The opening week of the 2015 NBA playoffs was missing the "oomph" factor, with the favorites almost unanimously holding serve at home, often in very comfortable fashion. While there were definitely a number intriguing developments—Derrick Rose's return to form, the intense Clippers/Spurs showdown, the possible revival of the Grizzlies, Rajon Rondo self-combusting during the middle of a game—there hadn't really been a signature moment. That changed late Thursday night thanks to Warriors guard Stephen Curry.
Curry, the odds-on favorite to take home MVP honors this season, drained a game-tying three-pointer in the closing seconds of Game 3 to cap a 20-point fourth-quarter comeback against the Pelicans in New Orleans. He did it by shaking free from one defender, launching over two others, and while falling to the court. He went on help deliver (40 points, nine rebounds, five assists) a 123-119 victory in overtime, thereby pushing Golden State to a commanding 3-0 series lead. Curry's shot killed the Pelicans' hopes of making this a series, on sight, and set up the possibility of a sweep on Saturday.
That sounds like a shot worthy of a deeper look.
The play begins
Golden State set up its final play, down three with 9.6 seconds, on the left sideline with Draymond Green inbounding the ball and Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Marreese Speights on the court. That's a really nice five to have in this type of situation: Green is a trustworthy decision-maker and good passer, Curry and Thompson are among the top three-point shooters in the league, Barnes hit 40 percent of his threes this season, and Speights has the girth needed to set a meaningful pick and he had the highest offensive rebounding percentage of any Golden State player that logged at least 550 minutes this season.
Here's how Golden State set up.
Note that Curry and Thompson are separated on opposite sides of the court with the intended effect of splitting the Pelicans' defensive attention. Barnes and Speights set up just inside the arc on the right side, which seemingly telegraphs that Curry will run from the right corner through two screens and look for a pass at the top of the arc.
Curry indeed curls around the top -- with the bigger, slower Quincy Pondexter trailing him by a full step -- and Thompson simultaneously heads across the paint to set a screen for Barnes. Golden State's "Plan B" if Curry didn't get open would have been to look for Thompson at the top of the arc. The hope was that his screen for Barnes would relax and/or confuse the defense, allowing Thompson to pop out to the top of the key with the help of a screen from Speights.
This action is called "screen the screener" because Thompson sets the first screen and then immediately gets a screen set for him. The left image shows Thompson setting the screen for Barnes; the right image shows him receiving it from Speights.
Even though he hardly did anything, Thompson deserves credit for an indirect assist here simply because the threat of his shooting ability demanded attention.
During his post-game comments, Curry confirmed that he was the first option and that Thompson was the second option. For whatever reason, New Orleans initially reacts as if thought Curry was a decoy. As Curry comes free on the left angle, the off-ball Pelicans are barely even looking in his direction. Green's pass to Curry isn't even that difficult, as Dante Cunningham is angled to defend the top of the arc rather than the near sideline. Three defenders remained on the weakside, accounting for their men, and Cunningham didn't rush to double or trap Curry out of apparent respect for Green's three-point shooting ability.
The whole thing is a bit curious because Pelicans coach Monty Williams repeatedly told reporters afterwards that his plan was to foul quickly rather than allowing a potential game-tying three-pointer. Anthony Davis also told reporters that the plan was to foul. What happened? Pondexter isn't nearly close enough to Curry on the catch to give a quick foul.
Once the catch takes place with space, there's not much Pondexter can do: he surely respects Curry's quick-trigger shooting motion, and he's smart enough not to foul Curry once he enters his shooting motion. New Orleans didn't switch on any of the screens to ensure that there was someone in place to foul immediately, and Cunningham doesn't leave the inbounder or display the urgent help you might expect in a quick foul situation. All in all, the Pelicans look like a team that plans to play out the possession, rather than foul. The most charitable interpretation is that they simply expected Pondexter to handle the foul by himself, and he never got a chance. "We didn't execute the gameplan," Williams lamented afterwards.
The first shot
Pondexter comports himself just fine over the next few seconds. He closes the space on Curry with his arm up to contest a catch-and-shoot attempt, which leads to a Curry pump fake and a dribble.to his right. Pondexter stays with him and gets a hand up on the eventual shot, which was a tough but makeable step-back jumper.
(Replays indicated that Curry's foot might have been on the line when he released this one, meaning a make would have only cut New Orleans' lead to one.)
The shot came up short, glancing softly off the rim back towards the strongside of the court. The carom set up a rebounding scramble that New Orleans didn't seem entirely prepared for. Jrue Holiday did his best to tie up the bigger Barnes. Cunningham remained out of the play entirely. Davis lost contact with Speights, who charged hard towards the paint from the right elbow. Tyreke Evans read the rebounding angle correctly, but Speights simply beat him to the spot.
The set up
The Warriors coaches are fond of saying that Curry is as dangerous off the ball as he is on the ball. Curry doesn't need to handle the ball like a traditional point guard, initiating every play, to be an offensive threat. What happened next might not be a perfect illustration of that point because it was a scramble situation rather than a play designed to make use of Curry's ability to move without the ball.
Still, Curry proved that you can never, ever, ever take your eyes off of him, not even for a split second, and he showed that his off-ball, spacing instincts are up there with his off-the-dribble shooting ability. Curry lands from his first shot attempt with 7.5 seconds on the clock. He's looking right at Speights, who beats both Davis and Evans to the rebound. As he told reporters afterwards, he immediately realized that Pondexter was napping and seized his split-second opportunity by racing 10+ feet into the open left corner. Curry received the ball back from Speights with 5.0 seconds on the clock and immediately began his shooting motion.
To recap: It took Curry 2.5 seconds to land from one shot, process the rebound and the defense's positioning, run 10+ feet, and set up for a second shot. In that same amount of time, Pondexter turned the wrong way, glanced around, eventually realized what was happening behind him, and managed to take one step towards the corner. He had no chance of impacting the second shot.
Not to belabor the point, but Pondexter looks a bit like a blindfolded zombie or a tourist in Times Square as he rotates cluelessly and turns his back on Curry, the ball and the baseline. Honestly, he got caught watching the game like the rest of the Smoothie King Center fans.
Here's a GIF for full effect. Hover over the image to play it.
Let's take a brief detour from Curry's work to marvel at Speights. His path from the right elbow, to the left baseline, to the left angle is big man ballet. Kudos to him for steering clear of Davis, for putting himself in position so that the rebound basically landed in his gut, and for mixing in a single dribble so that the whole thing wouldn't be spoiled by a traveling violation. Most importantly, he just beat everyone to the ball.
With Curry cutting wide open in front of him, the decision to pitch the ball back to his superstar was surely a no-brainer. But Speights didn't stop there, instead continuing to his left so that he could get a screen in on Pondexter, preventing the possibility of a hard-charging block from the side and helping to create a sliver of daylight for Curry to launch.
Speights' action on this play brought to mind a play from a game between the Warriors and Bulls earlier this season. On that play, Pau Gasol shoveled the ball back to Jimmy Butler in the left corner before screening Speights to keep him away from Butler. Speights responded in hilarious fashion, flailing so hard that he received a flop warning from the NBA.
On Thursday, Speights expertly played the role of Gasol and got a good lick in on Pondexter to boot.
The second shot
By this point, hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Curry's pure shooting ability. (Read this recent ESPN: The Magazine profile to bone up on Curry's shooting roots.) All of those words are accurate and deserved, and all of them probably still undersell his skill somehow. Curry's second shot was so quick-trigger that a careful study of the replay indicates that he appeared to catch the pass and release the shot within a half-second.
As Thompson noted afterwards, the degree-of-difficulty was also enormous: Curry had to shoot over Davis, the league's leading shot-blocker and a master at tipping shots on close-outs, and a hard-charging Evans. He had to set up inbounds, in tight quarters, and he endured significant contact as he attempted to complete his follow-through. During his post-game comments, Curry seemed surprised that there was no foul call and he described the post-shot contact as being "clobbered."
Replays showed that Curry's shot barely cleared Davis's hand and that Curry's body was contorting sideways, partially curled up to lessen the contact, while the shot was still in the air. One angle even seemed to show that Curry's eyes were closed shortly after the release.
No matter. Curry's shot swished through cleanly. Of course.
"To make that shot shows everything that Steph is about," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "His confidence level is off the charts. He's fearless. He wants every big shot."
There were 2.8 seconds remaining on the clock after Curry's shot went through, and Evans immediately took off for the races. As Curry's family members celebrated in the stands and the Warriors bench went crazy, Curry picked himself up off the court and jogged back on defense, realizing that his heroics could be erased by an Evans basket. He admitted afterwards that he was nervous as Evans launched a double-clutch three-pointer that had a chance but ultimately missed off the back of the rim. Curry's nerves were justified. Had Evans delivered, it would have been one of the best end-to-end momentum pendulum swings in recent postseason history.
After the buzzer sounded, Curry pumped his fist, stomped twice, and doubled over in glee. He scored seven points and dished out two assists in overtime, icing the game with a pair of free throws in the closing seconds and finishing with 40 points, nine assists and five rebounds.
So many ingredients went into making Curry's incredible shot shot: Golden State's personnel decisions and play design, the right pass from Green, the threat of Thompson's shooting, Speights' instincts, a fortuitous bounce on the rebound, New Orleans' inability to put itself in position to foul, a total breakdown from Pondexter, and, of course, Curry's insane shot-making ability.
Curry's three turned the Pelicans' upset hopes—briefly raised by a strong overall showing in Game 3—into toast. Amazingly, some fans began filing out before Curry even hit his final two free throws in overtime. He plunged the dagger so deep they didn't want to stick around to think about it. Remember, this was New Orleans' first home playoff game since 2011!
Although this shot was an ending for the Pelicans, it goes down as a beginning for everyone else. Now, finally, the 2015 playoffs are rolling.