During the third quarter of the NBA playoff game between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets on Monday night, a college basketball coach perked up from his sofa. He caught something he needed to see again.
“Watch this,” David Arseneault Jr., the men’s coach at Grinnell College, said as he paused the broadcast and backed it up to the start of a possession for Houston. “Count the number of screens.”
It was the sequence when it became obvious to Arseneault just how far the Rockets were willing to go to try to isolate Stephen Curry of the Warriors and force him to defend James Harden of the Rockets, one of the league’s elite one-on-one players.
As Harden handled the ball against the Warriors’ Kevin Durant near the top of the perimeter, the Rockets’ Gerald Green kept setting screen after screen — three in all — on Durant. Green’s goal was to get Curry, who was defending him, to switch on to Harden, but the Warriors were not going to make it easy.
It was an X and O that most fans — and TV commentators — might overlook. That’s why I came to the middle of Iowa to watch with Arseneault, a coach with a history that gives him unique insight into how these two teams play.
The Warriors and the Rockets, in a playoff series that many consider the de facto NBA Finals because of the caliber of the teams, have captured the imaginations of astute coaches everywhere. Something about the way they play — and win, prolifically — entices the basketball cognoscenti to scrutinize every dribble, every pass, every cut, every screen.
So rather than view the games from press seating in the arenas, I’m watching the series with experts who have a different, and more sophisticated, view. On Monday, I joined Arseneault on his couch.
Arseneault convinced his wife, Rachel, that it was in their best interest (or at least his) to invest in cable television before the start of the playoffs. He really wanted to watch the games on their glorious 65-inch flat-screen.
“It was time,” said Arseneault, 31, who juggles his postseason viewership with his role as the father of a 1-year-old daughter, Isabel. “Normally, I’m on bottle duty until 7 p.m., then I head down there.”
By “down there,” Arseneault meant the family’s living room. On Monday night, he wore a collared shirt, which his wife, Rachel, suspected was for the benefit of his guests.
“Don’t let this fool you,” she said. “He’s usually wearing sweatpants.”
He’d changed into a T-shirt by the third quarter, when he seized on the Rockets’ persistent screening. On Green’s second attempt in that sequence, Curry used his forearm to nudge Green with just enough force so that Green wound up setting the screen about 30 feet from the basket, which allowed Durant to go under the screen and avoid switching.
“With the slight push that Curry gave Green there, he effectively took Harden out of shooting range,” Arseneault said. “It’s such a game of inches.”
The Rockets regrouped and eventually executed a successful screen, clearing the way for Harden to finally — finally! — get the matchup he wanted and score on a runner.
But their success was short-lived, in a game they went on to lose, 119-106. The Warriors promptly inbounded the ball, raced up the court and scored when Draymond Green found Klay Thompson cutting behind Harden for a layup.
“The Rockets do all that work for one bucket and then just give it all back in two seconds,” Arseneault said. “But that’s the Warriors right there.”
Arseneault learned from his father, David Arseneault Sr., who, in the early 1990s, developed the famed Grinnell offense, a system predicated on wholesale substitutions, a rapid-fire offense and scoring a bazillion points a game. The offense is extreme, having navigated a fine line over the past quarter-century between gimmickry and innovation.
But in one important way, the Grinnell offense was a forerunner to the modern NBA: David Arseneault Sr. recognized earlier than almost anyone that layups and 3-pointers were the most efficient shots in basketball, and that midrange jumpers ought to be avoided whenever possible.
The Rockets, who broke their own NBA record for 3-pointers this season, subscribe to that general philosophy. And the Warriors, while not nearly as opposed to the delicate art of the midrange game, are pretty familiar with the 3-point line, too. It was a point that the reserve wing Nick Young seemed determined to drive home when, shortly after entering Monday’s game, he launched a 25-footer in transition.
“It wasn’t long ago that if somebody went in the game and took that type of shot, the coach wouldn’t play him for the next three games,” Arseneault said. “Now, it’s just commonplace.”
Arseneault played for his father — as a point guard at Grinnell, he averaged more assists than any player in Division III history — before joining him on the bench as an assistant coach. Then, one day in 2014, the Sacramento Kings called: They were interested in hiring David Arseneault Jr. to coach the Reno Bighorns, their affiliate in the NBA Development League. Not only that, the Kings wanted him to conduct one of the bolder experiments in D-League history by installing the Grinnell offense.
“They gave me a lot of flexibility,” he said.
Arseneault spent two seasons with the Bighorns. In his second season, he coached them to a 33-17 record and a Pacific Division title. But when his contract was not renewed — the Kings had a new front office — Arseneault returned to Grinnell, where he took over for his father. Last season, the Pioneers finished with a 13-11 record while averaging 111 points a game.
“We’re still tweaking our offense,” he said. “It’s a process.”
In recent weeks, Arseneault has been studying how NBA playoff teams create space with pick and rolls — an aspect of his own system that he wants to improve. On Monday night, he was also interested to see how the Warriors and the Rockets handled defensive switches in those situations.
“It’s so hard not to switch in the NBA these days,” Arseneault said, “because teams will just hunt for those matchups.”
In the game’s early moments, Clint Capela, the Rockets’ young center, found himself defending Curry on the perimeter after a switch. Arseneault figured the Warriors would try to exploit that sort of matchup, even though analytics have shown that Capela is one of the league’s more effective big men when it comes to defending smaller players.
Curry attempted to use his quickness to drive past Capela, and he appeared to have a half-step on him as he rose for a layup. But Capela recovered to swat the shot away. Arseneault, who coached against Capela in the Development League, was impressed.
“It’s been fascinating to see his development,” Arseneault said.
Throughout their loss, Arseneault said, the Rockets looked almost too determined to create the ideal one-on-one scenario for Harden. The Rockets are not known for playing with a swift pace in the first place, but all those screens — and rescreens — on Harden’s primary defender bogged down their offense and left them scrambling for looks as the shot clock wound down.
Arseneault anticipated that the Rockets would make adjustments before Game 2, perhaps by playing with more tempo and involving more players in the offense.
“I still think it’s going to be a long series,” said Arseneault, who also acknowledged that it might be wishful thinking. “I just want to see as many games as possible.”