If the Warriors seize history Monday, it will be viewed as the closing argument in the bombastic, warped debate about whether a "jump-shooting team" can win at the highest level. The two pivotal games of this Golden State sequel -- Game 6 against the Thunder, and Game 4 in Cleveland -- will rightfully go down as watershed moments when even the skeptics realized how much more three is than two.
The Warriors outscored the Thunder and Cavs 114-27 combined from 3-point range in those two swing games. At some point, the math becomes overwhelming. Almost nothing else matters. Three isn't just one more than two. It is 50 percent more, a gargantuan bonus in a game of finite possessions.
But pigeonholing the Warriors as a "jump-shooting team" has done them a disservice, and frustratingly boxed in much of the discourse surrounding their rise. Talk to almost any Golden State player or coach, and they will say the same thing: "We are a defense-first team." The Warriors ranked No. 1 in the whole stinking league last season in points allowed per possession. They slumped to No. 5 this season, in part because they were so good that they destroyed teams without having to defend at anywhere close to peak intensity.
When they do that, as they did in grinding the Cavs' blistering offense into submission Friday, they are a wonder to behold. To win it all Monday, they will have to conquer one of the toughest challenges of their season: defending with that same fine-tuned vigor while Draymond Green, their snarling soul, sits out a suspension.
The Warriors seemed confident at practice Sunday, but for the series, they are plus-53 in the 81 minutes Green has logged at center -- and an ugly minus-29 in the remaining 111 minutes, per NBA.com. Green is their best overall defender; his switchability and gritty rebounding make their smaller lineups playable.
And the way those smaller groups defend, more than anything, has swung this series. If you want to encapsulate the difference between these two teams, you might start with a possession like this one from Game 4:
It begins with a Klay Thompson-Andre Iguodala pick-and-roll, a play designed to target Channing Frye, a slow-footed big man with unreliable defensive instincts -- precisely the sort of player the Warriors do not have. The Warriors set 37 ball screens for Stephen Curry in Game 4, by far a series high, and 22 of them combined came from Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Thompson and Shaun Livingston, per tracking data provided to ESPN.com -- all as a way of targeting Cleveland's weakest defenders. With Green suspended, we might see a lot of that in Game 5.
Frye traps Thompson, who slips a pass to Iguodala rolling to the rim. Kevin Love rotates away from Barnes to prevent an Iguodala layup. At this point, everything is going about as well as the Cavs could hope:
But the moment Iguodala kicks the ball to Green, the Cavs break apart. Iman Shumpert, a huge disappointment all season, spins around like a teenager looking for someone to talk to at a party and eventually decides to rush at Green. Problem: Matthew Dellavedova, a shade in this series, has made the same choice and switched off of Livingston to sprint at Green. This one half-second misstep is all it takes to unlock a trademark Warriors passing sequence:
These little blips of confusion dot every Cleveland game. On this Thompson-James Michael McAdoo pick-and-roll from the fourth quarter of Game 2, watch what happens when Shumpert makes a well-intentioned move to try to steal Thompson's pass to McAdoo:
Shumpert's initial play is fine; the Cavs are masters at jumping the passing lanes, and that kind of aggression emboldens both their transition attack and their general spirit. But when Shumpert and LeBron both rotate out toward Iguodala 45 feet from the hoop, they enable an unlikely McAdoo 3-on-2 -- and the kind of semi-random, manufactured bucket Golden State subsists on during those perilous moments when Curry rests:
You can spot similar errors of commission here, and in lots of Cleveland's earlier games in the junior varsity bracket:
The Cavaliers' intentions on these plays are good. They are trying hard! But disorganized effort can lead to the same bad results as organized laziness. When the errors get more dire and basic, as they did in the second half of Game 4, the Warriors punish you with shots that count for an extra point. Even with Green out, the Cavs will have to defend much better than they did as Game 4 slipped away.
Those are the kinds of mistakes the Warriors almost never make. I'm not sure I'd ever seen a team communicate and shift around the floor so seamlessly. The Warriors swap assignments on the fly without even a millisecond of finger-pointing confusion that might open scoring windows. At one point in Game 4, Green noticed Thompson stuck guarding Love on the block, waited for the Cavs to toss the ball to a perimeter player without an easy entry-pass angle to Love and rushed in to trade places with Thompson.
When one player rotates to help a teammate, a third Warrior covers that guy's back -- with the fourth and fifth Warriors moving in tandem to cut off any passing lanes. They quite literally move together, as one entity. On most teams, one guy rotates, everyone pauses to observe the new geometry of the floor, and then one guy realizes, holy crap, it's my job to move now!
There is a jagged, robotic quality to that brand of defense. You notice it. Your eye catches two Cavs rotating toward one Warrior as it would a bold, out-of-place brushstroke in a painting. You barely notice how the Warriors move as one. As I've written before, there is a liquid quality to their defense. They are like one of those college marching bands whose members combine to form massive images that move so convincingly, you almost forget for a second that the giant video game character on the football field is actually composed of hundreds of people.
That is not some random accident of team construction. The Warriors sought smart players who felt the game instinctually and had a history of playing hard for their teammates. They were obviously lucky some of those players fell to them. The Wolves passing twice on Curry is one of the epic draft missteps. If the Warriors believed Green would be even 75 percent as good as he is, they would have picked him at No. 30 in 2012 instead of Festus Ezeli. They have Barnes only because of a naked late-season tank job. They don't have Dwight Howard only because Howard rejected them.
But they deserve credit for chasing high-IQ guys who play for the right reasons, starting with the Monta Ellis-Andrew Bogut swap -- a controversial deal that marked a cultural sea change. They gave up a ton to get Iguodala, and outbid the market for Livingston. They took Green before anyone else. They saw underneath Thompson's muted persona.
Opposing coaches call their pals on the Warriors' staff now and ask how they've taught the team to switch so well. Golden State's coaches just laugh and tell the truth: Get smart players and you don't even have to practice it. They figure it out on their own.
By the way, that switching is a big reason LeBron has struggled at times attacking the basket. A lot of the folks screeching about LeBron "not taking over" miss the point that it's hard to "take over" when the defense doesn't even have to rotate. LeBron is a freight train going to the rim. He makes it look easy, and a lot of his critics hold that against him when it gets hard.
The Warriors are making it hard. LeBron usually looks like a freight train because he can actually load up some momentum and jet through open space toward a backpedaling defender. That's what usually happens on a pick-and-roll: His guy chases him over the pick; the opposing big man defending the screener drops back; and LeBron has a pocket of space to rev his engine. He has a head start.
You don't get a head start when Iguodala just passes you off to Livingston. You've covered no north-south ground, and the Warriors have ceded no territory. You just face another like-sized defender, with his feet set, squaring up to wall off the paint. LeBron can't just run over those dudes. He has to work his crossovers, squeeze around them, search for crevices opening toward the rim.
That is not to say that LeBron's play has measured up to his lofty standards or that he is beyond criticism. His complete loss of faith in his jumper compounds the problem, since the Warriors duck under picks. He isn't as explosive as he once was; he can't just rise up over Golden State's long-limbed wings. He has to drive into them, and almost lean back for awkward floaters. His defense has been so-so. But those decrying his alleged unwillingness to "take over" should at least note he's facing a unique team that forces him to do so without a runway.
The Warriors also enjoy a rare continuity that informs everything they do. In a league of shorter contracts and insane roster churn, Golden State's starting five now has four seasons together. Iguodala is finishing his third season with the Warriors, and he's so smart that's the equivalent of a half-dozen shared seasons for a typical player.
That kind of connection is unusual now, and it matters. The players talk about it all the time. They know each other's tendencies blind -- how they move on defense, when they'll need a bit of extra help, what matchups trouble them, when they like to slice backdoor on offense. Collective experience breeds affection, and players go harder when they care about each other.
The Warriors have been a little lucky here, too. Curry became eligible for a contract extension during a summer when his long-term health was somewhat in doubt, and settled for what has turned into a laughably below-market deal. Thompson and Green both took less than the max, and Iguodala looks underpaid. Somehow, this will be the first season in franchise history the Warriors pay the luxury tax.
An unprecedented cap spike gives them a cushion at precisely the moment Barnes will become eligible for a mega-extension that could temporarily make him the highest-paid player on the team.
If Barnes stays on that kind of deal, you can bet it won't disrupt Golden State's chemistry. The Warriors are all aware of the salary hierarchy, and Curry's place within it, but they don't let it affect what happens when they come together. Thompson's complete lack of ego will help; he legitimately doesn't care about attention, or the trappings of stardom. He is happy to play Curry's "sidekick," as he told ESPN.com, and he doesn't care that Green overshadows him, too.
The Warriors still have work to do. LeBron is scary, always. But if they do this, it won't be only the result of their historic jump-shooting. They have achieved the kind of interconnectedness on defense that eludes most teams -- including their opponent in these Finals.