Last night’s Memphis-Golden State Play-In game was epic. Not quite as epic as the Warriors-Lakers game that happened two days earlier, but still really fun. While it was winding down, I noticed a few things:
1) Despite what Steph’s 39 points say, the Grizzlies did a tremendous job at limiting his impact on the game.
2) The playoffs are going to be way less fun without Steph.
3) The Warriors would’ve won that game by 30 if Klay Thompson were healthy.
Now, before I get started, I want to make something clear. I understand that the Grizzlies would have altered their defensive gameplan to account for Klay. Teams who don’t account for Klay get 60 points scored on them in 29 minutes. I am not saying that Memphis’ defense would have been exactly the same if Thompson was active. I am saying that Thompson’s presence wouldn’t have allowed the kind of defense Memphis used last night. And without that defense, Curry and Wiggins would have been even more impactful than they already were, and that would have made a difference.
Starting in the second quarter, Memphis was double-teaming Curry every time he touched the ball. This happened pretty much every time without fail. Away from the ball, Memphis was employing a 1-2 zone with their remaining three players. One defender was split up top between Draymond Green (top of the key) and Jordan Poole (left side of the arc), while the two defenders down low were guarding the players in the corners (Andrew Wiggins on the right, Kent Bazemore on the left). The Warriors’ offense would respond by passing the ball to Green, who would drive in along with Wiggins. This would create a 2-on-1 situation in the Warriors’ favor. One Grizzly would be forced to help from the left side, leaving the last Memphis defender to split between Bazemore and Poole. Green doesn’t shoot well, so it was likely that he’d try to force a pass to Wiggins — tough, but could lead to good looks right at the rim — kick the ball out to Poole or Bazemore — safer, but the defender would be able to close out on them quickly — or shoot the ball himself — which is what Memphis wanted.
None of those options worked particularly well for Golden State in the final 41 minutes. Green was inconsistent with getting the ball to Wiggins down low (Wiggins would often face pressure immediately and would have to move away from the paint), kicking the ball out usually just led to Golden State having to set up a new play, and Draymond shooting the ball led to… interesting outcomes. The Grizzlies defense was so effective after the first quarter that Curry was only able to get off 10 jumpers, Green was forced to take nine shots inside the paint — tied for the most he’d taken in a game since April 1 — and could only get four of them to drop, and the Warriors shot just 5-of-20 from downtown in the final three quarters of regulation.
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Thompson obviously would’ve helped with that last stat, but more than that, Thompson is a wizard without the ball in his hands. Klay is routinely near the top of the league in points and efficiency from off-ball screens and movement. It hurt my soul to see Bazemore and Poole practice their statue imitations every time Green drove into the paint. They weren’t rotating. They weren’t trying to create open looks. They weren’t helping their team whatsoever.
Imagine if Memphis tried that same defense against the Warriors but one of the best spot-up shooters of all time was rotating to the top of the key as soon as Green started to drive in. Now, one of those defenders who was guarding Steph has to come off him to prevent the kick out to Klay. Steph is then free to set up an off-ball screen with Wiggins, and Green is posted up. You could even replace Poole with Kevon Looney, rotate Green out to the wing after his drive, and start working off-ball shenanigans with Looney and Thompson. It creates an offense that can’t be contained with the Grizzlies’ game plan.
Now, like I said, the Grizzlies would not have used that same style of defense if Thompson was active, and that’s the point. Memphis wouldn’t have been able to contain Steph and force bad looks from outside with Thompson available. Just like how people forgot how good Curry could be without Durant, people seem to forget just how dangerous a backcourt of Steph and Klay is. If Thompson returns to the Warriors in 2022, and is anywhere close to his former self before the ACL injury in 2019, the Warriors are immediately a top-five team in the West. Are they a championship contender? Probably not. They are further above the salary cap limit than any other team in the NBA and lack depth on their bench, but are definitely a better team than Memphis… like, way better.