The Warriors’ last champion team had five usable centers with different skill sets, Kevin Durant during his best rim-protection season, younger versions of Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, pre-injury Klay Thompson, and a backup point from 6 feet 7 inches, Shaun Livingston. , which could save wings. You could build every kind of lineup combination imaginable to implement any defensive scheme.
The current Warriors don’t have that luxury. No healthy player on the roster is taller than 6-foot-9. Their one true center, Kevon Looney, is not a jumper. The depth of his wings has decreased. They have three recent lottery picks that they still don’t fully trust in the higher-leverage playoff situations. His best small-ball group includes Jordan Poole, an explosive young scorer who has had a target painted on his back defensively last month.
Therefore, it has taken more creativity and regular attention to detail for the Warriors to cultivate and maintain a championship-level unit on the defensive end. But they have. The Warriors generated the best defensive rating in the league for the first few months, only falling to second overall for the season despite Green’s long absence. The defense held up well against the Nuggets, Grizzlies and Mavericks to win the Western Conference, and now the Warriors are on the brink of another NBA title because they’ve been tight-fisted 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 allowed just 16 points in the first quarter and just 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 East run, they failed to reach 100 points only twice in 20 games. The Warriors have come within 48 minutes of a title because they are stopping the Celtics better than any previous opponent.
Draymond Green still sets the tone defensively. He doesn’t have the same explosion that he enjoyed when he was in his early 20s. Green once blocked 17 shots in a four-game sweep of the Blazers. He has only two blocks in this entire series and 20 in the playoffs.
But his helping instincts are as sharp as ever and, revved up for Game 5, he was pinpointing bugs and fixing leaks all night.
Look at Green here early in the second quarter. The clip begins with Jaylen Brown looking for and getting a trade from Poole, a matchup that sends an alarm bell ringing for Green. As Brown begins his drive against Poole, you can see Green, who is guarding Robert Williams, take an additional jump into the middle of the lane, showing early help. Brown gets past Poole, but Green is there to contest the layup vertically and grab the rebound.
Another part of that slow-motion sequence is remarkable. As Green slides in to help Poole, Nemanja Bjelica drops back to protect herself against Williams who smashes the offensive glass. He hits Williams, which keeps him grounded, as Green goes up for the rebound.
Back in training camp, after the Warriors used their two teen draft picks and prioritized floor space with the additions of Bjelica and Otto Porter Jr., there was a healthy level of skepticism about how they could even keep a defense in the top 10, given the reconfigured staff. Green was among those with initial doubts.
But Bjelica used his size and brains better than expected. Porter surprised his teammates with his toughness and instinct on the rebound. Steph Curry had the strongest defensive season in her history. Poole increased his care factor. Looney became an elite interior anchor. The arrival of Gary Payton II gave the Warriors a perimeter hound who led the league in steals for 36 minutes. Andrew Wiggins became a wing plug. Green, liking his entourage more than expected, made them quarterback in an elite unit.
“Mike Brown has been amazing in terms of reinstating the importance of that side of basketball, from training camp to now,” Curry said. “Let no one go wrong in terms of responsibility at that end of the floor.”
The technical side of this defensive renaissance should not be underestimated. Here is a story that goes into greater detail behind the scenes. But the gist is that Steve Kerr handed over the reins of defense this summer to Brown, who added variety to the playbook and debuted an internal metric system that advertised each player’s individual defensive effectiveness. If you sucked for a given week defensively, you’d hear it in front of the whole team.
“We’ve tried a lot of different things over the course of the year,” Curry said. “Traditional men’s coverage, all the box zone stuff and one we can add from time to time. But at the end of the day, it’s just effort and intensity and kind of relentlessness on that front. We’ve done a really good job of keeping that for the most part throughout the year and trying to connect where there’s a little bit, I guess you call it shortcomings compared to teams in the past.
In the conference finals, the Warriors mixed up their looks more than ever, dispatching a variety of zone schemes and pick-and-roll coverage in an attempt to disrupt Luka Dončić’s rhythm. That has not been the case against Boston. They limited the look of the zone and stayed on a male base, trusting their veteran players to know each player’s shooting tendencies and capabilities, knowing who to leave and, as mentioned on the broadcast, the need to force Brown and Jayson Tatum to his left. .
That’s part of the reason you haven’t seen Jonathan Kuminga or Moses Moody. Kerr and Brown have tipped the defense at every tense moment during the playoffs. It is your tendency. They’re more concerned about a coverage mix-up or a botched box-out than some space issues or the lack of a more spectacular athlete on the floor.
It’s still about players running the scheme and making plays. In Game 5, several players had great defensive performances. Wiggins, who played an additional 44 minutes as the team’s irreplaceable full-back, was the defensive co-star alongside Green.
Here are clips of Wiggins back to back, spliced together. In the first, he rocks Tatum in a one-on-one situation and forces him into a difficult, contested fade, which he throws into the air. In the second, Wiggins jumps alert from the weak side to block Brown’s jump shot as he tries to shoot over Curry.
Wiggins finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds, two steals and a block. Those 13 rebounds give him 29 rebounds in the last two games, and most of them aren’t of the cheap variety. You’ll see him fly into traffic for a defensive rebound in the clip below.
But it starts with Klay Thompson in the band. Thompson wouldn’t say when asked if this has been his best defensive series of the playoffs, but it sounds like it is. Thompson had a great throw and some stops on Brown late in Game 4 and had several nice moments again in Game 5.
Here he’s jumping Tatum on a changeup, sticking to him on a drive and forcing a pass without needing help that compromises the defense. That leads Al Horford to an awkward ride and a failed float. The possession ends with that Wiggins rebound in traffic.
Payton’s return has added that extra ball hound on the perimeter that served as such a use for the Warriors all season. Payton played 26 minutes in Game 5, had three steals and had a plus-16.
Don’t look at Payton at the beginning of this next clip. The action takes place on the opposite wing. The Celtics are setting up an off-the-ball screen to get Curry to Tatum, but Wiggins doesn’t allow it. He has been fighting through screens getting better and better in the last two rounds.
Wiggins gets past the opening screen to stay on Tatum, then on the next screen Curry double guards. Tatum leaves it to Marcus Smart, and that’s when Payton comes into the process. He is as quick laterally as any other guard in the league. So he jumps to the periphery of Smart to get a body in the mix, but he can still scatter to Brown and take the 3 off him. Brown puts him down and Payton strips him naked.
But then again, when the Warriors are at their tightest, it starts with Green. They gave up the lead briefly in the third quarter, but rallied in the fourth for their biggest defensive quarter of the season, holding the Celtics to 14 points in 11 minutes before the benches finally emptied.
This is one of his stops midway through the fourth quarter. Tatum is working against Wiggins and actually gets a bit of daylight on a lefty drive. It is not a traditional exchange situation. No screen is configured. But Green is always reading every part of the floor. He switches to Tatum to shut down the drive, and an alert Wiggins approaches Williams to get a body on Boston’s best rebounder. Tatum fades on another miss and Green grabs the rebound.
If the Warriors win the title this week, credit will go everywhere. Much of it will be based on his willingness and ability to reconfigure a championship level defensive unit despite a more challenging set of ingredients and skill sets.
(Photo of Draymond Green protecting Boston’s Jaylen Brown: Cary Edmondson/USA Today)