Golden State’s pick-and-roll scheme defensively matched Houston’s in Game 1: switch everything and try to contain the Rockets’ stars in isolation. As a result, it was open season for James Harden to put Stephen Curry and Kevon Looney in the torture chamber. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has long been an empowering coach, especially for Curry; in situations in which most coaches would try to hide a slight defensive liability throughout the game, Kerr often has Curry guard opposing point guards and will let him switch onto opposing team’s best players, rather than change the whole scheme to hide him. Curry’s not a sieve on the defensive end—he puts in a ton of effort and is smart about jumping passing lanes or making the right rotation, but in some of the one-on-one situations against Harden, Curry just wasn’t big enough to make a significant difference on that end.
Despite Kerr’s reputation for letting Curry defend point guards, Klay Thompson was the primary stopper on Chris Paul, which left Curry to guard Trevor Ariza. Harden didn’t let Curry off the hook by sticking his man in the corner—Ariza set a ton of ball screens in order to get Curry involved in the main action. Curry was physical with Ariza (to the point that he picked up a couple of fouls trying to deter him from setting a screen), but in the end Houston almost always got the switch they wanted, despite the fact that Ariza’s threat as a roll man is almost non-existent.
Houston was patient throughout the game in order to get the switches they wanted, but once they had it, everybody cleared out and watched Harden go to work. This often meant Ariza had to make multiple attempts to screen Kevin Durant, since Curry was so physical with Ariza in the screening action:
Curry did a fine job on Harden; neither the numbers nor the eye test suggest that he was a major problem for the Warriors defensively, but these switches unnecessarily give Houston a place to attack and let them get into exactly what they want defensively. It’s understandable to switch when Curry is guarding a shooter, but when he’s guarding Ariza or Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, turning those guys into roll men making decisions in the paint or shooting a pick-and-pop three is a better result for Golden State than a Harden isolation.
Looney was the Rockets’ other target and while the Warriors instituted a small amount of traditional pick-and-roll coverage when he was involved, they were once again much too happy to switch the big man onto Harden or Paul. Like Curry, he did a decent enough job overall in containing those guys, but the choice to actively let Curry and Looney guard Harden and Paul is a curious one, when the alternative of playing traditional over-drop coverage or trapping with both defenders is right there.
Both Harden and Paul are very good passers out of traps and doing so wouldn’t force a lot of turnovers in the immediate action, but the idea of funneling the ball toward Ariza, Mbah a Moute, or P.J. Tucker as the roll man should be attractive to Golden State. A few times, the Warriors did change up their scheme to involve a third defender rotating over from the weak side:
Especially when Looney is involved and Clint Capela isn’t the roll man, playing a traditional scheme makes sense for the Warriors. Non-Capela roll men won’t kill them on the short roll with a good pass to the corner and aren’t good enough at the basket to finish consistently over anybody who rotates from the weak side.
When Curry’s involved in the screening action, a hard trap would serve Golden State well. It leaves Ariza or Mbah a Moute open on the roll or pop, but the other Warriors are smart about stunting over to shooters without abandoning their own guy, which forces a bit of hesitation from the shooter. Combine that with the complex footwork it takes to hit that pick-and-pop three and it adds up to an advantage for Golden State. Just like on the Looney pick-and-rolls, if those guys roll to the rim, then Curry can recover behind the play as the Warriors rotate to take away the easy layup at the rim.
Kerr has a lot of tremendous defensive talent on his roster, but, more importantly, the Warriors have the defensive culture and communication to execute a variety of different schemes. Heavy switching with Curry and Looney had some success and some failures in Game 1, but moving to more traditional coverages would take Houston out of what they like to do and force the ball toward their worst offensive players.