The Warriors shocked the world on Wednesday by taking a 3-0 series lead over the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, setting up the potential for a sweep in Friday’s Game 4. A win would clinch Golden State’s third title in four years, a remarkable feat that literally nobody saw coming. The Warriors’ success is especially impressive considering that they had to overcome the departure of Matt Barnes last summer, and had to feature a non–Hall of Fame–caliber player in their starting lineup for the entire season. For two straight years, the haters have said there was simply no way that the most stacked team in NBA history could ever put it all together. They said adding one of the best players in the world to a 73-win team could never work, and that running an offense with two of the greatest shooters of all time surrounding one of the greatest scorers of all time was a recipe for disaster. Lesser teams would have folded under such scrutiny, but the Warriors blocked out the noise and embarked on a Cinderella run that won’t soon be forgotten.
So how is Golden State accomplishing this? Head coach Steve Kerr’s four best players are a guy who was drafted behind Greg Oden, a guy who was drafted behind Jonny Flynn, a guy who was drafted behind Jimmer Fredette, and a guy who was drafted two spots behind Bernard James. How is Kerr making the playoffs with that, much less maintaining a dynasty?
To understand Kerr’s coaching genius, you first need to have an advanced knowledge of the game of basketball. I apologize if that comes across as slightly condescending, but it’s become clear that most NBA fans, who are essentially just internet trolls on the hunt for memes, don’t have this. Thus, I understand the challenge that I face in trying to explain the finer points of basketball strategy to meme lords who just want to call Kevin Durant a snake and laugh at LeBron James for not winning another championship. It’s a risk I’m willing to take, however, because what Kerr is doing with the plucky Warriors in these Finals, especially on the defensive end, represents a coaching master class that should be appreciated by everyone. I’ll do my best to dumb everything down, but just know it’s going to take a colossal amount of brainpower to make sense of the way that they’re thriving.
All right, here we go: The Warriors are switching pretty much every ball screen. I know. It’s confusing. See, usually when a screen (that’s the term for that thing where a guy grabs his balls and thrusts his hips at a defender) is set, the defense is put in a predicament. The defenders face a choice. They are forced to either—you know what? Screw this. I’m too worked up to keep this charade going any longer. I can’t hide my anger over the fact that one of the greatest basketball teams ever assembled is competing on the sport’s biggest stage and choosing to switch virtually every ball screen … AND IT’S WORKING. Do you realize how stupid that is? The Warriors are employing the exact same defensive strategy that fat guys use in pickup games, where they yell out “Switch!” three seconds before a screen is even set. And it’s working. IT’S WORKING. HOW IS THIS REMOTELY POSSIBLE?
Seriously, think about it for a second. The best basketball player who has ever lived can get a one-on-one matchup with any Golden State defender he wants in the snap of a finger. All he has to do is identify the Warriors’ worst defender on the court and have his teammate who is being guarded by that defender come and set a ball screen. Boom. Done. That’s it. Now LeBron can wave everybody off and cook the likes of Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney to his heart’s delight.
The only problem is that the Warriors are so damn good that they can selectively throw double-teams at LeBron and collapse into the paint when he blows by his defender yet still rotate and recover quickly enough to challenge Cleveland’s shooters who are positioned at the 3-point line in the event that LeBron kicks it out. So when James isn’t hitting outside shots (like he wasn’t in Game 3, when he went 1-of-6 from deep), the Cavs get stuck in this never-ending loop in which seemingly every possession turns into LeBron backing his defender down into no-man’s land and praying for something or someone to open up before the shot clock runs out. That the Warriors are about to sweep the Cavs by playing the simplest and laziest defensive scheme imaginable while also not even caring who gets matched up with the best player in the world is such a disrespectful FUCK YOU that I genuinely think that the NBA should fine Kerr and suspend him for the first couple games of next season.
Actually, forget how disrespectful this strategy is to the Cavs—that the Warriors can dominate the Finals by switching every ball screen is an affront to me personally. I mean, do you realize how much of my life I’ve devoted to ball-screen defense? It’s staggering. While other college students had some semblance of a social life, I spent four years in a gym going under ball screens, going over ball screens, downing/icing them, hard hedging, soft hedging, dropping, and showing and going. I watched countless hours of film and pored through encyclopedias of scouting reports to understand the tendencies of players I might have to guard, all so I would know which ball-screen defense strategy to employ in every potential situation.
And then I graduated and became a college basketball writer around the same time that Virginia’s Tony Bennett started gaining recognition as the best defensive coach in Division I. So I devoted significant time to studying his packline defense, of which a core tenet is his hard-hedging philosophy with ball screens. I watched as many Virginia games as possible and read everything pertaining to the packline that I could get my hands on. Along the way, I picked the brains of coaches I knew and even fell asleep a handful of times while watching a YouTube video of Travis Ford using terms like “skinny and slippery” and “scare and scream.” Here, check it out:
I have obsessed over this shit for more than a decade. And Kerr, coaching against the best player in the world with the sport’s biggest trophy on the line, spits in the face of every bit of basketball wisdom I was ever taught. He shrugs his shoulders and says, “Screw it—let’s switch.” AND IT WORKS.
There are many things to be angry about with these NBA Finals. The same two teams are playing each other for the fourth consecutive year, and the outcome has been all but predetermined since October. J.R. Smith robbed us of an opportunity for an all-time moment and a semicompetitive series at the end of Game 1. The officiating has been horrendous. The complaining about the officiating has been even worse, from both fans and the players themselves. The NBA thinking that the answer to that complaining is to engage with aggrieved fans on Twitter is equally bad. Durant destroyed the competitive balance of the NBA so thoroughly by joining the Warriors in 2016 that instead of enjoying Finals games, fans are left debating LeBron versus Jordan and arguing whether Durant is a coward for his move. The microphones of Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson still haven’t been muted for some strange reason. All of these things happening simultaneously have resulted in a Finals that isn’t exactly going down as a classic.
But if you ask me, none of these things is close to as frustrating as seeing the Warriors switching ball screens. Making matters worse, it’s not just the Warriors who are doing it. Kevin Love ended up guarding Durant on more than one pivotal Game 3 possession because the Cavs decided from the opening tip that when the Warriors have the ball and two Golden State players get within five feet of each other, it should automatically prompt a switch, no questions asked. Back in my day—when men were MEN—we either successfully fought through a screen or punched the guy setting the screen in the nuts as we tried to fight through it. We didn’t collapse into a puddle when someone set a screen on us, and we sure as shit didn’t call out for a switch before two offensive players got within 10 feet of each other. SO HOW THE HELL DID THIS BECOME THE DEFAULT STRATEGY AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL OF BASKETBALL?
I swear, if there were a coach in the Final Four who taught his players to mindlessly switch every time two offensive players walked by each other, NBA fans would never stop laughing at the simple-mindedness of college basketball. (Hell, Jim Boeheim already gets roasted for playing nothing but a 2-3 zone, which is almost indiscernible from switching man-to-man.) And yet, one of the greatest teams that the sport has ever seen, coached by a man who is about to own his eighth NBA championship ring, would yell for a switch if a stiff breeze blew through the gym. AND IT WORKS.
You know what, I’m just going to come out and say it: I am a man who prefers college basketball to the NBA, I am mad online, and I don’t care who knows it.