beat the Heat in the last minute? They ran the same set in the first minute of the game.
— Couper Moorhead (@CoupNBA) December 13, 2012
The difference between the two plays, of course, is that the Heat snuffed out the Warriors pretty easily on that first attempt, while the Warriors used what they saw from how Heat defended this play against them later in the game.
As you can see, the set involves Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson curling around screens on opposite sides of the court. The hope here is that one of them will come free for an open mid-range jumper or can curl all the way around the screen, get into the lane, draw multiple defenders and find someone else for an easy look.
What Golden State undoubtedly sees here is that the Heat send the screener’s man to jump out on that curl play, planning to take away the easy mid-range jumper for a knockdown shooter and hoping their defense can rotate quickly enough behind the play to cut off any opportunities at the rim.
That’s exactly what happens here, but possibly only because the Warriors go to the guarded side of the court. Lee’s man (Udonis Haslem) jumps out on Thompson, while Festus Ezeli’s man (Chris Bosh) slides across the lane to cover Lee. Ezeli flashes open for about 2.5 seconds, but Thompson delivers the ball just a little too late, leading to a turnover. Had Harrison Barnes held onto the ball – or faked the pass to Thompson – and looked the other way, it might have been an easy basket.
The second notable thing about the play, which doubles as the thing I enjoyed the most, is the symmetry of it.
After Curry inbounds the ball to Jack and sets up in the right corner, the Warriors are in their horns set. Curry and Thompson are in opposite corners, with Lee and Green stationed at the extended elbows on either side. Both Curry and Thompson come off pin-down screens. Curry comes up high, while Thompson curls all the way around Lee’s screen and heads toward the rim.
Again Curry and Thompson each curl around screens, and this is where the Warriors catch the Heat cheating. They know from earlier in the game that the Heat will jump out on Thompson to deny him the catch as he curls around that second screen. Thompson is a dangerous jump shooter, especially off screens, where he ranks 21st in the league in points per play (PPP) according to mySynergySports. He was 11-for-21 in the game, had already made five 3-pointers, and is shooting 48.0% this season from the area of the court where he was curling to as the play developed. He was in the very definition of a dangerous place to score, so it made sense that the Heat would pay him extra attention, which they did.
Shane Battier, guarding Green, abandons him in favor of cutting off the passing lane to Thompson. He just jumps out a little too far, allowing Green to slip his screen (David Lee apparently gave an interview with the Heat broadcast after the game in which he indicated that Jackson told the bigs to slip their screens if the Heat overplayed Thompson and/or Curry on the curl, but I have been unable to find video of said interview. Update: Said interview is cited here.) and head straight for the rim. Because the back side defenders are occupied with some Curry-Lee screening action, there’s no one to help on Green.
That’s where the third notable thing about the play comes in: the subtle change in positioning Jackson made from the first variation to this one. In the first iteration of the play, Lee set the initial screen for Curry and the second screen for Thompson, while Ezeli set the initial screen for Thompson and the second screen for Curry.
By flipping Lee to the opposite side and thus having him on the same side of the court as Curry, Jackson made sure that the defenders on that side of the court would both be occupied and unlikely to come across the lane to help on Green if he slipped his pick. Bosh could conceivably slide off Lee to help on Green near the rim, but it would have meant leaving Lee (28-for-55 on spot-ups this season) or Curry (19th in PPP off screens) for a wide open elbow jumper. Either of those occurrences is obviously a preferable scenario for the Heat when compared to what actually happened, but in real time Bosh is probably more worried about not leaving his own man open than anything else, which is how Green winds up so wide open once Battier cheated on the curl.
The last – and in my mind the most important – notable thing about the play was, as Green said after the game:
“With the last shot, coach didn’t point out who specifically was going to take the shot,” Green said. “We were going to find out who was open and make the best play. Of course guys are going to go with Klay (Thompson) and Steph (Curry). I just happened to be wide open and (Jarrett Jack) found me.”
So often in late-game situations, we see teams resort to isolation hero-ball sets where they just clear the floor for their best perimeter creator and let him go to work. And so often, we see it fail. It’s been shown that sets with multiple options are almost always a better bet, so it’s encouraging to see the Warriors go that route.