If Mark Jackson figures out the hidden tweak that saves the Golden State Warriors from defeat against a seemingly superior Los Angeles Clippers outfit, he's a much better coach than any of us have given him credit for being.
Unfortunately for Jackson and the Dubs, there's no single adjustment that can swing the course of their first-round series.
All hope's not lost, though—even if the 40-point annihilation Golden State suffered in Game 2 makes it seem that way. The Warriors took Game 1, which means the Clippers are hardly invincible. And with a handful of smaller adjustments, the rest of this series should look a whole lot more competitive than it did in its most recent installment.
Attack the Trap
Despite having one of the NBA's most underrated handles, Stephen Curry hasn't been able to successfully navigate the Clippers' trapping scheme to free himself up for open looks. This is a more complex problem than it might seem on the surface.
First off, those traps arise because Golden State wants to initiate a high pick-and-roll to get the offense flowing on most of its possessions. That means a screener has to come out above the top of the arc, which brings the second Clippers defender into the play. And voila: trap!
The Dubs can't just stop sending that screen; their offense isn't creative enough to survive without the high pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop as its foundation. It might seem counterintuitive, but in order to get Curry more shots, the Warriors need to keep inviting that trap.
Critically, though, Golden State has to do a couple of things more effectively to take advantage of it.
Better screens at the point of attack are key. Too often, David Lee slips the screen before it's fully set. Too often, Draymond Green doesn't firm himself up and deliver a blow because he's concerned about picking up offensive fouls. Too often, Curry doesn't even wait for the screen to be set.
The Warriors simply need to mind the details on a very basic play. If they do that, Curry won't be trapped in space so easily or have to retreat as far from the bucket.
The second adjustment has to do specifically with Curry, and we actually saw him make it in the second half of Game 2. Instead of retreating when trapped, he started to split defenders, turn the corner and generally attack L.A.'s aggressive defensive scheme.
Granted, the game was well in hand by the time Curry found holes in the Clips' strategy. There's a good chance it won't be so easy to take advantage when L.A. isn't nursing a 40-point lead. But aggressively turning the corner and plunging into the lane—especially when the remaining Clips are struggling to cover four other Warriors with three bodies—is the best way for Curry to get himself going.
To be perfectly clear, sending Curry down the gauntlet repeatedly is a dicey proposition. He'll absorb a few hits as the Clips try to wear him down, a dangerous scenario that risks the health of the Dubs' slight superstar.
To preserve his body and get better looks, Curry will need to be aggressive in other ways as well. If he's more decisive in getting rid of the ball when trapped, the Warriors can take advantage of those 4-on-3 situations created by sending two players at Curry up top.
We know the Warriors can excel when Curry moves the ball to the screener immediately because we've seen it before. They executed that tactic pretty well in Game 1, and it was also the main reason they notched a huge win against the Miami Heat back in January.
Lee is excellent in space—both as a passer and penetrator—for a player his size. Getting him into situations like this almost always leads to high-percentage shots.
Above, you can see Lee eat up the space in the middle of the floor after taking the pass out of the trap.
Reading the situation perfectly, Lee looks off shooters on the strong side and finds Curry, now forgotten by the defense, cutting to the hole for a layup.
If the Dubs pierce the Clippers' defense enough times in this fashion, they'll have no choice but to re-evaluate the entire trapping plan. That'll give Curry some room to breathe—and shoot.
Head coach Mark Jackson knows Golden State can excel against the very thing that killed them in Game 2. "We've seen the trap; we have stuff that counters it. Now we just have to make the proper adjustments," he told Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle. "But we have to meet force with force. If you go out there tentative against a really aggressive trap, all of a sudden it's a different monster you have to battle."
Ultimately, the Warriors must match L.A.'s aggression. The second a trap forces a retreat, it's successful. That means Curry has to invite the double-team. He has to relish it. And then he has to tear it apart.
It's the only way to force the Clips into a more honest approach.
There's no fancy strategic talk or X's and O's breakdown for this one. Golden State has to come out of the tunnel ready to play, not wait until it falls behind by a dozen or so to kick itself into gear.
The Warriors dug early holes in both Games 1 and 2, fortunately recovering in the first instance and spectacularly failing to do so in the second. This is a particularly troubling trend in a playoff series, especially because it plagued the Warriors throughout the regular season.
One of the most often-used criticisms against Jackson is his perplexing inability to keep his team consistently motivated. Slow starts cost the Warriors a handful of home games they absolutely should have won this year and have been a disturbing trend against the Clippers.
From the chart below, it's clear the Warriors can still succeed after a slow start, but it's tough. Conversely, in the one game they jumped ahead, they cruised to a comfortable win.
|Starts Against the Clippers|
|Date||First-Quarter Deficit/Advantage||Result||Final Score|
|October 31, 2013||-10||Loss||126-115|
|December 25, 2013||-8||Win||105-103|
|January 30, 2014||+11||Win||111-92|
|March 12, 2014||Even||Loss||111-98|
|April 19, 2014||-5||Win||109-105|
|April 21, 2014||-11||Loss||138-98|
Golden State can't afford to fall behind in the opening stages of Game 3. The Clippers are a good team in any circumstances, but they're flat-out great when they're front-running. A big lead frees L.A. up to run, to gamble and to athletically dominate the game.
If Jackson can't get the Warriors focused from the opening tip, urgency (and perhaps even a little panic) will set in, making smart decisions and steady play almost impossible.
At this stage of the season, it's usually not necessary to suggest a coach should put in some time preparing for the opponent.
Apparently, it's necessary for Jackson.
Adam Lauridsen of the San Jose Mercury News gave voice to the legion of fans concerned about Golden State's resemblance to its regular-season self, pinning the blame for the Dubs' all-too-familiar shortcomings squarely on Jackson:
Mark Jackson had 82 games this season to figure out how to handle opponents rushing double teams at Stephen Curry. He had night after night to evaluate the efficacy of isolation plays for David Lee and Harrison Barnes, and of hockey-substituting with 4 or 5 reserves on the court at the same time. ...
... You never would have guessed any of it by watching the Clippers’ 138-98 denaturation of Jackson’s Warriors team.
Let's pause for a second.
Maybe the Warriors' stasis has more to do with Jackson's confidence in his team's identity. Maybe there haven't been any changes because a team that won 51 games shouldn't fix what's not broken.
Or maybe Jackson's too stubborn, too relaxed and too dismissive of preparation to make the changes needed. Yeah, let's go with that one.
In a radio interview with KNBR 680 (via a tweet from Kevin Draper of thedissnba.com), Jackson had this to say about pregame study:
Um, you won't hear this from anybody else, but I think it's overrated. Do you mean to tell me I've got to stay up to figure out that Chris Paul is a superstar basketball player and he's going to be tough defending on pick-and-rolls? Or Blake Griffin? I've got to stay up to figure out how to defend him in the post situation and keep him out of transition?
You do your work, you're prepared and then you go out and handle your business. But to me, I really believe it is overrated. That doesn't mean you don't do the job, but I'm going to get my rest. I'm not going to grow old and be stressed out and get gray hair.
In the real world, it's not fair to begrudge a guy his work-life balance. But this isn't the real world; this is the NBA, where coaches always skip sleep to watch tape and drive themselves into the ground in search of the slightest edge.
Jackson isn't willing to do that, and he's putting himself and his team at a disadvantage.
So, I guess this "adjustment" really amounts to saying "work as hard as your opponents are," which is something that shouldn't need to be said.
The Biggest Adjustment of All
The Warriors can make changes that will give them a better chance to beat the Clippers, but those adjustments might not ultimately be enough to get the job done.
Without Andrew Bogut, Golden State is at an immense disadvantage. All the strategic tweaks in the world can't make up for a glaring hole in the personnel department.
Bogut slows Griffin, anchors the defense and assures at least a draw in the dirty-play department. Curry can get more shots, the Dubs can attack the trap aggressively and Jackson can even spend a few extra hours getting ready.
But in the end, those things might not even matter.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment of all involves lowering expectations.