“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” – Silvio Dante, quoting Michael Corleone.
At 6:05 of the fourth quarter, Stephen Curry received the ball under his own basket, looked up court and threw a 70 foot chest pass that hit a double-covered CJ Watson in the hands for a layup. This sensational play capped a 16-0 Warriors run that tied the game at 95, and sent the Oracle into delirium. And thanks to the good folks at Golden State of Mind, the Thaiblonde and I were right in the midst of the madness. We were eight rows back behind the backboard jumping up in joyous disbelief as Watson caught the ball over his shoulder and layed in the reverse.
Stephen Curry said after the game that if he had thrown that pass away he would have spent the rest of the game on the bench. He was joking, of course. Curry is fortunate to play for a man that not only coaches that pass, but game-plans it and demands it. It was one of several long passes that beat the ferocious Hawks defense down court in this game, and it occurred by design.
But oh, the execution… and the moment! It was the play of the game, and for me, the play of this Warriors season. Not least because I was near court-side to see it. A giant shout-out to my golden friends at GSoM for this great experience!
This was a great game for a lot of reasons. Let’s start with the way it was coached:
Coach Don Nelson: Defensive genius Mike Woodson is the odds-on favorite for coach of the year. Well, the old, washed-up coach of the Warriors spanked little Mikey Woodson’s bottom in this game. When faced by a vastly superior team — which the Atlanta Hawks are — a coach has two weapons at his disposal: 1) the creation and exploitation of mismatches; and 2) the element of surprise. Nellie deployed both masterfully last night.
The Hawks had mismatches all over the court. Nellie had to work hard to find his. It began at the point guard position, and specifically, Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford. These players are the soft underbelly of the Hawks’ fearsome defense. And Nellie went right at them from the opening tip. If you’re looking for a reason that Curry’s assist total was so low in this game, this is it. Curry was instructed to attack, and to get his own shot. So far this season, Curry has rarely looked to break his man down off the dribble and penetrate the lane. That wasn’t the case last night: Curry attacked his man relentlessly. A perfect example came on the play at 5:13 of the fourth that put the Warriors ahead 97-95. Curry split the trap at the top of the key, and drove the lane for a layup. How often have you seen that from Curry this year? That play has largely been the responsibility of Monta Ellis this season. But in this game, Monta Ellis was used almost exclusively off the ball.
Curry’s 32 points in this game came by design. Don Nelson’s design.
Nellie had one more mismatch in mind for this game, but he held it in reserve, as a surprise. At 8:47 of the fourth quarter, Nellie put Biedrins back in the game, to play alongside Chris Hunter at power forward. Biedrins guarded Josh Smith, whom the Warriors had no answer for up to this point in the game. Nellie sprang this matchup on Mike Woodson as a trap, and Woodson fell into it with both feet. Woodson stubbornly continued to have his team pound it inside to Smith down the stretch, and Biedrins turned Smith away again and again. Smith went 0-5 in the fourth quarter.
I’ve seen Nellie successfully pull this trap before, against David West and the Hornets at the peak of their power a couple of years ago. Biedrins shut West down and the Warriors got a great win in New Orleans. For short bursts, Beans is a terrific defender of power forwards. His defense on Smith was instrumental in the Warriors’ 16-0 run to take the lead.
But Biedrins wasn’t the only trap that Nellie pulled in the fourth. Another was his defense on Joe Johnson down the stretch. At 6-7″ 240, Johnson presented quite a mismatch for Monta Ellis. Or so Mike Woodson thought. Nellie had been content to let Monta guard Johnson without help all game long, and Johnson had eaten Monta up on continued isolations in the low post. But when Nellie brought Monta back to guard Johnson at 4:07 of the fourth, he changed his defensive strategy. The Warriors started trapping Johnson on his isolations. Woodson and the Hawks were completely unprepared for this. Not only did the Hawks fail to find their open shooters (check out Hunter’s perfectly executed trap of Johnson at 0:25, with a wide-open Jamal Crawford waving his arms in the corner), but a distracted Johnson had the ball stolen from him twice by Monta Ellis down the stretch. Ballgame.
Focussed on the mismatches that had carried the Hawks to a big third quarter lead, Mike Woodson completely forgot about the one player he had whom the Warriors simply could not guard: Jamal Crawford. Crawford is having a great season as the Hawks sixth man. He has won several games for the Hawks by taking over in the fourth quarter, with Mike Bibby on the bench.
But Bibby wasn’t on the bench in this fourth quarter. Woodson felt he needed him on the floor. Why? Because in addition to going with two centers up front, Nellie was playing three point guards, with Watson joining Curry and Ellis. Woodson matched up with Mike Bibby, and used him to initiate the offense to the stymied Smith and Johnson. Big mistake. Fatal mistake. Jamal Crawford, one of the great closers in the NBA, barely touched the ball in the fourth quarter, going 0-4.
Thank you, Don Nelson.
Stephen Curry: Curry has had an interesting five game stretch, hasn’t he? Three absolute masterpieces, interspersed with two total stinkers. And an all-star game and three-point shooting contest thrown in.
Scoff all you like, haters, I am going to keep putting out there what I have been putting out there since the preseason: Stephen Curry is a basketball genius. I can count the players I have seen with a comparable basketball IQ on the fingers of one hand: Magic, Bird, Stockton, Kidd, Nash.
We are unbelievably fortunate to be watching this phenomenal talent blossom in a Warriors uniform. Thank you, Don Nelson.
Monta Ellis: I wonder, will this performance do anything to quell the media bleatings that Ellis and Curry can’t play together? Ellis stated when he came back that he had been impressed by the Warriors ball-movement, and that he wanted to fit his game into that. If this game is any evidence, he meant what he said. He willingly deferred to Stephen Curry, and accepted his role off the ball.
And for those of you who wanted Monta traded for OJ Mayo and a giant stiff, ask yourself this question: Does OJ Mayo come up with those two steals against Joe Johnson?
The Centers: It says a lot about the current state of Biedrins and Turiaf that Chris Hunter is the best finisher on the Warriors. 3:11 of the second. 1:30 of the second. 9:47 of the fourth. 9:09 of the fourth. Chris Hunter can catch the ball and slam it through with authority, against one of the toughest front lines in the league. The Warriors are desperate for this ability. In Curry and Ellis, they have two of the best pick and roll guards in the league. Their talents are going to waste without big men to finish for them.
Andris Biedrins has completely opted out of the pick and roll this year. At least twice last night, I saw him set the pick and refuse to roll. Why? He doesn’t want the ball back. If he gets it back, he knows he’s going to get fouled and have to go to the line. This is truly a revolting development in a player who two years ago was one of the Warriors’ best finishers. Sad to say, but if he doesn’t fix his free throw problems, he’s gone. The Warriors need partners for Curry and Ellis in the pick and roll. If Biedrins can’t do it anymore, Nellie will trade him.
Chris Hunter was great in this game, and not just in the pick and roll. His fourth quarter defense alongside Biedrins was spectacular. Nellie stated post-game that this was Hunter’s best performance as a pro, and that he was proud of him. Surprising comments from a coach who, as we have been told repeatedly by the media, doesn’t get along with young big men, and doesn’t know how to develop them.
Can Chris Hunter be this good on a regular basis? Is he good enough to earn a place in the rotation? Sadly, Andris Biedrins’ failures have me contemplating these questions.
CJ Watson: I am never again going to snidely predict that CJ Watson will get a layup blocked. The lightbulb has suddenly gone on for CJ. In the span of about five games, he has gone from a player for whom finishing layups was a considerable weakness, to a great finisher, with no in-between. He is taking it strong, he’s taking it into the contact, he’s taking the hit, and he’s still finishing. The number of “And One’s” he’s picked up in the last few games is incredible. I think he had three or four in the Kings game alone. I don’t know what happened, but I love it. I’ve felt for some time that CJ is one of the best backup point guards in the league, but with this development, he may be playing himself not merely into a big contract, but into a starting role on another team. If that happens, I’ll be sad to see him go.
Devean George: DG can play D. Still, on one leg. He can play it against power forwards (11:39 of the second against Josh Smith). He can play it against shooting guards (8:31 of the second against Joe Johnson). He is giving the Warriors good, effective minutes. Its strange that a coach who doesn’t care about defense would have traded for him, isn’t it?
Almost as strange as that a coach who doesn’t care about defense could have devised a trap that held the Atlanta Hawks to 5-22 shooting in the fourth quarter.
Random Observations from Court-Side:
- Raja Bell worked out in a shooting and conditioning drill before the game. He looked pretty good running key to key and hitting 8 straight shots.
- CJ Watson beaned Jamal Crawford in the back with a ball during warmups, by way of initiating a warm reunion.
- Zaza Pachulia has a gigantic head. You could fit two Andris Biedrins heads into one Zaza Pachulia head.
- It costs $11 for a Fat Tire. What’s even sicker is that I paid it. For me, Fat Tire is the Lagavulin of beers. Who laid this nefarious trap for feltbot?
- As I was standing and cheering, I noticed that the Curry to Watson bomb got Don Nelson out of his seat, too. Like a fan. The old man who’s lost interest and is only in it for the money. The old man who’s a terrible fit for this young team. I would be willing to bet a lot of money that Nellie sticks around to coach Stephen Curry’s second season. How about it, Matt Steinmetz?