NBA Finals: Cavs failed to find answer for impossible Stephen Curry-Kevin Durant pick-and-roll riddle

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NBA Finals: Cavs failed to find answer for impossible Stephen Curry-Kevin Durant pick-and-roll riddle

While the Cavaliers weren't shy about using their best pick-and-roll combination throughout the 2016-17 NBA season, the Warriors kept theirs under wraps until the 2017 NBA Finals. As ESPN's Zach Lowe noted during the NBA Finals, the Warriors relied on more two-man actions involving Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant — fancy speak for pick-and-rolls featuring Curry and Durant — than they did during the entire regular season. It's not an option Mike Brown and Steve Kerr exhausted through the opening four games of the series, but they leaned on it heavily in Game 5 when they beat the Cavaliers by nine points.

Pick-and-rolls with Curry and Durant are unstoppable for obvious reasons. With an average of 0.92 points per possession, Curry is one of the best pick-and-roll scorers in the NBA. He's an elite finisher at the rim and can create any shot for himself off the dribble, which puts a tremendous amount of pressure on his defender to fight through screens. He can also be used as the "roller" by setting a screen on the ball handler and popping to the perimeter because he's equally dominant scoring off screens with an average of 1.18 points per possession. Durant is comfortable scoring off screens as well (1.13 points per possession), and he can make teams pay in a variety of ways depending on how they defend him.

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That means switching gives them both an opportunity to exploit a mismatch one-on-one with a spaced floor, while playing it traditionally opens the door for one of them to pop or roll. Either way, the defense is doomed considering they're also willing passers.

We saw the variety of ways the Warriors can score when Curry and Durant are involved in those situations throughout the NBA Finals. In the second quarter of Game 1, for example, Durant popped to the perimeter and beat Iman Shumpert off the dribble when he tried to recover. Not only does Curry's ability to pull-up off the dribble draw multiple defenders at the point of attack — the reason the Cavaliers elected to trap him in the pick-and-roll for most of the series — Durant’s ability to make 3-pointers on the move forces Shumpert to close out on him aggressively, which opens up a driving lane to the basket.




Durant then attacked Kyrie Irving in the post on the ensuing offensive possession and found Shaun Livingston at the free-throw line for an uncontested floater when Shumpert left Livingston to double team Durant. With all the scoring he does, it's easy to forget that Durant is just as capable of locating open teammates out of the post and pick-and-roll.




When the Cavaliers opted not to double him in the closing seconds of the quarter — this time following a 3-1 pick-and-roll with Curry acting as the screener — Durant used his strength to get deep position on Irving before drawing a shooting foul. Durant averaged only 0.89 points per post-up possession during the regular season, but he bumped it up to 1.18 points per possession in the playoffs, which is more along the lines of what he averaged last season with the Thunder. He's basically been one of the best post-up scorers in the NBA over the last couple of seasons.




Durant then reverted back to his preferred method of scoring as the roller in Game 2 when he slipped the screen and scored at the basket over Tristan Thompson.




The Warriors explored all of those options again in Game 5 when they put the finishing touches on the Cavaliers. Durant turned one possession into an isolation opportunity against Kevin Love...




... then posted J.R. Smith up on the switch...




... shot over Kyle Korver's help defense on the roll...




... found Klay Thompson on the wing when the Cavaliers threw multiple defenders his way...




... and drew a foul on LeBron James on a drive to the basket.




Even the shots the Warriors missed in those circumstances — like the following 3-pointer from Curry — were off wide open opportunities stemming from the gravity of either Durant or Curry.




There really isn't anything teams can do to slow Curry and Durant pick-and-rolls down unless they have two wing defenders — think James and someone like Paul George — who can keep up with both Curry and Durant in isolation. The only time the Cavaliers had success defending those pick-and-rolls in the NBA Finals was when Curry and Durant were surrounded by non-shooters such as Livingston, Andre Iguodala and Zaza Pachulia because it allowed them to help off them and pack the paint. When they were surrounded with Thompson, Iguodala and Draymond Green, though, Curry and Durant had all the room they needed to pick the Cavaliers apart.


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Durant's ability to score on the roll was a huge reason the Warriors were able to score against a Cavaliers defense that slowed them down in the 2016 NBA Finals. Although they dominated teams during the regular season with pick-and-rolls between Curry and Green, the Cavaliers figured out that they could simply switch James and Thompson onto Curry since Green isn't someone who can routinely punish smaller players in the post. That game plan goes out the window when Durant is involved seeing as he can finish on the roll, score against any defender in isolation with ease and make the right play when teams load up on him.

The Cavaliers certainly couldn't stop it in the 2017 NBA Finals, and we'll now have to wait another year to see if anyone else has an answer. Assuming there is one, of course.