How The Warriors Defend Kyrie Irving With Goalies and Traps (2017 Finals Game 1)

A classic, archived for your pleasure

This article originally appeared on Bballbreakdown.com during the 2017 NBA Finals. I wrote a series of pretty great articles for BBB, but in March 2018 ClutchPoints took over the web site and since then has allowed ALL of my articles (and everyone else’s at BBB) to fall off the web. So I’m re-publishing them here at LGW slowly over time.

2017 Finals Analysis

Defending Kyrie

By Eric Apricot, June 2nd 2017 (right after Finals Game 1)

A major part of any team’s scheme for defending the Cavaliers is how to contain Kyrie Irving. By reputation and by highlight count, Kyrie Irving is one of the most skilled isolation scorers and pick and roll ballhandlers in the NBA. Statistics agree: NBA.com shows that his points per possession on isolation plays from the 16-17 regular season is 1.12 ppp, good for #3 out of 86 frequent isolation players. For context, other Finals players’ ranked high are Stephen Curry (#4), Kevin Durant (#8), and LeBron James (#29) at 0.97 ppp. 

For scoring out of the pick and roll, Irving is not quite at the top, but still highly ranked (#26 out of 134) with 0.96 ppp. Durant is #20, James is #24, and Curry #34. It’s impressive that he keeps up his efficiency despite high usage, isolating at the #6 highest rate (21.4% of possessions) and shooting in the pick and roll often (34%). 

So on the one hand, it’s true that Kyrie is an elite isolation scorer and a very good pick and roll ballhandler. On the other hand, Ryan Knaus calculates that the Warriors are good defenders of isolation plays, giving up (0.87 ppp) and even better at stopping the pick and roll ball handler (0.83 ppp). So Kyrie’s preferred attack modes are relatively low efficiency, so in general the Warriors will invite him these kinds of attacks. 

The Warriors as a base defense will switch most pick and rolls, and Kyrie as a rule will turn these switches into isolation plays. Both teams accept these terms of engagement, so overall, Cavaliers half-court plays for Kyrie turn into selecting the worst isolation defender on the floor for the Warriors, having them screen for Kyrie, getting them to switch, then attacking them in isolation. 

Because these plays turn into baseball-like one-on-one attacks, the Warriors have tuned their defensive scheme to be defender specific. The scheme can be described as a base defense and special cases for Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia, and JaVale McGee. 

The Base Defense

Some people call this scheme an overload or a shadow. I like to call it a goalie scheme. Basically, whoever guards Kyrie goes over the screen, whoever is being attacked plays Kyrie to funnel him to one side towards a designated help defender, the goalie, who keeps a foot in the paint ready to contest the drive at the rim.  This is similar to the defense the Warriors used on LeBron James last year, and which they use regularly to guard Russell Westbrook and guard James Harden.

Here’s a basic example where Kyrie attacks Curry. Who’s the goalie?

JaVale McGee is the goalie lurking at the edge of the weakside paint. In this case, Andre Iguodala knocks the ball free. 

Here’s another one, where Kyrie attacks Durant. Who’s the goalie?

In this case, Draymond Green lurks in the paint to contest Kyrie at the rim. You can see that when Green contests, another Warrior has to rotate (in this case Shaun Livingston missed the rotation), otherwise Draymond’s original man is in good position to get offensive rebounds.

If the goalie defense is working, Kyrie may opt to not drive into a forest of arms and instead pull up for a jumper. Here he attacks Klay Thompson. Who is the goalie?

The goalie is Draymond again, whom you can see lurking in the paint. Here Kyrie just shoots over the top, and the Warriors will take a long contested midrange pull-up from Kyrie every time. 

And here, even the great defender Andre Iguodala gets a goalie, though he ends up not needing Draymond.

Whenever Draymond Green is on the floor, he is usually the goalie, being the best defender. Kevin Durant sometimes serves as the goalie, but he is not as relentlessly locked in on defense, and sometimes forgets to be goalie. Here’s an example. Watch the body language of the players after the play.

At the start, you see Draymond pointing to signal Durant to be the goalie. Even Ian Clark jumps over for a second to play goalie until he thinks Durant has got it. Durant instead turns his back on the play to locate Kevin Love. In the meantime, Curry funnels Kyrie towards the basket, and Kyrie makes a layup two feet behind Durant’s head. Even though the Warriors were up twenty with under five minutes to play, you still see Curry throwing his hands in exasperation and Draymond throwing up arms of confusion, and complaining to Durant.

Draymond Green on Kyrie

Here are three plays where Kyrie attacked Draymond Green with Klay Thompson as the original defender. See if you can pick up the scheme.

Like the goalie scheme, Klay Thompson tries his best to fight through the screen and when he can’t, he goes over the screen. In the meantime, Draymond Green switches to Kyrie below the level of the screen to contain the drive. Here, Draymond does NOT have a goalie. In the last two clips, Kyrie has to finish very difficult layups, but he does score. In the Portland series, C.J. McCollum showed he could drive past Draymond Green regularly and finish with sharp angle bank shots, and Kyrie shows here he can do the same. 

If Kyrie begins to hurt the Warriors isolating on Green, they may start using a goalie for Green as well. 

Zaza Pachulia on Kyrie

Zaza is slow. He can use bulk, position and high pain tolerance to fight attackers in the post, though his shot blocking is below average. But most importantly, he is slow and is regularly attacked in space. For instance, early in the game, Kyrie uses Zaza as a Georgian traffic cone on his way to a layup.

So, here is the Warriors scheme altered to fit Zaza. 

You can see that Draymond Green, though alert, does not have a foot in the lane as a goalie. Instead, Zaza and Kyrie’s defender spring a double-team trap. Here, they force Kyrie to pass to Tristan Thompson on the short roll. Here Tristan makes the right pass on the 3-on-2, but it’s a slow pass, which lets Zaza Pachulia lumber back to contest Love’s corner three. 

Here’s another example where Kyrie ends up sealing Curry off in the post and is about to have a window to attack Zaza at the rim. So using the same principles, you get this play:

Zaza comes over to back up Curry (once Draymond points, grabs him and shoves him towards the play), then immediately double teams Kyrie. Kyrie almost squirts out of the trap in the corner, but Draymond grabs the loose ball and saves it with an effective, if risky pass.

Why does Zaza have his own double-team scheme? The Warriors may consider him too slow to funnel a driver towards the goalie. Or, the Cavaliers may tend to play lineups where Zaza is already guarding the only non-shooter, so Draymond Green can’t easily help. (For instance, in both clips above, Draymond is marking Kevin Love spotted up int he left corner. 

JaVale McGee on Kyrie

Finally, JaVale McGee, as is often the case, is in a strange category of his own. When Kyrie attacks him, he appears to be left to single cover Kyrie. 

On the one hand, JaVale is a decent shot blocker, and he had to hang on while Draymond was out for early foul trouble in the first. On the other hand, in the three clips, Kyrie gets

(1) a hockey assist for a huge LeBron dunk -- more Curry’s fault than JaVale’s

(2) a difficult sweet layup, and

(3) an open pull-up jumper

You could argue that JaVale didn’t play these that badly, but JaVale also didn’t come back into the game, so Coach Mike Brown might not have been convinced by these arguments.

Final Thoughts

There seem to be openings to exploit in this scheme. First, the Cavs could do the same counters they run when the Warriors played a goalie defense on LeBron (the abandoned man flashes to the basket, or sets flare screen for a shooter). Second, if they know Zaza Pachulia is going to double team, they can plan to have the screener more prepared to run the man advantage from the short-roll. 

But for Game 1, the scheme seemed to work. Kyrie Irving shot 10-22 for 24 points and was -17, with a number of points coming on play breakdowns, and not out of a half-court set. It will be interesting to see how the Cavaliers choose to counter this Warriors defense on Kyrie Irving.