Golden 300:

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Sam Amick USA TO­DAY

How one magic num­ber has fu­eled the War­riors’ NBA dy­nasty.

The ball has en­ergy. Ask any of the War­riors about their of­fense or about Steve Kerr’s pass­ing project when he be­came coach in the sum­mer of 2014, and they all say it comes down to that bas­ket­ball truth. Move the ball once, and you move a de­fender. Move it a few more times, and it’s as if Luke Sky­walker him­self is forc­ing the en­tire de­fense off the floor. Com­mit to this self­less style, and even Bill Rus­sell’s Celtics wouldn’t be able to stop this high-scor­ing sys­tem.

As Golden State guard Shaun Liv­ingston put it, “Ball move­ment will for­ever be su­pe­rior.” Or will it? Therein lies the most com­pelling ques­tion of the West­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nals be­tween Golden State and Hous­ton, which be­gan this week.

While the Rock­ets are the ex­perts of iso­la­tion, the War­riors have long since de­cided that pass­ing is the key to un­leash­ing their of­fense. Ever since Kerr made the move from TNT an­a­lyst to the War­riors bench, when he saw the glar­ing lack of ball move­ment un­der for­mer coach Mark Jack­son, this has been their ethos. So much so, in fact, that it all started with a magic num­ber: 300.

Pass the ball at least that many times dur­ing the course of a game, Kerr told them, and the odds are the of­fense will hum. For Kerr, who won five ti­tles while play­ing for San An­to­nio’s Gregg Popovich and then-Chicago coach Phil Jack­son, these were the lessons learned that he sim­ply had to con­vey.

“If you have shoot­ing — if you have great shoot­ing — then the more ball move­ment the bet­ter, be­cause you have guys com­ing off screens and … you want to make the de­fense have to de­fend for long stretches rather than just one pass and a shot,” Kerr ex­plained. “So we looked at the pass­ing to­tals, and … (300) was a re­ally key num­ber for us.

“I just said I want the ball to move. That’s al­ways how I’ve seen the game, and if you have Steph (Curry) and Klay (Thomp­son) on your team and the ball is mov­ing, it’s fairly ob­vi­ous that it’s go­ing to be hard to de­fend.”

The proof has been in the pass­ing ever since.

Af­ter rank­ing dead last in passes per game (243.8) dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son be­fore Kerr’s hir­ing and fin­ish­ing 12th in of­fen­sive rat­ing de­spite al­ready hav­ing three of their four cur­rent All-Stars in Curry, Thomp­son and Dray­mond Green, the War­riors have had the league’s best of­fense in three of the past four sea­sons while fin­ish­ing sec­ond in of­fen­sive rat­ing once. Dur­ing that span, Golden State’s passes-per-game mark has ranged from 306.6 to 323.5.

En­ter­ing Game 1 vs. the Rock­ets, the War­riors’ two losses this post­sea­son had come in the only games in which they passed the ball fewer than 300 times (256 against San An­to­nio in Game 4 of the first round; 295 against New Or­leans in Game 3 of the sec­ond round). They led all play­off teams in pass­ing (323.2, with the Rock­ets 15th at 227.2).

Green and Curry have been first and sec­ond among the War­riors, re­spec­tively, in passes made for the past three reg­u­lar sea­sons.

Yet the im­pact of Kerr’s sys­tem has been far more pro­found than the box score could ever in­di­cate. It had ev­ery­thing to do with the War­riors land­ing Kevin Du­rant in free agency dur­ing the sum­mer of 2016. The 2013-14 MVP was widely known to be drawn to Golden State’s egal­i­tar­ian sys­tem, one that was so dif­fer­ent from the ball-pound­ing ways he’d grown ac­cus­tomed to play­ing along­side Rus­sell West­brook.

Con­sider the po­lar-op­po­site pic­ture that was painted in the sea­son be­fore Du­rant’s de­ci­sion: The Thun­der, who fell to Golden State in seven games dur­ing those West­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nals, were last in passes per game dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son (256.6) and play­offs (220.4). Du­rant wanted to play a more free- flow­ing brand of bas­ket­ball.

Thomp­son has al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated the art of the pass, but his true aha mo­ment came dur­ing prac­tice in Kerr’s first sea­son when the new coach stopped a drib­bling drill to share a sim­ple mes­sage.

“He would just stop the drill and say, ‘Look around. Lit­er­ally ev­ery man on this team can (drib­ble well). That’s not the case for ev­ery team, so just trust your team­mates and make the ex­tra pass, be­cause it’s go­ing to come out in the wash and we’ll be suc­cess­ful,’ ” Thomp­son re­called. “That’s when I started be­liev­ing.”

There was an as­sist from ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy. These sorts of stats weren’t eas­ily at­tain­able un­til SportVU cam­eras that track ev­ery an­gle of the game were in­stalled in NBA are­nas shortly be­fore Kerr took over. Sammy Gelfand, the War­riors’ an­a­lyt­ics man­ager, helped set up this piv­otal play, too.

Gelfand, who worked for the War­riors’ D-League team from 2011 to 2013 and joined Golden State in Jack­son’s fi­nal sea­son, is the au­thor of the postgame scout­ing re­port that al­ways lists the lat­est game’s pass­ing to­tal atop the re­port.

As the War­riors be­came more com­mit­ted, their teamwide goal grew as well: They now aim for 320 passes per game, or roughly three per pos­ses­sion.

“I think the num­ber helps reaf­firm (the mes­sage) in their minds,” Gelfand said. “So 300 was the tar­get that first year, and I think as we’ve evolved we kind of ex­pect more and more. In (the play­ers’) minds, they vi­su­al­ize it very well, and same with our coaches.”

The straight­for­ward na­ture of the num­ber made it easy for play­ers to em­brace the strat­egy, and now many of them have de­vel­oped a sixth sense about their to­tal.

“It’s amaz­ing how good of a feel they have,” Gelfand said. “I re­mem­ber a cou­ple times af­ter games, guys would be like, ‘I don’t think we got it.’ Es­pe­cially early on (in 2014).

“Once they started to fig­ure out the 300 games and how they did vs. the non-300 games, it was in­cred­i­ble to me how they picked it up.”


Kevin Du­rant, right, joined the War­riors in free agency in 2016 be­cause they played more of a ball move­ment style of bas­ket­ball.

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