The Warriors’ last title team had five usable centers with varying skills, Kevin Durant in his best rim protection season, younger versions of Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson before the injury and a 6 point save feet 7 inches, Shaun Livingston, who could keep the wings. You can build every type of lineup combination imaginable to deploy any defensive scheme.
The current Warriors don’t have that luxury. No healthy player on the roster is over 6-foot-9. Their only real center, Kevon Looney, is not a jumper. Their wing depth has decreased. They have three recent lottery picks that they don’t yet fully trust in high-leverage playoff situations. Their best smallball group includes Jordan Poole, an explosive young scorer who had a target painted on his back defensively last month.
So more creativity and regular attention to detail was needed for the Warriors to cultivate and maintain a championship-level unity on the defensive end. But they did. The Warriors generated the league’s best defensive rating in the first two months, dropping only to second overall for the season despite Green’s long absence. The defense held off the Nuggets, Grizzlies and Mavericks well to win the Western Conference, and now the Warriors are on the doorstep of another NBA title as they remained stingy against the best team in the East.
The Warriors beat the Celtics 104-94 in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Monday night, taking a 3-2 lead in the best of seven series. They gave up just 16 points in the first quarter and only 20 points in the fourth quarter. The Celtics, in this series, have scored 88, 94 and 97 points in their three losses. In their entire run across the East, they only managed to hit 100 points twice in 20 games. The Warriors nudged within 48 minutes of a title because they stop the Celtics better than any previous opponent.
Draymond Green always sets the defensive tone. He doesn’t have the same explosion he had in his late twenties. Green once blocked 17 shots in a four-game sweep against the Blazers. He has just two blocks in this entire series and 20 in the playoffs.
But his helping instincts are sharper than ever and, revved up for Game 5, he’s been pinpointing mistakes and fixing leaks all night.
Watch Green here at the start of the second quarter. The clip begins with Jaylen Brown seeking and getting a Poole Switch, a match that sets off alarm bells for Green. As Brown begins his practice against Poole, you can see Green – who is guarding Robert Williams – take an extra leap towards the middle of the lane, showing some early help. Brown passes Poole, but Green is there to challenge the layup vertically and grab the rebound.
Another part of this slow motion sequence is remarkable. As Green rushes to help Poole, Nemanja Bjelica backs up to protect against Williams who smashes the offensive glass. He hits Williams, which keeps him grounded, as Green gets up for the rebound.
Back in training camp — after the Warriors used their two draft picks on teenagers and prioritized floor spacing with the additions of Bjelica and Otto Porter Jr. — there was a level healthy with skepticism about how they could even maintain a top-10 defense, given the reconfigured personnel. Green was among those who had initial doubts.
But Bjelica used his size and brain better than expected. Porter surprised his teammates with his tenacity and rebounding instinct. Steph Curry had his strongest defensive season ever. Poole has increased his healing factor. Looney has become an elite interior anchor. The arrival of Gary Payton II gave the Warriors a perimeter dog that led the league in interceptions per 36 minutes. Andrew Wiggins has become a wing stopper. Green, loving his surroundings better than expected, turned them into an elite unit.
“Mike Brown has been incredible in terms of restoring the importance of this side of basketball from training camp to now,” Curry said. “Let no one be mistaken in terms of responsibility on this side of the floor.”
The coaching side of this defensive revival should not be underestimated. Here’s a story that goes into more detail behind the scenes. But the bottom line is that Steve Kerr handed over the reins of defense this summer to Brown, who added variety to the playbook and pioneered an internal metrics system that made each player’s individual defensive effectiveness public. . If you could defensively in any given week, you would hear about it in front of the whole team.
“We tried a lot of different things over the year,” Curry said. “Traditional men’s coverage, all the zone stuff and one, that we can kind of sprinkle in every once in a while. But at the end of the day, it’s just effort and intensity and kind of a stubbornness on that front. We’ve done a really good job maintaining that for the most part throughout the year and trying to plug in where there was a bit – I guess you call that shortcomings compared to teams of the past.
In the conference finals, the Warriors mixed their looks more than ever before, sending out a variety of zone schemes and pick-and-roll coverage in an attempt to shake up Luka Dončić’s rhythm. That didn’t happen against Boston. They limited the look of the area and stayed in a man base, relying on their veteran players to learn each player’s tendencies and shooting abilities – knowing who to leave and, as the show said. mentioned, the need to force Brown and Jayson Tatum to their left. .
That’s part of the reason you haven’t seen Jonathan Kuminga or Moses Moody. Kerr and Brown tipped the defense at every tense moment during the playoffs. It is their tendency. They are more concerned with a cover mix-up or smelly boxing than some spacing issues or the lack of a more dramatic athlete on the floor.
It always comes down to players running the pattern and making plays. In Game 5, various players put on great defensive performances. Wiggins, playing 44 more minutes as the team’s irreplaceable wing defender, was the defensive co-star next to Green.
Here are back-to-back Wiggins clips, spliced together. In the first, he stones Tatum in a one-on-one situation and forces him into a tough, contested fadeaway, which he throws into the air. In the second, Wiggins jumps from the weak side to block Brown’s jumper as he tries to shoot Curry.
Wiggins finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds, two steals and a block. Those 13 rebounds give him 29 rebounds over the last two games, and most of them don’t come cheap. You’ll see him soar through traffic for a defensive rebound in the next clip.
But start with Klay Thompson on the wing. Thompson didn’t say when asked if it was his best defensive streak of the playoffs, but it looks like it. Thompson had a huge strip and a few saves on Brown late in Game 4 and had several great moments again in Game 5.
Here he jumps on Tatum on a switch, stays with him on a drive, and forces an unassisted pass that compromises the defense. This leads Al Horford into an uncomfortable ride and a missed float. Possession ends with this rebound from Wiggins in traffic.
Payton’s return added that extra ball dog on the perimeter that has been in such use for the Warriors all season. Payton played 26 minutes in Game 5, had three interceptions and was plus-16.
Don’t watch Payton at the start of this next clip. The action takes place on the opposite wing. The Celtics set up an off-ball screen to bring Curry over Tatum, but Wiggins doesn’t allow it. He fought better and better through the screens over the last two rounds.
Wiggins goes through the initial screen to stay on Tatum, then, on the next screen, Curry covers for the double. Tatum hands it over to Marcus Smart, and that’s when Payton enters the proceedings. He’s about as quick laterally as any other guard in the league. So he throws himself into the outskirts of Smart to get a body in the mix, but is still able to scatter to Brown and take the 3 away. Brown puts him down and Payton undresses him.
But, again, when the Warriors are the stingiest, it starts with Green. They briefly gave up the lead in the third quarter but tied on in the fourth for their most important defensive quarter of the season, limiting the Celtics to 14 points in 11 minutes before the benches finally emptied.
This is one of their saves midway through the fourth quarter. Tatum works against Wiggins and actually gets some daylight on a left hand drive. This is not a traditional switching situation. No screen is defined. But Green still reads every part of the floor. He passes over Tatum to cut off the drive, and Wiggins heads to Williams to get a body on Boston’s top rebounder. Tatum fades into another miss and Green grabs the rebound.
If the Warriors win the title this week, the credit will spread in all directions. Much of this will be rooted in their willingness and ability to reconfigure a championship-level defensive unit despite having a tougher set of ingredients and skills.
(Photo of Draymond Green guarding Jaylen Brown from Boston: Cary Edmondson/USA Today)