The strategic back-and-forth between Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni has been fascinating, from the Rockets’ physical defense forcing Golden State further out on the floor to the Warriors’ search for a fifth rotation piece who won’t kill them on one end of the floor or the other. There are also some overarching themes of team-building in the modern NBA that I’ll touch on as we get closer to the offseason, but with the last two games of this series coming down to the final few minutes, it’s worth examining a few of the minute tactical details from Game 5.
Running after made layups
Early on in Game 5, it was apparent that Kerr has implored his team to run after makes; specifically, to run after made layups from the Houston guards. The Rockets have mostly been solid in getting back in transition defense in this series, but when James Harden, Chris Paul, or Eric Gordon slash into the lane for a layup, those guys can often be caught behind the play and Golden State can push their advantage. By the fourth quarter, the Warriors were too tired to push the ball in transition, but throughout the first 36 minutes, they were able to get good shots directly stemming from the Houston defense not quite being set after a made layup. As great as Houston has been in their switching communication in halfcourt defense, their matchup communication has lacked the same clarity in certain spots. Harden is tasked with defending Klay Thompson, but after he makes a layup, nobody picks up Thompson on the other end:
It happened again early in the second quarter—Harden made a layup and then got stuck behind the play as Golden State pushed. This time, Houston picks up well, stopping the ball beyond the three-point line and taking away the easiest passes first, leaving Harden to recover onto Stephen Curry, who is the furthest player from the ball at the time Thompson picks up his dribble. The Warriors are prepared for this, almost as if they had envisioned and practiced for this exact scenario: Curry continues his run under the basket and out to the left corner and the ball finds him for a wide-open three.
A few minutes later, Gordon gets to the basket in isolation, but the Warriors throw a punch right back at the Rockets:
In this lineup, Gordon was guarding Curry and Harden was guarding Thompson, but when Curry runs after Gordon’s make, Harden has to pick him up. Gordon is still behind the play and Houston can’t communicate the transition switches, leading to Thompson’s free layup.
Chris Paul channeling his inner Victor Oladipo
In Indiana’s first-round series with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Victor Oladipo had a lot of success getting a switch onto a favorable matchup, then pulling the ball all the way out to the halfcourt line before attacking downhill, using his speed to get past his defender and to the rim. Paul doesn’t have the raw speed and athleticism Oladipo does, but he was still able to get his defender on his heels and use his superior ball-handling to create open shots:
Houston engineers the switch they want—Jordan Bell on Paul—then Paul backs the ball out and attacks the open space. Paul gives him a little shimmy, Bell retreats, and Paul knocks the three-pointer down.
Paul did this at least seven more times in the second half and the Rockets scored well when he did—by my count, Houston hit four of their six shots and were fouled twice on these eight possessions. It’s on these plays where Golden State really misses Andre Iguodala’s presence in the lineup; if he’s out there in crunch time, Paul doesn’t stroll right by Kevon Looney to the rim:
Paul and the Rockets have been relentless in attacking the Warriors’ big men, but Golden State doesn’t have quite that same advantage on the other end of the floor. Clint Capela is as capable as any center in the league in staying with the Warriors’ perimeter players, especially Kevin Durant, whom Capela gives some problems with his length. Capela’s rim protection and defensive rebounding has also been a key part of the Rockets’ defense in this series. Perhaps accidentally or just by sheer luck, Golden State may have found an answer to what Capela brings to the table—”pre-switch” him onto Curry with some dummy screening action, then swing the ball to Durant and let him attack, knowing Capela won’t be at the rim because defenders would rather give up an open layup than a Curry triple.
Durant wasn’t able to score, but the help is far more ineffective at the rim when Capela has to stick to Curry:
Compare that with this clip, in which the Warriors run no pre-switching action to get Capela out of the way:
Whether this was an intentional aspect of their offense on a few possessions or not, the Warriors should come back to this more often in Game 6 as a way to remove Capela’s rim protection from the equation. Houston might play with fire and switch on the weak side to get Capela back in the paint, but leaving Curry open for just a split second won’t end well for them. Durant isn’t the best passer, but if the roles are reversed, would Houston risk switching behind the play on Durant while Curry handles? We’ll see whether or not the Warriors go back to this tactic heavily in Game 6 and how Houston adjusts if they have success doing so.