MEMPHIS -- The Golden State Warriors were down 2-1 in the series way back on Saturday. They might as well have been playing for their season back then, in the distant past. Six days later, they’ve clinched a Western Conference finals berth with a 108-95 smothering of the Memphis Grizzlies. None of the past three Warriors wins have been close. What just happened?
There’s the obvious stuff. Stephen Curry crushed Memphis’ spirit with a 62-foot swish at the end of the third quarter, a shot he says he practices, “every day.” Curry also hit more 3-pointers than the whole Grizzlies’ roster in this series, with eight of them in the closeout game. After struggling in the first three contests, the MVP came roaring back to play like the MVP. That was huge, but obviously so.
Curry’s offense draws the headlines, but this was a battle mostly won on the defensive end. In Games 2 and 3, the Grizzlies were mowing the Warriors in the paint, getting just enough production down low to grab and secure leads. A change in tactics, combined with better all-around defense, totally warped the action in Golden State’s favor.
It began on the plane before Game 3, when assistant coach and all-around defensive guru Ron Adams suggested something bizarre. What if Andrew Bogut guarded Tony Allen as though Allen were a non-shooting center? The airborne coaching staff murmured that such a move could really confound Memphis, and they filed the idea away. There was a process between invention and implementation, though. The Warriors had to lose Game 3, had to get desperate enough to try the weird tactic.
"We told the guys, 'We're going to do this the first three possessions of the game, and we'll see how it goes,'” Kerr said of his directions before Game 4.
As much sense as the gambit made, there was some internal anxiety over how it would all play out.
Allen hit his first shot. Then he missed a 3-pointer. And another. And another. Before seven minutes had passed, Allen was yanked from a game in which he’d go on to play only 16 minutes. Allen, struggling with a hamstring injury, went on to see only five more minutes of the series. Although Allen was certainly hurt, Golden State’s move made him essentially unplayable (multiple Warriors conceded as much after Game 4). This was a massive strategic concession by the Grizzlies, considering how Allen had been dominating defensively. He might have been the best player in the series to that point, and he was taken off the chessboard with one move.
Other factors were necessary too. Harrison Barnes, despite being wing-sized, had done a decent job guarding Zach Randolph in Games 1 through 3 (or, as Barnes frames it, “not getting put into the rim”). Barnes’ defensive facility inspired the coaching staff to use Draymond Green and Bogut as roaming helpers when Allen played, and it also inspired other tactics.
Z-Bo’s dribbles into the paint were swarmed, especially near the baseline. Like Lilliputians tethering Gulliver, the Warriors held Randolph down.
Barnes described the approach as, “Make him put it on the ground, make him pass. If Jeff Green and Courtney Lee are going to beat us, we'll live with that,” he said. “It worked, and we had success ever since.”
“Success” might be putting it mildly. The Grizzlies made only 38 percent of their field goal attempts in the final three games.
From there, Curry had a crucial role. No, not hurling fire at the net from unfair distances, though that was important too. Curry (and his backcourt mate, Klay Thompson) had to hit the glass.
“The key thing,” Kerr said in describing their defensive approach, “is that the guards have to come back and rebound.”
If the Warriors were to swarm a Memphis big man, that left fewer players to box out the other Memphis big. This is why spindly number 30 kept flying into the paint, snagging 17 defensive rebounds in the final three games. On one epitomizing Game 6 play, with less than two minutes left in the second, Curry managed to snag a board right out of Randolph’s car-crusher hands.
It was a total team effort, as the cliché goes. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston came up big off the bench. Bogut’s rim protection returned with fury. Thompson found his shooting touch. Green even made a point after Game 6 to ask himself an interview question, just so he could praise an important stretch of play from backup center Festus Ezeli.
The Warriors were in trouble Saturday in Memphis. Together, they got out of it. They did it with defense, informed by ingenuity.
It was an inspired six days.