We love us some offense. So Golden State’s attack dominates analysis of its rise this season.
Is its 3-point-heavy offense the future, or a doomed, hubristic affront to what succeeds in postseasons? To hear talk radio tell it, the Warriors’ playoffs have doubled as a referendum on the wisdom of “jump-shooting teams.”
Their mold-breaking, top-ranked defense gets no such treatment. The defense may be questioned, but it isn’t scrutinized -- not like the offense, anyway. The playoffs haven’t been a referendum on whether the Warriors’ defense should keep switching more screens than the Genius Bar. This revolution marches forward in relative obscurity.
Here’s how they’ve done it:
The endless switch
When you really dig into it, Golden State’s constant switching on defense might be more subversive than its newfangled offense. To switch defensive assignments, mid-play, is to not honor the positional definitions we’ve used for over a half-century. It’s a rebuke to the traditional insistence that point guards defend point guards, shooting guards defend shooting guards, and so forth. If the recent Miami Heat title teams played positionless on offense, that’s what Golden State does defensively.
The defensive possessions sometimes look like a three-man weave, roles trading with speed and ease.
It’s paradoxical, but the Warriors are able to boast so much versatility because they have so many players that are similarly sized. Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston all fit a category of wing-sized athletes who defy basic categorization.
Green, 6-foot-5.75 in socks, guarded giant center Marc Gasol in the second round after the Warriors determined it the best fit. The series before, he matched up against the supernaturally long Anthony Davis, aided by minimal help. Barnes ended up guarding Zach Randolph for stretches. In the series that followed, he took turns checking James Harden. Iguodala also guarded Harden, brilliantly so in one particular game. Thompson helped change the Memphis series by enveloping Mike Conley at the point of attack. Livingston’s done similar work all playoffs on the smaller point guards he regularly faces, mightily pressuring the ball. And they all switch with each other when the time is right.
The Australian anchor
Even Andrew Bogut, a traditional rim protector, was asked to flaunt some flexibility in these playoffs. On a team flight during the Memphis series, Golden State assistant coach and defensive guru Ron Adams suggested Bogut “guard” Tony Allen.
A lumbering, 7-foot rim protector tracking a perimeter player? Down 2-1 in the series, the Warriors decided this was just crazy enough to work.
The move paid off, handsomely. “It turned the series on its head,” Bogut says. Allen couldn’t shoot well enough to stay on the floor, and the Grizzlies couldn’t defend well enough without him. Bogut had little issue helping off Allen in the way he would against any opposing center. See here, where Barnes wisely forces Randolph to his offhand (right) and Bogut leaves Allen to help.
Beyond that stroke of strategic genius, Bogut has been a monster defensively in his traditional role. The Warriors’ system dictates that driving players get funnelled his way. And Bogut squelches all that offense flowing in his direction. This season, with Bogut on the floor, Golden State opponents attempted fewer shots inside the restricted area and they shot far worse (51.6 percent shooting versus 62.2 percent).
He’s a master of taking the correct angle between a driving guard and the big on the other side of the lane. He tends to swoop across the lane at the exact right moment. Also, he can fly out of nowhere in transition to squish dunkers like so many flies.
The communication between Bogut and his defensive player of the year candidate compadre is often wordless and wonderful. Many teams frequently switch on screens involving their bigs. Bogut and Green are just so fluid in doing so.
On this particular play, the Warriors defend Houston’s “Drop 45” (“45” meaning a screen between the 4 and the 5) perfectly. Green sits on Smith’s lefty hook before sending him Bogut’s way as the screen arrives.
“We’re both good defenders, and I think it helps when you have two guys back there who understand each other defensively,” Bogut says. “He’s knows I’m going to be at the rim. I know he’s going to be pressuring the ball.”
Bogut’s been an admirer of Green’s game for a while. The oft-gruff Australian publicly praised him last season in a way he never really did David Lee, the guy Green eventually replaced as a starter. Bogut’s likened his dynamic with Green to that of his Milwaukee days with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. That might not sound like a compliment, but it’s high praise in Bogut’s world.
Don’t call him “Iggy”
Andre Iguodala dislikes that nickname, despite its utility as shorthand. It’s yet another thing that’ll keep the cranky veteran just a little bit at arm’s length from those who might pretend to know him.
By reputation, he’s of the same phylum as Bogut: smart enough to be subtly excellent on defense, smart enough to be cynical about how little that matters to people. He’ll joke about how offense gets guys paid and how he wants his son scoring points.
The coaching staff swears by Iguodala, even if they gave his starting job to Barnes. Assistant coach Luke Walton frequently says, “He’ll never get the credit he deserves.” That may be true. For example, Iguodala is brilliant at denying passes to his guy, something that breaks apart an offensive possession but eludes box-score categorization.
Iguodala calls defense “a chess game,” one in which he’s always calculating, always optimizing. Golden State prefers to keep him off the ball, like an NFL safety who’s trusted to roam and make the smart reads.
Game 5 of the Western Conference finals served as a reminder of what the vet could still do. The Warriors had been struggling to guard Harden. They were laying back as he did his dribble dance, wary of touching the foul-drawing genius. Iguodala took the opposite approach, leaning into Harden’s dribble and calmly unraveling it like someone from the bomb squad defusing an explosive.
Besides the smarts, those hands are still quick. Perhaps just as important, they’re respected by refs. An arm’s length is all the distance Andre Iguodala needs.
The guru, continued
Ron Adams, a professorial evangelist for defensive improvement, is on the elliptical machine, as he so often is. It’s very Ron Adams that he’ll do this workout sans headphones. It’s enough to just look at the court. It’s also very Ron Adams that he’ll be frank, between the compliments.
“My goal for Klay defensively is a much greater one than what I saw this year,” he says between huffs and puffs. He praises aspects of Thompson’s and Curry’s defense, but it’s clear he wants more, even if he acknowledges how their respective offensive workloads detract from that mission.
Adams is mostly sanguine about the growth of other young players. On backup center Festus Ezeli’s season: “His knowledge is better. I think his technique is a lot better. I think his overall defensive game, whether he's playing a man one-on-one in the post, is better.”
On Harrison Barnes, Adams says: “Harrison's made defensive strides. I think he's really gotten good on the ball and I think his defensive rebounding has been very steady and outstanding at times.” Adams mentions that Barnes has gotten better as a helper, something that was evident in the Memphis series.
This is what might scare the league about Golden State’s rise: Many of its players still have potential to tap, especially on defense. One season of a cohesive coaching staff has done wonders for the progress of Barnes and Ezeli, both athletic marvels. It might be impossible to improve on a 67-win season, but it’s quite possible to improve on aspects of this team.
For now, that’s not the focus in Oakland. The coaches are fretting over what to do with so many days of preparation as this NBA Finals against LeBron hangs over their heads. There’s also the matter of handling the hoopla that comes with a Finals. “The aura of the event is almost greater than the game itself,” Adams says. “We have to work against that and make the game digestible for our players.”
Adams then pivots to citing the work of Douglas C. Johnson, a psychologist and friend of Kerr’s who works with Navy SEALs when he’s not pitching in with the Warriors. “Johnson talked about staying organized within chaos,” he says. “It's possible. It's something that's learned, that's conditioned.”
Johnson, a large man with a thick beard, has a similar cadence and erudition to Adams. Like Adams, he’s professorial in a world of vicious, physical competition. For example, Johnson once used “killer instinct” in a sentence and I joked that the PhD was falling into athlete clichés. He responded, flatly: “It’s not a cliché. The people I work with have literal killer instinct.”
To maintain their (hopefully) metaphorical killer instinct, the Warriors must focus amid this week’s chaos. To quell James, they must draw on what they’ve learned this season. Should they do that, should they win a championship, they’ll have taught the league a thing or two about defense. And there’s still much to learn, going forward.