The Golden State Warriors comfortably took care of business against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 of their first-round series. And while nothing is guaranteed, there was no indication that they’ll struggle to dispatch the Clippers in four or five games.
However, that doesn’t mean the series has nothing to teach us, as even a dominant victory for the Warriors could have ramifications for the defending champs in future rounds.
In particular, the pre-playoffs concerns that DeMarcus Cousins could be played off the floor defensively by a potent pick-and-roll combination proved mostly true in Game 1, as Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell had a LOT of success attacking Golden State.
Cousins was never a particularly strong defender during his first several years in the league, but after tearing his Achilles last year with New Orleans, his recovery has left him with even less lateral quickness than previously. The result makes life difficult for the Warriors, who will certainly face talented pick-and-roll combinations as they get closer to their fourth title in five years.
Whether it’s James Harden and Clint Capela of the Houston Rockets or Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz in Round 2, things are going to get tougher for the Warriors. It might even be the most important part of head coach Steve Kerr’s job, managing Cousins’ minutes with respect to their other options at center.
All in all, Williams ran 30 pick-and-rolls in Saturday’s Game 1, the most of any Clippers guard by a significant margin. He specifically had success going at Cousins, but all of the Warriors’ bigs got a taste of what Williams and Harrell can do together.
Cousins mostly dropped deep, attempting to keep Williams and Harrell in front of him, whereas Kevon Looney was further out on the floor in a hard hedge or blitz scheme. Early in the game, Williams ran a lot of his pick-and-rolls from a standstill at the top of the key, which put less pressure on Cousins to contend with Williams’ speed.
“Sweet Lou” brings the ball up slowly, coming to a near stop before using the Harrell drag screen to attack Cousins. In this spot, Cousins has the quickness to keep everything in front of him, deterring the shot from Williams and the pass to Harrell at the same time. The result: Williams gains little advantage and has to kick it out to the perimeter.
As the game wore on, however, the Clippers began to get Williams into early ball screens during semi-transition so that he could turn the corner and get downhill immediately. Watch how Harrell steps up into a flat screen (his feet parallel with the baseline) as Williams brings the ball up, which gets Williams running downhill at Cousins:
Cousins is left completely flat-footed by Williams’ speed and handle as the guard hits him with a right-to-left crossover and gets to the rim for a floating finish over Andre Iguodala. Later in the quarter, Los Angeles comes back to the same idea:
This time, Cousins has better footwork, shading Williams toward his right rather than playing him straight up, which dissuades him from crossing over toward the middle of the floor. However, this is where Cousins’ lacking foot speed hurts him.
He can’t stick with Williams as he blows by him to the rim.
Contending with quick guards is going to be an issue for the Warriors throughout their playoff run, but the difficult part in dealing with the Williams-Harrell combination is how immensely quick Harrell is to roll to the rim after setting the screen. While the Dubs are going to have trouble with Harrell’s acceleration in this series, it’s not something that’s common throughout the league’s big men.
Throughout Game 1, Harrell set a screen and got a flying start to the basket, leaving a switching defender trailing too far behind him:
A solution emerged in the latter part of the third quarter, but it won’t be easy to execute consistently:
A three-man rotation requires near perfect communication.
Draymond Green drops off his man to rotate to Harrell, as he’s supposed to do in a tag-and-recover scheme, but he never recovers back out. Rather, the Warriors stick with their rotations, as Looney (Harrell’s original defender) switches to Williams, Green takes Harrell on the roll, and Andre Iguodala—who normally would trail Harrell or have to recover back to Williams—exits out to take Green’s mark on the perimeter.
It’s not something they’ll be able to do every time, but when the personnel lines up properly to have Green as the tagger, he’ll be able to communicate with his teammates well enough to get everybody into position.
Williams is also a much-improved passer over earlier in his career, but he’s still a lot better finding the roll man than he is reading the back line of the defense and hitting the weak side, which gives the Warriors a bit more time to figure out their positioning, as long as Green takes away Harrell initially.
Whether it’s Gobert or Capela in Round 2, the Warriors won’t have to deal with this exact sort of quickness in the near future. But they will have to adjust in this series so that the problems future permutations are accounted for.
Jeff Siegel comes to your computer screen from San Diego, where he laments the lack of an NBA team while sitting on the beach in 72-degree weather year-round. So maybe it’s not that bad.