The Warriors have gone back to their roots without Kevin Durant. Since he strained his calf, they have gone 4-0, closed out the Rockets in Game 6 of their second-round series, and jumped out to a commanding 3-0 lead over the Blazers in the Western Conference finals. It’s not that they are better without Durant, it’s just that the synergy between Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green is still enough to beat teams whose best players don’t fit as well together. The original Big Three in Golden State is the perfect blueprint for how to build around a pick-and-roll guard like Curry. Neither Houston nor Portland has been able to replicate it in the last four seasons. They won’t beat Golden State until they do.
The Warriors went back to the Curry-and-Green pick-and-roll as the foundation of their offense during the last four games. They are the 21st-century version of John Stockton and Karl Malone, forcing defenses to pick their poison every time down the floor. Curry’s ability to shoot 3s off the dribble makes it impossible to play the most traditional style of pick-and-roll defense—dropping a big man back in the paint—against him. Portland tried in Game 1 and Curry single-handedly killed them, with 36 points on 12-of-23 shooting and seven assists. They extended further up the floor to guard him in games 2 and 3, which opened things up for Green, who averaged 18 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 9.5 assists in those two games.
Golden State wants defenses to put two defenders on Curry because it creates 4-on-3 opportunities for Green. He can take the ball to the rim, or find the open man if the defense collapses on him, whether it’s a lob at the rim or a skip pass to the 3-point line. He’s an elite passer who can make split-second decisions and attack the gaps in the defense before it recovers. The Warriors are essentially moving the ball from one point guard (Curry) to another (Green) without losing any vision or ability. The two make each other better than they could be on their own. Playing next to a point forward like Green means Curry doesn’t get trapped as often in the pick-and-roll, while Green gets more opportunities to make plays in space because he’s setting screens for an elite shooter like Curry.
Lillard has never had a pick-and-roll partner like Green. His starting frontcourt features a lumbering post scorer (Enes Kanter) and two 3-and-D forwards (Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless) with shaky jumpers. Portland swapped Kanter for Meyers Leonard in Game 3 to put in a more dangerous shooter who could take advantage of the Warriors’ traps. He finished with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting and four assists, but it wasn’t enough to alter Golden State’s defensive strategy. Lillard still faced multiple defenders when he came off screens. His only options in those situations are to either give up the ball to a less-talented passer, or try to beat the double team himself. He strung out Steven Adams, a less mobile big man, in a first-round victory against Oklahoma City, but that doesn’t work against quicker defenders like Green. Lillard has done his job when he has forced two defenders to guard him, even if for only a second. He just needs someone to dish the ball off to.
Harden has the same issue in Houston. The one constant in all his postseason losses to Golden State is the lack of playmaking forwards next to him. It’s more than just having an answer for defenses that trap the pick-and-roll. The Rockets don’t have much offensive flexibility because their frontcourt is made up of players better at finishing plays than starting them. The Warriors run Curry and Thompson through a maze of screens off the ball because Green has the passing chops to hit them in stride for open shots. That wouldn’t work with defensive specialists like P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela making those same reads.
The difference between Golden State and the two teams they have beaten in the last week is that Curry plays with stars who complement him. Harden (Chris Paul) and Lillard (C.J. McCollum) have co-stars who replicate them. Instead of sharing a backcourt with a longer and more athletic shooting guard like Thompson, they play next to a smaller version of themselves. The biggest benefit to playing with another elite pick-and-roll guard is their teams can run the same offense when they are out of the game. But that still means Harden and Paul, and Lillard and McCollum need to take turns on offense. Curry and Thompson don’t. They can be the best possible versions of themselves at the same time.
The Splash Brothers fit together perfectly. At 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds, Thompson is an all-time great shooter who can score without needing to hold the ball, while also having the size, quickness, and tenacity to hound opposing point guards on defense. His defensive versatility allows Curry to hide out on weaker offensive players. Thompson blanketed Paul in the second round, holding him to 8-of-19 shooting in the 165 possessions when he was the primary defender, and he has done the same thing to Lillard in the conference finals and held him to 7-of-21 shooting in 113 possessions.
The partnership works both ways. Curry benefits from Thompson cross-switching with him on defense, while Thompson benefits from Curry getting cross-switched with him on offense. Most defenses try to put a longer and more athletic wing on Curry, which leaves opposing point guards on Thompson. McCollum, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound combo guard, has been Klay’s primary defender in the conference finals. Thompson can take smaller defenders into the post and shoot over the top of him as if they aren’t even there, or run them around screens off the ball and use his size to create separation. The NBA is a game of inches, and the 4 inches between Thompson and McCollum make all the difference in the world.
Curry, Thompson, and Green are better than the sum of their parts. Most Big Threes feature at least one star who has to take a backseat, whether it was Kevin Love with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, or Chris Bosh with LeBron and Dwyane Wade in Miami. That isn’t happening in Golden State. Neither Thompson nor Green would be as effective if they were the primary option in an offense instead of playing off a superstar point guard like Curry. That dynamic also holds true in reverse. Curry needs them as much as they need him.
He would have a much harder time if he switched places with Harden or Lillard. In either scenario, Curry would be playing in a tiny backcourt that would struggle to defend bigger guards, and he wouldn’t have a big man who could pass him open. Who would he guard if Lillard or Harden were running the Golden State offense and hunting him on defense? Curry could trap and hedge with impunity against Harden because none of the Houston forwards could make plays in 4-on-3 situations. He wouldn’t be able to do that if he were playing against the Warriors instead of for them.
That hypothetical should guide both Portland and Houston going forward. Golden State isn’t going anywhere, even if Durant leaves. A pick-and-roll guard who doesn’t have the same type of supporting cast as Curry is hopelessly outgunned in a playoff series against him. To be sure, it’s not easy to find players like Thompson and Green. Hard decisions will have to be made. I think the Blazers should trade McCollum for a player like Aaron Gordon, a young forward with playmaking chops who could make a huge leap if he were paired with an All-Star point guard. And for as good as Paul and Capela are against the rest of the league, the Rockets probably need to move at least one to find players who matchup better with the Warriors.
These playoff battles should be a lesson for teams around the NBA. The next generation of great players will feature more elite pick-and-roll point guards like Curry, Harden, and Lillard. The question isn’t whether any will be as good as Curry, but whether they will be in as good a situation as him. Curry might have the best combination of passing, shooting, and ballhandling ability of any player in NBA history, and he would still be a huge underdog if he were leading Portland or Houston in a series against a team as well constructed as Golden State. The key to success in the playoffs with a player like him is to pair him with a point forward and a long and athletic shooting guard. There’s a ceiling to a team that doesn’t have those types of players and tries to build around two pick-and-roll point guards instead.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the one team that has copied the most important parts of the Warriors model is run by one of their former executives. Atlanta Hawks GM Travis Schlenk drafted Trae Young to be his version of Curry and began looking for players who could be his versions of Thompson and Green. It might be Kevin Huerter and John Collins, or the players he selects with the no. 8 and no. 10 overall picks in this year’s draft. The Hawks are building their team around the synergy that exists between players with specific skill sets. It might be the best way to build through the draft given the way the NBA has flattened the lottery odds to make accumulating superstars harder. The Warriors didn’t need to make any top five picks to build their first championship team. There’s a lot the league can still learn from them. Maybe they really are light-years ahead.