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Warriors exploit the Hornets’ weak-side help on their way to third straight win

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Golden State Warriors v Charlotte Hornets
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Their offense perked up in the second half after a first-half malaise.

The Charlotte Hornets don’t exactly exude an aura of a top defensive team — they’re 27th in the league in defensive rating that doesn’t include garbage time. They’re 25th in that category over the last 10 games.

Perhaps that’s why the Golden State Warriors weren’t able to establish a rhythm on offense in the first half. They played down to the level of their competition — and the sense of urgency, or lack thereof, was readily apparent.

Jogging into half-court sets; lack of ball and player movement across the board; and settling for looks that could’ve been replaced with much better ones. While credit must be given to the Hornets for their defense, the Warriors practically helped them with their plodding pace and nonexistent flow.

Even so, there were holes in the Hornets’ defense that were there to be exploited, if the Warriors chose to exploit them. They know a thing or two about weak-side defenders being unnecessarily jumpy, resulting in overhelp that either leaves a shooter open on the weak-side slot or corner, a slot/45-cut into open space, or a drive off the catch to counter a desperate and aggressive close-out — mostly because they’ve been making those same mistakes all season long.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a jumpy weak-side defense means three things: 1) that the action up front — involving the ballhandler and the screener at the point of attack — is controlled by the offense, which means breakdowns that force help from the weak side; 2) early weak-side help is a built-in scheme to discourage breakdowns up front in the first place; and 3) a combination of all of the above.

The Warriors’ first half-court set — a “Stack” or “Spain” pick-and-roll — was a combination of the third point:

Trayce Jackson-Davis’ screen allows Chris Paul to get to his right-elbow sweet spot, while Steph Curry — the one who was supposed to set the backscreen — leaks out to the right slot area. Jackson-Davis’ man has to step up to meet Paul at the elbow, which means Jackson-Davis is left free to roll his way to the rim. To compensate, Brandon Miller “tags” Jackson-Davis, but is forced to leave Andrew Wiggins open in the corner. Wiggins makes it difficult for Miller to recover by “shaking” — lifting from the corner to the wing.

Later on, the Hornets made the bold decision to pull out a 2-3 zone with Curry on the floor. Perhaps it was to get them some practice reps with the zone — after all, considering the context of their season, they had room to experiment and fine-tune. Maybe they were emboldened to zone up without Klay Thompson to release pressure on Curry.

But there are still several reasons why playing a zone against Curry is risky. Shifting the zone by moving the ball around means someone is almost always left open on the perimeter. Even the slightest window of daylight can be exploited, especially by the greatest shooter of all time.

An open Curry still induces panic in a zone setup (i.e., two still go to him with the slightest hint of him getting open), which means a backline hole is almost always there to be taken advantage of:

Jackson-Davis takes advantage of the hole created in the possession above. But as was the case in the first clip, it’s often he himself who has a huge hand in creating holes in the defense with his roll gravity. By simply diving to the rim after setting a ballscreen, he draws weak-side help to force a defense into rotation.

It also helps that he’s a really, really good screener. He screens like a veteran NBA big — he knows the all the nuances and tricks behind setting a screen, which includes flipping the angle at the point of the screen to confuse both the on-ball defender and the screener’s defender.

When he comes over to set the screen for Paul below, he comes over as if getting ready to set a screen to the defender’s left — but at the last second, he flips over to the other side to set the screen to the defender’s right instead:

The change in screen angle is by design from Jackson-Davis. Screening to the defender’s right means that the strong-side corner defender can’t help on the drive due to Curry occupying the corner. The help must then come from the weak side — two defenders are drawn in by Jackson-Davis’ roll, which triggers the skip pass to Draymond Green in the corner, followed by a swing to Wiggins on the wing. Wiggins attacks the closeout and gets all the way to the rim.

Now, I’m not entirely sure what the Hornets were hoping to accomplish by having an extra defender or two come over to act as extra bodies against the strong-side action — but it’s interesting that they did it regardless of the personnel they were helping off of. They did it on actions that had Curry as the focal point (i.e., as the advantage creator off of screens that drew two to the ball):

And with him as the finisher off of created advantages by his own teammates, which is a rare sight — but made possible because of the Hornets’ penchant for “nail” help, a form of weak-side help that runs the risk of allowing drives off the catch:

And giving up open three-point looks:

In both of the possessions above, Tre Mann is helping off of Curry to park himself at the nail, which is telling of the Hornets’ approach of preventing middle penetration (“no-middle” philosophy). Like the 2-3 zone, this could also be a form of experimentation and practice — but regardless off the context, they serve as examples of how nail help can be countered in two different ways.

While opponent quality is certainly a significant factor in the possessions above — and in this win overall — the Warriors did what they had to do in order to catch up to the teams above them and to stave off the one that’s breathing behind their back.

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