Occasionally, a controversy erupts that convinces us all to focus on an aspect of a sport to which we are usually oblivious. The inflation level of a football. The use of pine tar on a baseball bat. What the hell constitutes a catch in the NFL.
Tonight, there may be more attention paid to the setting of screens than ever before in an NBA game.
Screens are among the fundamental actions of basketball. The youngest of rec-league kids dabble in them. Smart pickup players will occasionally set them. In the modern NBA, I think it’s fair to say that every team sets dozens of screens in every game.
Typically, the only ones we notice are those that result in a violent collision, or that effectively set up a good shooter with an open look from the outside. The rest we are perfectly happy to ignore. But the Houston Rockets and their fans will not allow us to ignore the Warriors’ screens right now.
Since this first-round playoff series began, a lot of bloggers and radio voices, especially those associated with the Rockets, have complained about Golden State’s moving screens. Yesterday, James Harden joined the chorus. Harden, the Rockets’ best offensive player and quite possibly the NBA’s worst defensive player, was asked how hard it is to get around the Warriors’ screens. “If it’s illegal, then it’s tough for anybody,” Harden replied.
The Warriors’ screening technique has been under scrutiny for a long time. Power forward Draymond Green and center Andrew Bogut, in particular, have been accused of moving into defenders while setting a pick. And honestly, they probably do it a lot. But more often than other teams? Or more aggressively than other teams?
I don’t feel qualified to answer the question, but my gut feeling says that while the Warriors might exploit the gray areas of the screening rule a bit more effectively, they aren’t in a class by themselves. Setting a screen is like hand-checking the guy with the basketball, or like pass interference in football. There are a few obviously clean plays, and a few obvious violations, and a whole lot of calls that could go either way.
You really can’t blame the Rockets for raising the issue, though. Under normal conditions, they’ll be swept by the Warriors. Losing the services of Stephen Curry for at least one game certainly changes those conditions. But Golden State beat Houston even without the MVP in Game 2.
The Rockets need to find something, anything, to knock the Warriors off their game. And considering how many of the Dubs’ points come off of screens, it makes sense to get the officials to crack down on those plays. If the Rockets successfully plant the seed and the refs tighten up their calls on screens tonight, it could frustrate the Warriors. But not enough to significantly affect this series.
The Warriors feed off of screens, and they push the envelope of propriety while doing it. But that’s just one of a hundred ways they’re better than this opponent. The Rockets aren’t just running into moving screens. They’re running into a brick wall.