The Warriors lost a wild Game 4 on Monday and now trail the Lakers 3-1 in their second-round series. Over the course of NBA history, 95% of teams that go down 3-1 go on to lose the series. It is a terrible position in which to find yourself. And the Warriors are in it for one reason.
Because Steve Kerr put them there.
Kerr has done incredible, historic things with Golden State, unlocking a dated, matchup-obsessed offense that Mark Jackson was busy choking out en route to four championships and six NBA Finals appearances. It's hard to knock a guy who's had that kind of success.
Yet, there's just no other way to explain their current predicament. Kerr hates, literally hates, to run pick-and-roll with the greatest pick-and-roll player in history. And whatever. That's fine. There's plenty to be said for Golden State's off-ball movement and commitment to diverse and inclusive offense. But there's a time and place to ditch the cute stuff and get down to brass tacks. Put the ball in Stephen Curry's hands. Quit making this out to be so complicated.
It took Kerr until Game 7 against Sacramento to commit to this admittedly crazy strategy of running the offense through one of the best offensive players the game as ever seen, and Curry scored 50 points. So what did Kerr do with his very next opportunity? He moved Curry right back off-ball in Game 1 against the Lakers.
Until it was an emergency. That's always when Kerr gives in. When he needs 33 second-half points from Curry in the 2019 conference semis against Houston after willingly playing right into the off-ball switching hands of the Rockets the entire first half. Curry scored nine straight points in the fourth quarter vs. L.A. in Game 1 when Kerr finally pulled his superstar card, but it was too late.
Kerr called it a feel-out game. No. It was a giveaway. In a small-margin series. An NBA coach shouldn't have to lose a playoff game to learn the blatantly obvious lesson that in this series, the Warriors have a single mission: Pull Anthony Davis away from the defensive paint. The best way to do that is to run pick-and-roll with Curry with Davis' man as the screener. It is not brain surgery. The Warriors did it in Game 2, and not coincidentally, they rolled to a victory.
In Game 3, the Lakers made what was apparently a master-stroke adjustment by switching Davis off of Draymond Green, the Warriors' preferred pick partner with Curry, and onto JaMychal Green. Kerr went immediately back away from involving Davis in pick-and-rolls, I guess because he didn't trust JaMychal Green with 4-on-3 playmaking duties.
This was, and is, a total overthink job. The blueprint was there. Put the ball in Curry's hands, and make whoever Davis is guarding the screener. Everything flows downstream from there. The result? Easy buckets. We've seen it work over, and over, and over, and it was working again in Game 4.
These numbers that I'm about to cite come from Haralabos Voulgaris, who served as the Dallas Mavericks' director of quantitative research and development. Before I get to them, let's credit Kerr for inserting Gary Payton II into the starting lineup. He knew Davis would be assigned to Payton, and he trusted Payton as a Curry pick partner and backside playmaker.
So, in the first half, the Warriors put Davis into 24 screen actions, scoring 1.35 points per chance resulting directly from that action. For all intents and purposes, that would have registered as the most efficient pick-and-roll offense, including passes, for any player in the league this season, per Synergy. Golden State was having a field day with Davis lifted up out of the paint and everyone else scrambling to rotate. Point-blank layups. Wide-open 3s. Fish in a barrel.
Now, after all that success, what did Kerr do in the second half? He cut the Davis pick-and-roll actions by 75 percent. Only went to it six times. The Warriors scored 17 fourth-quarter points. And lost the game.
Now I suspect, if you're a Kerr apologist, that you're going to argue the Lakers manipulated this game of matchup chess when they switched Davis off Payton and onto Andrew Wiggins, just as they supposedly did in Game 3 when Darvin Ham switched Davis off one Green and onto the other.
Absolutely not. Just as I said about Game 3, that is overthinking this whole thing. It isn't brain surgery. Put Davis in the action. Period. I don't care who the screener is. Wiggins functioning in a 4-on-3 advantage is not akin to quarterbacking the freaking West Coast offense.
And besides that, the Lakers weren't even blitzing Curry. Chances are, Curry was going to be able to get downhill himself -- as he did when the Warriors finally went back to this action with just over a minute remaining in the game. And what do you know, it resulted in a layup.
(Make sure your volume is up, and listen through the entirety of the video, so you can hear Stan Van Gundy talk about how even he, a former NBA Finals coach, is baffled as to why Kerr would just suddenly go away from the best play in his book in the second half of a desperate playoff game.)
I'm with you, Stan. I'm absolutely out of words. Kerr has been hailed as something not too far from a genius over the years, but this is basic basketball stuff. Hell, it's basic life stuff. If something isn't broke, don't fix it. Kerr has always had the Curry card in his back pocket, and it has allowed him to get away with this kind of stuff on numerous occasions.
But you can only tempt fate so many times. The Warriors don't have the kind of leeway they used to. Their margin for winning playoff games is already miniscule. No longer can they just conjure offense out of thin air. When they find something that works, they have to ride it, like normal teams have always had to do. Kerr absolutely hates doing this. He just cannot bring himself to run the same thing over and over. Either that, or he can't see what pretty much every other set of basketball eyes in the world can see. And I doubt it's the latter.
So here the Warriors are, down 3-1 when they should be, at the very least, tied 2-2, if not up 3-1 after just willingly taking Curry off the ball for basically the entire Game 1. I'm not going to say they're out of it. They have a proven formula. If Kerr can bring himself to actually stick with it for an entire game, this series can still go the distance. But I'm not holding my breath.