If there’s one overarching phrase that defines the philosophy of the Golden State Warriors’ defense throughout this season, it’s this: “Better safe than sorry.”
If they can avoid it, the Warriors would rather not let their opponents be in a position to score efficiently. If they can stop someone before they can get down, with two feet touching the paint, they will.
That starts at the point of attack. There is no use keeping opponents out of the paint if they can get past the first line of defense. Once the dominoes fall, there is a greater chance that the rest will collapse (a rotating defense, plugging holes slower than the rate at which they are being created, etc.) and the plot is completely lost.
Keeping opponents from touching the paint has been a major point of emphasis for the Warriors. He was a big component of their early regular-season defense, once considered dominant and historically significant. That fell to a more “tame” level, but still relatively elite compared to the rest of the league.
It’s easy to forget that while the Warriors face an opponent who excels at limiting paint touches and attempts at the rim, they themselves have been elite in that department, slightly more than the Boston Celts.
Consider this: The Celtics ranked second in opponent rim frequency during the regular season, at 27.7%. The only team to beat them in that department? The Warriors, who only allowed 27.0% of their opponents’ shots to go to the rim.
One of the reasons that little statistical pearl is easy to miss is due to differences in personnel. The Celtics’ success at blocking the paint and the rim stems from a combination of excellent defense at the point of attack, excellent navigation on the screen and having the ultimate pool cleaner at the baseline in Robert Williams III.
The Warriors have excellent defense at the point of attack. They have the screen navigation skills to compete. But they lack the bona fide rim protection component the Celtics have in Williams III. The Celtics averaged 5.8 blocks per game during the regular season, second in the league. The Warriors, on the other hand, averaged 4.5 blocks, an average of 18.
That’s where his philosophy of prevention above all else comes into play. If you can stop your man before he can do anything, that’s the ideal outcome. It eliminates the need for the rest of his teammates, especially on the baseline, to compensate, rotate and assist.
A prime example of such a philosophy happened during the Celtics’ first offensive possession in Game 5. The Celtics have been blatantly searching for the weakest link within the Warriors’ lineups, whether it be Stephen Curry or Jordan Poole.
Noticing this development, Curry staged the defense prophetically:
Watch Curry closely as Jaylen Brown carries the ball past the half-court line. Instead of starting with Marcus Smart, as he usually does, he instructs Otto Porter Jr. to take Smart in his place while he defends Williams III.
Intentionally taking a center with a 7-inch height advantage seems like an odd decision. But Curry has a good reason for it: “Pre-trading” Porter Jr. to Smart is a precautionary measure for a Smart-Jayson Tatum pick-and-roll, a tool the Celtics have spammed throughout the series to catch Curry in a mismatch. against Tatum.
Rather than a mismatch, it’s a switch from wing to wing: Tatum goes from being protected by Andrew Wiggins to being protected by Porter Jr., who manages to stifle Tatum’s momentum. With the help of Wiggins, who stunts Tatum during his run, they force a rotation.
The previous trade has been a valuable tool for the Warriors. It serves a dual purpose: to engage more capable point-of-attack personnel rather than defenders who can be easily compromised; and throw a wrench into the defense’s intentions and make halfcourt possessions stall and flow.
Pristine communication is key to a successful pre-change. Watch Curry and Draymond Green reach out to each other to pre-switch once Curry’s man Derrick White comes to set up a screen for Brown:
The Celtics are forced to improvise with a clever “Keep” move: a fake trade. But Curry is not fooled by Smart’s fake, and stays in front of Smart to stifle Smart’s shot attempt. Instead of a trade from Brown to Curry, the Warriors’ earlier trade forces the Celtics to settle for an inefficient shot from a lesser offensive threat.
Mixing coverage, throwing different looks, and timely help have been the keys to unlocking the Warriors’ stifling defense and, in turn, making the Celtics’ half-court offense largely inept (94.3 ORTG avg). court in the NBA Finals, equivalent to 20th during the regular season). In their attempts to chase the low-hanging fruit, the Celtics have narrowed their offensive focus, making them even more vulnerable to sudden changes in defensive schemes.
The Celtics try to hunt down Curry on down possession through a combination of two different screen actions: “wide” action, followed by a double-ball screen lineup. When their attempts are stifled, they try one last time to engage Curry against Brown.
Which is when the Warriors decide to spring a trap, literally:
Curry and Klay Thompson bombard Brown around the ball screen. White slides in and makes himself available on the short roll and tries to attack the rim head-on, instead of punishing a leaning defense by kicking towards the weakside wing or the corner.
This decision proves fatal, as Green is in a perfect helping position as the short man to vertically compete with White and completely obstruct him.
In the midst of Wiggins’ performance he missed Green’s recovery game, particularly on the defensive end. His off-the-ball roaming and rotations of him as a help defender were classic Greens. The Celtics were limited to 36 points in the paint; only 13% of his shot attempts made it to the rim, a development that had Green’s fingerprints all over it.
His combination of fundamentals, length and intelligence was on full display, especially against Brown. Green read the scouting report for Brown, who has a notorious reputation for being a less effective driver when he’s forced to use his weaker left hand.
Green knows that forcing Brown to his left is half the battle, preventing him from getting to the rim entirely. The other half is forcing him to make a bad decision:
Green shadows Brown to his left, with Curry showing some early help from the weakside corner. True to the scouting report, Brown has a hard time getting past Green as he dribbles with his left. With Gary Payton II “splitting the difference” between corner and wing, Brown kicks desperately into Payton II’s waiting hands.
Brown’s weakness is so pronounced that the Warriors are content to forgo medium penetration — something normally seen as antithetical to their philosophy, let alone overall defensive principles — to funnel Brown into a brick wall.
As the Warriors’ undisputed defensive leader, Green sets the tone. A blocked defensive master gets to everyone else on the list; a smart, connected defensive unit flattens possessions, keeps everything mostly up front, and erects a figurative fortress around precious real estate.
That’s when you get a possession like this:
In 5 games, the Warriors have allowed just 18.9% of the Celtics’ shot attempts to be made at the rim, far lower than their league-leading rate during the regular season.
Sticking to his season-long defensive philosophy of hoop prevention, fueled by personnel, versatility, connection and basketball IQ, has paid big dividends. If the Warriors manage to clinch a title in the next few days, they’ll certainly deserve a significant chunk of the credit.