The Pelicans aren’t dead yet: Inside Golden State’s Game 1 blowout

I’m not ready to eulogize the New Orleans Pelicans yet. This team has clicked with Nikola Mirotic stretching the floor and Jrue Holiday emerging as an All-Star perimeter threat, and one lopsided half – nay, a lopsided quarter – shouldn’t undo all of that. More importantly, the film from Game 1 suggests that the Pels, who are 11-point underdogs for Game 2, will have a lot more fight in them on Tuesday. Here are my takeaways from the Warriors 21-point first-half victory, and a few areas New Orleans can improve upon.

Golden State on Offense

Let’s start with the obvious: Golden State notched 76 points in 57 first-half possessions for a glistening 133 offensive rating. In the last two seasons, that’d fall in the 98th percentile among all games played, and teams with such an efficiency finished 97-1. In other words, New Orleans won’t win a game if the Warriors score like that. But regression to the mean makes it unlikely that New Orleans will have to face a 75-point half again, even with Steph Curry returning. Golden State finished the entire game with a 118 rating after extended garbage time in the second half, which is just above their five-game average versus the Pels this year; expect efficiency closer to 115 than 130.

The Warriors surprise Death lineup variant — with Nick Young swapped in for Curry — was a move that New Orleans failed to counter. Despite that, they used pace to hang with the Warriors in the first 15 minutes of the game. Golden State put on an incredible passing display, converting 12 quality passes based on my scoring, spearheaded by Draymond Green’s dishing exhibition. Green’s synergy with the game’s best off-ball cutters and shooters – in Game 1, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson – stresses defenses to the breaking point. Notice how he threads needles by recognizing defensive overplays:

Durant’s isolation game was on display, but I’m not sure it’s a huge issue for New Orleans going forward. Against Mirotic, he shot 3-5 with two easy scores (one at the rim) and created a shot for a teammate (Mirotic needed help). Mirotic struggled badly against him in space, and the Pels can’t leave him on Durant Island. But Mirotic contested well at times, and when Thompson’s shooting heads to the bench, I imagine New Orleans will live with Durant midrange pull-ups. Notice how hopeless this sequence looks as the strong-side defender (No. 44, Solomon Hill) stays ball-side to deter Durant because his man is not a shooting threat:

Darius Miller played him well there, and I imagine Miller should see more of the court during Game 2. Sets like this are big wins for the Pels, ending in some sort of Durant pullup, a drive into the Lion’s Den or a…David West triple? In the first half, Durant was 1-2 against Solomon Hill, firing up two hair-trigger triples, turning it over once and vacuuming an extra defender off the ball when Hill trailed him poorly. Hill guarding him didn’t work well.

Holiday was Duran’t primary defender in their April 7 matchup, and did a good job using strength to push KD off his spots. Durant can still shoot over Holiday – heck, he can shoot over almost anyone – and he made both jumpers he took over Jrue, but that kind of mid-post isolation stagnates the Warriors movement and could ultimately play into New Orleans’ hands. I’d be comfortable with Holiday on Durant with the Death lineup on the court and Miller and Mirotic splitting the rest of the duty based on lineups.

Additionally, New Orleans had seven defensive errors per my system of categorization, a bit on the high side. A bunch of these breakdowns came from Ian Clark, who had a rough go during the Warriors blitzkrieg in the middle of the quarter. It’s hard to play error-free against the Warriors style, but some adjustments and regression should make for more efficient defense in Game 2.

New Orleans on Offense

On offense, the Pels only generated four lob chances for Anthony Davis out of screening action. Davis’s gravity on these plays and enormous catch radius makes this one of their best half-court threats, and they ended up with two open looks, a pair of free throws and this man-amongst-boys bucket to open the game:

When AD has space, he can outmaneuver or out leap a single defender. But with the Pelican shooters on the bench, Davis has less space to attack. This is particularly noteworthy because Pelican wings cut hard into open space — both E’twaun Moore and Holiday collected layups by doing so — but this space disappears without three-point threats stretching the D. Notice how Davis is bounced around like he’s in a subway car, then attacks with four defenders in the lane and no attractive outlet valve:

The panacea is more shooting (and Moore’s shooting) along with a dose of Darius Miller. The Pels need multiple long-range threats on the court at once, because without them, Golden State knows to pack the paint. This disrupts Davis post ups, Davis rim runs and those wing cuts to the basket, which erodes Rajon Rondo’s passing value. It’s all captured well in this sequence:

To boot, New Orleans missed two bunnies at the rim and committed three unforced turnovers in the half, one of which came on a two-on-one. These can be minimized, and zapping Clark’s minutes and pairing Hill with multiple shooters should help too. A full-strength Golden State squad is clearly a level above New Orleans, but basketball is a high-variance game, and that variance isn’t always one-sided. Even with Curry back, I expect a different Game 2.

A Visual History of NBA Spacing

We’re living in the Pace and Space era, so spacing is kind of a big deal. So much so that I’d guess nearly everyone who isn’t a coach still undervalues its importance and the role it has played historically in dictating NBA tendencies and strategy. There was a time when the lane looked more like a rugby scrum than a spacious ballroom dance floor, and this post is a visual chronicle of that transformation. Jump in a DeLorean with me as we go back to a rainy November 12, 1955 grainy 1962…

Our first screenshot is from the ’62 Finals. Offensive players have white circles under them to denote their location, defensive players blue ones, and the ball handler is white surrounded by blue.

This was what an “open lane” looked like for much of the 60s. There are four defenders on the edge of the modern (16-foot wide) key ready to help on that ball-handler if he attacks. Notice, also, that if he drives left toward the baseline, something convoluted happens: He will try to use his teammates as screeners like they are offensive linemen in football, but help defense was easy because everything so tightly packed.

Guard play in the ’60s was also characterized by a palm-down (pronated) dribble. The effect of this cannot be overstated — guards simply were not allowed to dribble in any modern capacity, which made penetration into this congested traffic difficult. Bob Cousy didn’t dribble like this for fun, the rules demanded it.

The next image is quite grainy, but it was so typical of the times that it must be included. The ball is on the far wing, at most, nine feet from the man posting up (Wilt Chamberlain). There are eight players in the modern key!

It was common at the time for certain post plays to start with this much traffic, and it led to a practice I call the “free double-team.” Modern double-teams usually pay a price by leaving a player open. The free double-team is a costless defensive trap, in which the help-defender’s own man is still so close that he can effectively guard two players at once. Thus, despite being doubled, the ball-handler can’t create a shot for an open teammate.

In the ensuing years, teams and coaches were certainly aware of these issues. The Princeton offense — which now comes in many flavors — had a large emphasis on balanced spacing and opening the lane. Still, it was a slow crawl to where we are today. The inability to break down defenders off the dribble didn’t leave coaches dreaming of clear-outs.

If we jump ahead to the 1970 Finals, you’ll notice there’s a little more breathing room.

The Lakers have pulled two players (somewhat) high and wide on the weak side, and there’s now sufficient space between the entry passer (Elgin Baylor) and Wilt in the post. However, any drive from Baylor will encounter two fundamental problems. First, there are three defenders in the lane. Second, it will be hard to punish any help defenders. The best option is likely a kick-out for a long two, but the two spot-up players are within feet of each other and can be covered by one man!

From the same game, L.A. runs a more modern type of isolation for Jerry West, who liked to back his defender down from the high post. The screen capture is from the moment New York sends a double at West.

It’s not “free” in that L.A. is spread out enough for him to swing it to an open teammate at the top of the key. Notice how pinched down the weak side players are, allowing the Knicks to form a wall in the lane, deterring penetration. It’s an improvement from the early 60s, but it’s an “economy to economy-plus” improvement. This isn’t business class space.

There isn’t much footage from the 60s, but from the publicly available film, it wasn’t until the 1970 season that the NBA started easing up on palming. Players still dribbled with mostly pronated wrists, but the contact point of the ball could be held a little longer. (I credit the ABA’s free style of play for slowly relaxing the enforcement of these rules.) More secure ball-handling made it easier to penetrate into space…if there was any.

By the early 70s, offenses were starting to expand the court. Here’s our first example of some business class roominess (from 1974):

That screenshot was taken as the entry pass reached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the elbow. This kind of space was a game-changer; there would now be a hefty price for doubling Kareem with either the baseline defender or the diagonal defender near the foul line. And of course, Kareem himself has a lot of room to operate in isolation, and you don’t want to play Kareem one on one.

The ’70s were a mixture of viable spacing like this and the crammed confines of the ’60s. However, like a frog in boiling water, the dribbling rules continued to slowly relax . You can see some wrist rotation during this open court dribble from David Thompson in 1977, and then a full 90-degree wrist when he hesitates on the following play. By the early ’80s, players were fully turning their wrists over from the side (or underneath) the ball. Isiah Thomas was perhaps the most notable perpetrator, and the technique can be seen on his left-to-right crossover here.

In 1980, the NBA introduced the 3-point line, but it took a few years for spacing to expand to the arc. Here’s a typical Laker set from 1983, in which Magic Johnson’s entry to Kareem was four feet inside the stripe and the entire Laker offense is indifferent to the 3-point line. (Yes, Magic’s defender is daring him to take that shot.)

Notice that there are still five Denver defenders in the lane. However, offenses in the ’70s and ’80s distributed players evenly among the strong and weak side, particularly after the introduction of illegal defense in 1982, which permitted offenses to pull shot-blockers out of the lane. More on this in a second.

By the mid ’80s, the combination of improved spacing and efficacious dribbling made penetration and isolation more of a threat. This coincided with a steady improvement in offensive efficiency — in just over a decade, league-wide ratings exploded from the mid 90s to 107 points per 100 in 1982, within two points of the all-time peak.

Let’s hop forward to 1990 and snap an image of Chicago’s famed triangle offense, which emphasized spacing and balance:

Right away it should be clear that this is business class roominess. Michael Jordan is initiating the offense here, and Chicago’s spacing allows for, at the least, a drive-and-kick by Jordan. More importantly — at least for Shaquille O’Neal 10 years later — the post player’s life is easier with three teammates out beyond the arc and the opposite side big near the high post. This kind of spacing means the defense has to cover longer distances to rotate and makes interior passing more realistic.

Compare this to, say, Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets, who liked to use “3 out” and “4 out” sets, pinning shooters to the 3-point line in order to punish an Olajuwon double. This next caption (from 1994) is snapped after the ball has been kicked out of the post.

Utah still has an amoeba-like wall in the lane, but the threat of the outside shot forces the defense to close out on the shooters, which can re-open a driving lane. This was very much a read-and-react game, in which the spacing allowed teams to move the ball to the best shot, and defenses scrambled to stop that shot. Here’s an example of a “4 out” set from the same year:

Now there’s only one Utah defender in the paint and some decent real estate to work with. At the same time, many teams were starting to abuse the illegal defense rules by pulling entire defenses out of the lane.

That group of Spurs bunched together on the right side of the screen cannot legally drop below the foul line because Utah has stationed the rest of its team above the arc. Some version of this play was run constantly in the ’90s, particularly by teams with good isolation players. As you can see, it frees up a ton of space to attack; David Robinson is on a basketball island defending Karl Malone. If something breaks down, defenders from above the foul line, like Tim Duncan, will have to race down to protect the rim.

At the same time, the seeds of the modern pick-and-roll dominant game were being sewn. NBA teams have been pick-and-rolling forever, but the 3-point shot and spacing have supercharged its power. Here’s a famous Malone-Stockton sideline pick-and-roll. Notice how much space is created by stationing two players at the 3-point arc.

This play is so difficult to contain that it forces the weak side defender to completely leave his man in the lower right corner. Just the setup can create an open shot with a skip pass.

Of course, by this point in time, you could completely supinate your hand when dribbling, pause, and continue dribbling some more. As a result, quick guards were nearly impossible to contain when given space to attack. Before 1995, hand-checking was permitted above the free throw line, which could somewhat mitigate this effect, but the flood gates opened in the mid-’90s. The defensive counter to eliminating true hand-checking was to bump and arm bar players when they moved off the ball, which was then eliminated in 2005’s rule change emphasizing “freedom of movement.” All of this laid the foundation for today’s game.

Let’s jump a few more years to an isolation-heavy offense, the 2006 Lakers, and a Kobe Bryant drive:

Look at all that beautiful open court to attack! If help comes from anywhere, Kobe should be able to find an open shooter or cutter. This was the same kind of read-and-react game from the ’90s, only with better spacing principles (increased 3-point shooting) and no illegal defense (abolished in 2002 for defensive 3 seconds). Some teams were even initiating offenses with all five guys around the arc.

This is really difficult to guard. The threat of the shooters, and the space needed to help off of them and then recover strains defenses, who must pick-a-poison whenever the player initiating the pick-and-roll is an offensive weapon (like Steve Nash). The NBA moved toward this approach during the last decade, as 3-point shooting became more prevalent and stretch bigs helped open up the court. This has driven up individual scoring rates, led to a rise in creation and helped the league set an efficiency record in 2017.

Finally, you’ve earned it. Let’s enjoy the first-class experience:

Ladies and gentlemen, that is a high pick-and-roll 10 feet beyond the 3-point line, with three shooters pinning the defense to the arc. This is the game today — lots of space, threats everywhere and minimal congestion on cuts. That wide-open shaded area in the above screenshot is at least 350 square feet, the size of a New York City apartment.

Or, in the old days, the home of most of the defenders on the court.