Anthony Davis is literally slowing down the Warriors, and the Warriors must adjust. Stephen Curry, who had a rare, inefficient Game 2, was hindered by a dragging pace. That’s why, even though Golden State won these first two games, the Warriors aren’t loving their process.
At practice, Golden State coach Steve Kerr explained: “We have to play with pace and sometimes we get bogged down and try to rely too much on just individual play.” In Game 2 especially, the Warriors didn’t play fast, didn’t share the ball enough, and didn’t play well offensively.
During the regular season, Golden State played at by far the fastest pace in the NBA. In Game 2, the Warriors played at a speed that would have qualified for 25th in the league. Playing fast isn’t necessarily a virtue unto itself -- plenty of good offensive teams go slow. But for this particular offense, speed is oxygen. It’s easier to defend 3-point attempts in the half court than to try and block shots from behind. The Splash Brothers end transition foot races by pulling up from 27 feet -- a seemingly unfair advantage, like they’re somehow allowed to throw a relay baton across the finish line.
Some of this slowdown is because the Pelicans' brand of basketball is steady and boring -- reduce the mistakes that lead to Warriors' fast breaks. It’s also indicative of the influence Davis is having. The league’s youngest superstar might not be victorious in this series, but he is ubiquitous. So far, he has thrown a wrench in Golden State’s offensive plans, slowing the Warriors' decisions in the half court and blocking their plans for transition opportunities.
The battle Golden State refuses
In Game 2, there was an incredible moment that didn’t become a moment. With 2:20 left, Andrew Bogut snagged an offensive board and the ball swung to Curry. Davis rotated over to Curry as the crowd went wild over the developing mano a mano showdown. Superstar versus superstar, the stuff that sells the game. Timeout, Kerr.
Kerr does not love it when Curry or Klay Thompson bog down the offense by isolating on Davis. Kerr, whose playing experience as a successful open-shot taker informs his philosophy, flat-out hates hero ball. Also, Davis isn’t a power forward, though that’s his nominal position. He’s actually a fluidly moving guard who happens to be the height (6-foot-10) of a center.
While Davis hasn’t mastered defensive nuances, he has really mastered how to move. That’s why attempts to isolate on him tend to go nowhere. Even an iso-genius like Curry is stymied by the combination of length and mobility.
In the above clip, Davis switches onto Curry and creates a shot-clock-burning iso hero possession to nowhere. A Curry shot attempt is a wonderful thing, but this is about as bad as one can be: highly contested, and just inside the arc.
Because he’s guarding Draymond Green beyond the 3-point line, Davis is spending a lot of this series far away from the rim, loitering in the spaces Curry and Thompson call home. In short, big man Davis is playing defense like a guard this series. It means he’s better positioned to obstruct their passes and better positioned to challenge a quick shot off a Warriors offensive rebound. It also means he’s less well positioned to protect the rim. This has something to do with Golden State shooting 53 percent on their drives this series.
Davis playing defense like a guard is a challenge for the Warriors' offense, but one they accept. Based on my conversations with Warriors staffers, the team isn’t terribly worried about Davis’ lurking presence in these perimeter areas. Their philosophy dictates that moving the ball will conquer all. There’s nothing a crowd would like to see more than Curry going right at Davis, but the Warriors want to deny us that entertainment. If Davis is on a guard, it’s believed that mismatches can be found elsewhere.
This isn’t the same as when Mark Jackson’s Warriors would find a mismatch and spend a possession isolating on it. The Warriors believe mismatches are better exploited with collective ball and man movement. If Davis is somewhere unusual, that means someone else is probably guarding a part of the floor he’s not used to. Maybe Dante Cunningham has to worry about a corner 3, or Norris Cole has to watch out for a lob dunk. It’s easy to forget that players have a certain familiarity with the spaces they routinely cover. Moving the ball when they’re somewhere foreign means forcing quick decisions from guys already grappling with a certain disorientation.
That play might not seem like much, but Davis denied Curry an easy look here. It’s a feat that eludes the box score because “Outlet Passes Reconsidered” isn’t a stat we track. Davis is killing it in this mythical category, though. Quite a few times already in this series, a Warriors player hasn’t thrown an outlet pass they normally would have. Sometimes it even happens out of range of the TV camera. All the viewer will see is a Golden State player looking up, then proceeding to dribble the team along into a half-court set. Like some psychological horror thriller, the lurking apparition is invisible to all but those it terrifies.
Davis gets back to scare the Warriors off these breaks for two reasons: He’s sacrificing offensive rebounds to do it and he’s an alien sent from the future. Setting the alien part aside, Davis had only one offensive rebound in Game 2, despite spending 45 minutes on the floor. It’s an understandable tradeoff considering he’s guarded by Green, someone who can quickly sneak behind Davis to push a break. Because the Warriors aren’t a great defensive rebounding team, they’ll also accept that tradeoff. Golden State just has to be opportunistic with its chances while being mindful of Davis’ presence. And by “just,” I mean that’s an incredibly tough balancing act.
Davis isn’t up in this series, but this serves as a preview for the kind of game-changing presence he’ll be for years. Already, at this young age -- he just turned 22 -- he presents a formidable challenge to an offense that usually shoots right over challenges. Curry and the Warriors will likely figure out a way around him though. Smart, collective play will win out. The Warriors will push in transition when the opportunity presents. Curry will move the ball, helping his team as Clark Kent when the crowd craves Superman. The Warriors will play fast, making the most of the time they have. The league in general would be well advised to make the most of today’s opportunities against the Brow. Davis gets better every day, and he’s coming to wreck your plans.