In Round 2 of the Spurs-Warriors season series, the Spurs found success by switching Stephen Curry pick and rolls as a means to take away the three point shot. Not only does switching allow the Spurs to keep a body on Curry at all times, but it also allows a taller, longer defender (many times it was LaMarcus Aldridge in Round 2) to contest the deep threes. In Round 3 Thursday night, the Warriors adjusted by taking advantage of miscommunication on switches as well as running effective counters. While the combination of being down Boris Diaw and losing Aldridge in a critical early stretch of the game makes the outcome less inspiring, Golden State proved they can successfully adapt to San Antonio.
Eric Apricot of Golden State of Mind wrote an excellent post showcasing the three main ways the Warriors have combated switching defenses. While certainly impressive, the Spurs should be able respond.
Counter 1: Attack Unforced Switching Errors
In this play Tony Parker is guarding Steph Curry and Kahwi Leonard is guarding Draymond Green. Everyone is expecting a switch, and you'll notice Parker is overplaying Curry towards the sideline.
Unfortunately for the Spurs, Kahwi elects to stay with Draymond Green and Curry has an open path to the basket. You'll notice that Green just grazes Parker and doesn't set a hard screen. Leonard may have anticipated a fake screen and elected not to switch whereas Parker read it as a clear pick and roll.
This is a simple case of miscommunication. Leonard and Parker were not on the same page, and a great player took advantage. This is an easy fix, especially for an elite Spurs team. The Spurs need to decide if they are hard switching all screens (even weak screens above). In addition, they need to make sure they're communicating and locked in for 48 minutes. That won't be a problem come playoffs.
Counter 2: Fake Screens
The Warriors have been running a lot of fake screens using Klay Thompson. He will shade towards Curry while the defense switches, anticipating the pick and roll. But Thompson will quickly cut to another location and forego the screen causing confusion and leaving him wide open. This happened last night late in the second quarter:
In this play, neither Curry nor Thompson have the ball. Thompson is at the free throw line and looks ready to set an off-ball screen for Curry. Danny Green, who is covering Klay, sees this coming and elects to shade over towards Curry. Since the scheme is to switch, he likely figures Kawhi will stay with Klay after he screens for Curry. But as you watch the play, Thompson doesn't ever hit Leonard with a screen so Kawhi continues with Steph. Now you have two bodies on Curry so Andrew Bogut quickly swings it to Klay for the triple. This was a huge play that extended a 12 point lead to 15.
This is more complicated to defend. It's difficult to anticipate a fake screen. If Green tries to anticipate a fake screen by staying with Thompson, than Curry would be wide open if Thompson in fact screens Leonard. One option to counter this fake would be to determine in advance to switch anything resembling a screen. While Klay never bumps Kawhi to free Curry, they are close enough where Green and Leonard could have switched. Given their size, this is an even switch and so nothing is really lost by deciding to switch whether it's a real screen or a fake one.
If Popovich prefers not to switch fake screens, then at minimum defenders need to stay within arms-length of their guy. Watch again and you'll see Green is playing pretty far off of Klay. If he had one arm extended onto him at all times, he may have been able to feel for Klay's movement. Since the primary goal is to take away the three, then staying more engaged is better than playing off. Green is playing off because he anticipates the play, but Golden State is too good a team to predict consistently.
Counter 3: Pre-Screen Three Man Game
Another counter to switches is the idea of the pre-screen. In this setup, a third player screens for the person who will be the screener in the pick and roll. This frees up the screener to make the pick and roll a two one one situation as the screener's defender is hopefully caught up in the pre-screen. The same person who is tangled up is the one responsible for switching onto Curry.
In this play, Curry has the ball and will ultimately get a screen from Andrew Bogut. Since Tim Duncan is guarding Bogut, it is his responsibility to switch onto Curry. However, with 19 seconds left on the shot clock, Klay Thompson screens Tim Duncan. This frees Bogut to run the pick and roll while simultaneously preventing Duncan from switching onto Curry.
When Duncan gets screened by Klay Thompson, Danny Green doesn't switch. Instead he fights to remain with Klay, which means Tim needs to get back to Bogut. It is far too late however as Bogut is already screening for Curry.
If Duncan switched onto Thompson and Green went to Bogut, Green would be close enough to switch onto Curry to contest this three. Essentially, the solution is to switch all screens on the play. By switching the pre-screen, the Spurs would be in position for the normal switch on the pick and roll. By trying to fight through the pre-screen, they are left without somebody to switch onto Curry.
The Warriors were impressive in their 112-101 victory over the Spurs Thursday night. The fake screens and pre-screens were savvy adjustments that the Warriors made and practiced in the multiple games since their second meeting with the Spurs. Come playoff time,Golden State won't have nearly as much time to respond to adjustments that Popovich makes. Moreover, the Spurs simply miscommunicated in a lot of these occasions by either not switching or anticipating screens that never came. Expect Popovich to clear this up and have the Spurs ready for the playoffs. While one solution is to simply switch every screen (fake screens, pre-screens, off-ball screens) this will be dependent on the health of Boris Diaw and Aldridge as Duncan cannot move as quickly. I'm sure the Spurs will have more defensive packages ready whether it be icing the pick and roll, going over screens, or going over and double teaming. I wouldn't expect to see too much revealed on Sunday as players from both sides may sit, but that will only add to the Western Conference Finals anticipation.