The Warriors are espousing a defensive identity based on versatility and connectivity
After an abysmal defensive showing in the first half against the Kings, the Warriors put the clamps in the second half through team effort and scheme variability.
Joe Viray is our long-time colleague from Golden State of Mind (and now Rappler and other places) and I’ve bugged him for months to write for us. He finally caved in. - EA
For almost the entirety of the Golden State Warriors’ first half against the Sacramento Kings, there were glimpses of the kind of trouble they would most likely have defensively throughout the season.
Even with the presence of Draymond Green — arguably the best all-around defender in the history of the game — there are still limits in terms of what he can control. He is a capable floor general who barks out orders and makes sure that his teammates are in the correct spots.
But basketball is still a team sport, with many moving parts. If one part falters, the rest of the machinery runs the risk of hitting a snag. The Kings understood this; they emphasized dribble penetration, collapsing the defense inward, and forcing rotation until the defense is stretched too thin to mount a successful response.
The Warriors being unable to stop the Kings’ ball-handlers at the point of attack resulted in a balanced offensive performance in the first half: 8-of-10 (80%) at the rim, 5-of-9 (55.5%) from floater range, and 10-of-24 (41.7%) on threes.
Davion Mitchell, once a potential draft target for the Warriors at the no. 7 spot, was a notable perpetrator of the Warriors’ defensive woes. He finished with 22 points on 16 shot attempts, with shooting splits of 56/38/50 — a breakout performance offensively that maybe even the Warriors themselves didn’t expect to happen.
Mitchell can be explosive at the point of attack. His low center of gravity and quick burst provide him with the kind of shiftiness that can catch defenders off guard. He can finish at the rim capably, especially without having to worry about any sort of rim protection stopping him in his tracks. Should there be obstacles in the way, however, he has a floater in his arsenal that can get his shot past the tall trees.
Mitchell was the most glaring example of the Warriors’ problems at the point of attack, but there were others on the Kings who took advantage of dribble penetration to create shots and generate advantages.
Tyrese Haliburton, the second-year player who made a noticeable impact last season with the Kings, had his way with some of the Warriors’ perimeter defenders. He took them off the dribble, forcing rotation and generating opportunities for his teammates on the perimeter.
Such an example was on this possession, where an uncanny mid-air pass toward the weak-side corner froze the defense.
Even sound schematic possessions were punished, due to the initial on-ball defense being subpar. Haliburton gets past Andrew Wiggins in the possession below, which triggers the rotational sequence: Green, as the low man, is forced to step up as the help; Haliburton then kicks it out to the wing, where Damion Lee — the weak-side zoner “splitting the difference” — closes out toward; then, true to “X-out” principles, Wiggins rotates toward Harrison Barnes in the corner.
The close-out and contest by Wiggins is decent, but a tad delayed.
The Warriors allowed 62 points at the half — in and of itself telling — but the extent of the damage they allowed was told through the advanced stats. A defensive rating of 126.5, coupled with allowing the Kings to shoot an effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) of 64.4%, provided a stark picture of how much the Warriors defense was compromised.
One can’t help but think that the loss of two key defenders — Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kent Bazemore — is somewhat related to the Warriors not being as sharp and stingy at the point of attack. There have been plenty of negative sentiment toward Oubre and Bazemore; their lack of proper integration with the offense and, in Bazemore’s case, a wanton habit of fouling, are valid misgivings that ultimately led to them being replaced by better-fitting personnel.
But no one can deny their defensive impact. Their nature as pesky on-ball defenders, with lengthy wingspans that shrink passing lanes, were a huge component of the Warriors’ 5th-ranked defense last season. Their departures signaled an intention to improve their 20th-ranked offense — but at the possible expense of their defensive efficiency.
How far their defense will slide — if it slides at all — remains to be seen. The worse-case scenario reared its ugly head during the first half against the Kings, but the second half proved to be an entirely different story.
To end the first half, the Warriors switched to a 1-2-2 matchup zone, something they have been resorting to more often during their first three games. Ideally, a zone aims to prevent dribble penetration, forcing opponents to resort to outside shooting.
It can also sort of “hurry up” an offensive possession; frustrated offenses can frantically swing the ball around, which runs the risk of a wayward pass being intercepted, especially if a passing-lane menace is nearby, ready to deflect and/or intercept poorly-thrown passes.
The passing-lane menace in this instance: Gary Payton II.
(Nevermind the blown Wiggins layup, which he should’ve probably dunked.)
The Kings’ relative inexperience and youth played a small part in them being largely unable to solve the zone. A possession that fails to stretch the zone — thus being unable to create and exploit holes — breeds inefficient offense.
Haliburton and De’Aaron Fox, in the possession below, play hot potato with each other. Fox tries to blow past Jordan Poole, but Poole shifts his feet and manages to stay in front, stopping Fox in his tracks. Haliburton then tries to create something against Kevon Looney, but settles for a long three that bricks.
Impatience against an entrenched defense can be the death of an offensive possession, no matter how fast off the dribble you may be. Fox learned this the hard way; he tries the classic approach of a head-on attack, but Green is there to stop him in his tracks.
It was apparent that the Warriors’ second-half defensive improvement wasn’t only from a schematic standpoint, but from an individual and connective standpoint, as well. Rotations were on time. Point-of-attack defense was noticeably better. Switches were well communicated and timely.
All of the above was displayed during this particular possession:
A Wiggins switch onto Mitchell looks like it was about to go toward Mitchell’s favor, but a last-minute switch by Otto Porter Jr. shuts the layup window, forcing Mitchell to kick the ball out.
Curry then doggedly denies Buddy Hield the opportunity to obtain the ball through a hand-off, and Tristan Thompson is forced to manufacture points by himself. Unfortunately for him, he chooses the straight-on approach against Green — who draws the charge.
Steve Kerr and the coaching staff deserve credit, as well. They whipped out their rotating defensive coverages in a timely manner. Switching from a traditional man-to-man to a 1-2-2 zone threw the Kings around for a loop, forcing them to scratch their drawn-up sets and resort to zone-busting methods.
This was apparent during the small-ball second unit’s stint during the fourth quarter. Kerr started with a man-to-man, with switching as the primary ball-screen and off-ball-screen coverage. The primary goal was to draw out stagnant individual possessions from ball-handlers and forcing them to take inefficient shots.
Despite the lack of significant height in the second unit, the rotations more than made up for it. Porter, in the possession below, pre-rotates away from the weak-side corner to block the layup.
After a timeout by the Kings — an opportunity for Luke Walton to draw up an after-timeout (ATO) play — the Warriors throw a wrench into those plans by abruptly switching back to a 1-2-2 zone.
The sudden switchback works. The Kings aimlessly pass the ball up top, perhaps looking for an open shot for Hield, but failing to generate significant east-west movement that could stretch the zone. All they manage to get out of it is a Mitchell pull-up three that misses.
And again, another schematic switch later on, back to a man-to-man. The two-man switching corps of Payton and Wiggins renders the two-man action between Mitchell and Hield ineffective, eventually forcing a Hield miss.
The possession doesn’t end there. Thompson gets the offensive board and looks for Hield, but Payton goes back to face-guarding him and denies the pass. Thompson is then forced to create a shot for himself, but Juan Toscano-Anderson absolutely smothers him.
After letting the Kings dribble penetrate to their heart’s content in the first half, the Warriors put the clamps on them after half-time: an 88.2 defensive rating in the second half, and limiting the Kings to an eFG% of 54.1%.
While the loss of Oubre and Bazemore may be felt at times through the lack of blatant perimeter-stopping power, this iteration of the Warriors is making up for it through solid team defense, constant communication, and a high level of connectivity.
Variability and versatility in terms of coverages and schemes has also been a theme; in three games, the Warriors seem to be going more to a 1-2-2 zone as a change-of-pace tool. It has largely worked so far, providing the Warriors with an on-off light switch of sorts that can blind opponents in a multitude of ways.
Three games is a small sample size — but against three division rivals, two of them being tough (projected) playoff squads from LA, they have nevertheless been revelatory.
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