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Basketball, Neat: The Sixers’ Valiant Effort To Defend An Incredibly Tricky Warriors Possession

Welcome to “Basketball, Neat.” This is an intermittent column throughout the 2015-16 NBA season where DIME will discuss some basketball play or trend without extraneous information.

If you’re a fan of single-malt Scotch, you should be familiar with ordering a drink, neat. That’s what this is, but with basketball. So there will be none of the usual contextual or superficial noise you might hear on Twitter or even in our pieces at DIME. This isn’t some referendum on basketball coverage or anything quite so lofty; it’s just a tiny place to talk exclusively about hoops. We’d like to nerd out about basketball for a little bit before we go back to the overarching culture of basketball and the NBA we normally cover. We hope you like it, but it’s primarily just a selfish way to publish what we’re already talking about with each other.

Remarkable shooting isn’t what makes the Golden State Warriors so devastating offensively. The severely underrated passing ability of Steve Kerr’s team doesn’t account for that unmatched proficiency, either. Many different factors comprise the wholly unique amalgam that explains the reigning champions’ record-breaking offense, and some of them are more underrated than others: intelligence, familiarity, and on-the-fly decision making.

And the Warriors put those beautiful attributes on full display during the second half’s opening possession of a win over the Philadelphia 76ers way back in

Jack: Seriously, what’s the first option here?

Golden State loves to get easy baskets by leveraging Curry’s preeminent threat as a shooter with back screens. We’ve covered what makes the reigning MVP such a devastating force off the ball before, and the Warriors hope to exploit that advantage on this play against the Sixers.

Curry’s first screen comes after he makes a hard cut down the middle of the floor. Just when Philadelphia assumes he’s darting to either corner, he immediately reverses course and set a back pick for Draymond Green – a simple, surprising action Kerr pulls from his back pocket a few times per game.

This is where Golden State normally feasts. Curry’s man is usually so bothered by the possibility of basketball’s best shooter springing beyond the arc for an open triple that forgets to bump the man receiving the screen, essentially eschewing basic principles of help defense and putting his teammate in a no-win situation.

But Jerami Grant, the defender checking Green, does yeoman’s work getting over Curry’s pick and staying attached to his primary assignment. Just as important to cutting off a lob from Andrew Bogut to Green is Nerlens Noel. He knows the Warriors center won’t shoot from 20 feet and defends accordingly, sagging off Bogut to play an effective one-man zone and thwart off-ball activity on the other side of the paint.

It’s almost like Golden State knew that was coming, though. Instead of continuing up the floor and running a dribble handoff with Bogut after failing to free Green, Curry briefly stops before turning around and setting another pick for his loud-mouthed teammate – a choice we’re still not sure was scripted or otherwise.

And Philly’s defense, amazingly, reacts even better to this wrinkle than it did the initial one.

Spencer: One of the things I look for when I watch a young team is how often they seem to communicate. I say seem because I’m too busy (and old and lazy) and annoyed with the hassle to actually attend games in person so I can hear it myself, but talking is the biggest part of playing defense on a string. And it can’t be a whisper. BARK IT!

(A brief aside that has little to do with basketball, but a lot to do with life. Sorry, this is one Basketball, Neat, that’ll have some ice watering it down. Communication is so key to a team’s defense, it can’t be stressed enough. If you’re not talking, and actually cooperating and bouncing instructions and ideas off each other, a team’s defense can turn into total mess. Is it any wonder Houston never gets back on defense? Those guys seem like they hate each other, and it shows in their defense; there’s no talking and no collusion; every man’s an island. Communication is at least part of why the best defensive teams always seem to be tighter as a group than those who leak penetrators like an inflated balloon caught in a cheese grater. The importance of communicating translates into every substrata of life, too. A collaborative approach, and the transparent process behind it, defines the best in any endeavor, not just defense. There’s no such thing as too much talking, or too much communicating. A silent team, like a silent company, or a silent corporation or anything that involves more than two people toils — alone — in the inertia of the unknown. Everyone’s in it for themselves instead of being in it to help each other. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts is the cliche I’m taking a decidedly roundabout way of getting to.)

The only way a team survives a dangerously multifaceted attack like the Warriors is if everyone’s talking and talking and TALKING.

The fact Curry immediately turned and set a pin-down pick on Grant again is a testament to just how hard it is to stay with Golden State. I’d hazard to guess no other superstar in the league makes that decision; except, maybe, Kevin Durant if the pin-down was for Russell Westbrook. And Grant again fights through. But that’s not all that impressed me with the Sixers on this possession.

Noel’s one-man zone act is perfect here because not only does he bump Green as he’s making his initial cut to the rim, but once the ball goes back to Dray, he helps out Grant again by showing toward Green then quickly recovering to the now-cutting Bogut.

That’s just so incredibly selfless and hard and important. He’s helping and talking and helping and talking and it just makes me so happy. Noel is a social butterfly (seriously, that guy is at every party and event DIME’s ever visited), and it showed on this possession. We love him for it.

And while Noel might’ve been able to jump and intercept that lob pass Dray threw to a cutting Bogut, if he missed, that’s a dunk or a layup for Bogues.

Instead, Noel stays home and cuts off the baseline.

But when Bogut dribbles back out to the near corner, that’s finally where Philly’s gallant — though, ultimately, useless — defensive cohesion falls apart. And the worst part? It’s not really anyone’s fault.

Yes, you can say Nik Stauskas shouldn’t have turned his head, but the ball was moving behind him, and he ball watched maybe a millisecond too long (simply to find where the ball was). That was all the room Klay Thompson needed.

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You see how Stauskas gives him a fractionally small headstart on the cut to the rim? Bogut’s dribble into the near corner opened up so much real estate in the paint, there was no avoiding the coming cut. But Philly couldn’t do anything about it; no one’s leaving Steph, or Harrison Barnes in the far corner; Grant did his best to hedge toward the cutting Klay, but Green was still shooting the three ball at an elite level at this point in the season, so Grant couldn’t pinch in too much. Plus, it might have been fruitless anyway.

That’s just how good the Warriors are. Bogut threw the perfect bounce pass to avoid Stauskas, who was basically riding Klay’s hip he was working so hard to get back into the play. Again, it just didn’t matter. That split second when Sauce Castillo turned his head was enough and Bogut found Klay for the ensuing layup.

But can you get mad at any lone Sixers defender? Can you really be that upset with their effort? You can’t. They played a superior opponent really well for the first 18 seconds of the shot clock. The Warriors are just unrelenting and eventually they will score on you. It’s the inevitability of it that’s so demoralizing to opponents (and other teams, some of whom are actually planning their rosters around the Warriors’ dynasty-in-the-making). All you can do is what Philly did for 18 seconds here, and hope to do it for the full 24 the next time.

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