Warriors defeated Hornets with lineup ingenuity and brilliant play design

The Golden State Warriors managed to eke out a win against the Charlotte Hornets despite shooting just 8-of-37 (21.6%) on threes. Before this victory, the Warriors had failed to win a game this season where they made less than 12 threes.

There’s a lot to be said about their offensive process against the Hornets. They were absolutely humming on that end during the first half, where they ended up with an offensive rating of 118.2 – equivalent to the best offense in the league. Most of their efficiency came from the half court (102.2 offensive rating, equivalent to fourth in the league).

When the second half came around, the Warriors forgot all about the good process from the first half and developed tunnel vision. They started chucking outside shots at the expense of developing and maintaining rhythm and flow with paint attacks. At one point, the Hornets were in the penalty but the Warriors still elected to take outside shots – missed opportunities against a defense that could not afford to foul.

The Warriors finished the game with 37 points in the paint, 30 of which came in the first half. That alone is a testament to how they went away from what largely worked – and it almost burned them to the highest degree.

Without several of their key rotation mainstays, the Hornets — at 9-25 prior to the game and compromised both offensively (107.8 offensive rating, 30th) and defensively (114.7 defensive rating, 27th) — looked every bit like the bottom-dwelling team during the first half.

With Kevon Looney racking up two quick fouls, Steve Kerr was forced to sit his starting center in favor of Anthony Lamb at the fifth. This move forced the Warriors to play a small fast-paced lineup — which, interestingly enough, worked to their advantage.

While Looney has been a bedrock and solid foundational center, he doesn’t have quite the physical attributes to overcome a matchup against Mason Plumlee — taller, longer, and relatively more athletic. Without the athleticism and roll equity to match or surpass Plumlee (while also mired in early foul trouble), Looney saw limited minutes against the Hornets.

By inserting Lamb and playing a smaller and more mobile lineup, the Warriors were able to exploit Plumlee and take advantage of the Hornets’ lack of scheme versatility on defense. With Plumlee, the Hornets’ base pick-and-roll coverage was a deep drop.

Almost instantly, the Warriors punished Plumlee’s drop coverage by putting him in ball screen action and exposing his immobility:

A smaller lineup maximizes cross-matching, which generates easier sources of advantage creation. When the Warriors get a stop and push the pace, transition-defense principles compel Plumlee to pick up Poole.

A simple “boomerang” pass to reset Poole’s dribble is all he needs to take Plumlee and blow past him at the point of attack:

Lineup choices through smaller configurations worked to the Warriors’ advantage, both in the first half and in the closing stages of the game. When the Warriors were hard-pressed with generating efficient looks, they went back to directly targeting the lowest-hanging fruit.

Off of double-drag screens combined with Spain pick-and-roll action, Poole targets Plumlee again:

And again, during the following possession:

Forcing Plumlee to defend on the perimeter is to force someone to tread on thin ice. There’s a reason Plumlee prefers to defend closer to the paint, and the possession above is the quintessential example. Poole whirls and spins, PJ Washington is forced to help off of Jonathan Kuminga, and a heady baseline cut allows Poole to dump it off to Kuminga for a game-sealing dunk.

Astute lineup decision-making was not the only avenue through which the Warriors were able to exploit opposing personnel. Sprinkled in were exceptionally designed set plays that targeted the Hornets’ lack of defensive versatility.

By virtue of Plumlee playing drop, the onus falls on perimeter defenders to navigate screens in an attempt to stay attached to their assignment. This fact is even more pronounced during off-ball movement-based sets such as “Floppy.”

“Floppy” is a classic set that gives a movement shooter the choice of going around staggered screens on one side or a single downscreen on the other. Whichever choice is made, if a defender encounters trouble trying to navigate screens, shooters will almost always be set free for a jumper.

With Plumlee in an oversight position in a deep drop, Hayward is left to fend for himself trying to chase Klay Thompson around screens:

“Floppy” is a relatively simple action, but more complex sets with layers of thought behind them gave Plumlee even more trouble.

Take this set to begin the second half, for instance:

The set above is a Floppy-adjacent action, but the complexity comes from the initial downscreen and curl by Poole, who relocates toward the weak-side corner and takes Terry Rozier with him. This is followed by Thompson running around the same downscreen, which generates empty-corner screen-and-roll action (an empty strong-side corner guarantees that help must come from the weak side).

Plumlee opts not to drop back and moves up to the level of the screen to take away Thompson’s space. But like several choices and decisions in basketball, taking something away almost always means you’re giving up something else.

In this instance, it’s Looney rolling to the rim with no help from the strong-side corner — which, as mentioned, means that the help must come from the weak side. This is where the genius of the initial Poole decoy becomes apparent.

Forcing Plumlee to be as mobile as possible to take advantage of his relative immobility was key. Kerr thought as much and decided that the theme of his drawn-up sets was to take Plumlee around for a ride, poke holes in his ability to defend multiple spots on the floor, and create opportunities for his players to attack a multitude of openings.

Kerr is quite underrated as a designer of after-timeout (ATO) plays. Just like the best of them, he combines creativity with purpose; rarely does he concoct sets without rhyme or reason.

Kerr whipped out a brand-new ATO play that disguised a classic Warriors staple (split action) and took Plumlee out of his comfort zone (watch Plumlee throughout the entire possession):

An “Iverson” cut (a player cutting from one wing to the opposite wing using two screens set at both elbows) for Donte DiVincenzo gives him enough momentum to make Plumlee have to help on a potential downhill drive — all while Looney sets a split- cut screen for Poole. Plumlee takes note of the split action and rushes over to Poole to discourage a shot.

This flows into a pocket pass in the short roll for Looney, who finds Draymond Green cutting from the weak-side elbow. Plumlee scrambles and oscillates between several spots in an attempt to stop each progression — but is ultimately out of position against Green’s layup, fouling him and sending him to the line on an and-1.

Rarely do the Warriors explicitly single out an opposing weak point, preferring to let the flow of their motion offense be established. But on those rare occasions the Warriors do try to seek out pressure points, their methods can be an unholy mixture of traditional ball-screen hunting and complex actions with multiple layers baked in.

There’s a reason the Hornets are much more defensively compromised with Plumlee on the floor (118.9 defensive rating) than with him on the bench (114.4 defensive rating). The Warriors zeroed in on that key aspect and were able to claw their way to another home win.

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