The Warriors have regressed to the mean. But it doesn't mean they are going to be any easier to beat in the playoffs.
Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The Warriors have finally come back to earth. Their resounding defeat to Detroit on Saturday felt like it was their first loss of the season. Unlike their previous three losses, the Warriors had their full complement of players, were reasonably rested and healthy, and still lost convincingly. The Detroit loss underscored the fact that the Warriors, since their Christmas Day matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers, have been playing ordinary basketball. They're still playing very well, but they haven't reached the transcendent peaks they often reached at the beginning of the season.
My initial hunch that the Warriors' regression was due to a downturn regarding their defense and bench was not borne out in the numbers. Offensive rating (ORtg)—how many points a team scores per 100 possessions—and defensive rating (DRtg)—how many points a team allows per 100 possessions—are two summary measures used to determine how well a team is doing on both ends of the court. The primary reason to use these measures instead of points scored per game and points allowed per game is that they control for pace—the faster a team plays, the more chances, on average, both they and their opponents have to score. The strength of a team's offense, however, is about how often they score on any given possession. So if we do not control for number of possessions, we'll conflate how good a team's offense is with how fast they play, and the same is true for defense.
Until December 26, the Warriors were demolishing teams by 22 points per 100 possessions (this is ORtg - DRtg) with Draymond Green and Steph Curry in the game. After December 26, this margin dropped to 18 points per 100 possessions. While their defensive rating held steady at 98, their offensive rating fell from 120 to 116. A similar thing happens when Green and Curry are on the bench. Before December 26, the Warriors were being outscored by 12 points per 100 possessions with Green and Curry off the floor, a number which jumped to 16 after December 26. Similarly, their offensive rating fell from 100 to 96.
As I noted in the very 1st Dubbed column, the Warriors' defense feels slightly less stingy than it was last year, and has more trouble maintaining small leads. There's room for improvement. But it doesn't appear that defense or the bench are to blame for the Warriors' recent anemic play. Instead, it appears the offense has taken a step back, regardless of whether Green and Curry are on the floor. It's cliche to say, but the NBA season is long, and there are bound to be dry stretches. Regardless of the offensive dip, it's important to note that the Warriors offense would still be ranked No. 1 in the league if the team had played the entire year the way they have played over the past 11 games.
There is no sure formula for stifling the Warriors offense, but there are many strategies that good defenses teams can deploy to complicate things.
The Warriors like to get Steph and Klay space for three pointers by setting screens for them both on and off the ball. It's very difficult to completely deny them space all the time, but teams can minimize the damage by being dogged about staying on Steph and Klay's hips when they catch the ball. Ideally, teams will create enough doubt for Steph and Klay that they will at least slightly hesitate before shooting when coming off of screens. This is what Tony Allen did so effectively to Steph in the second round of the playoffs, and what Kentavious Caldwell-Pope did in the Warriors' first matchup against Detroit this year.
This is easier said than done, of course. It's hard and tiring to repeatedly chase the Warriors around screens, and even if it works, they will adjust: Steph and Klay can keep moving once they catch the ball, curling inside the three point line after they catch the ball, finding space for pull-up twos, which they both hit at a high rate. But making them take two pointers instead of threes is a tactical victory. It's impossible to stop Steph from shooting threes if that's what he really wants: above the break (the area behind the curved part of the three point line), the Warriors can set their screens far enough behind the line that curling around them still leaves Steph in three-point territory. And the man has range that credibly extends near half-court. Again, though, forcing the Warriors to take long threes is a victory.
Teams should also try to keep the Warriors out of transition as much as possible. Some teams try to accomplish this by ceding the offensive boards entirely and instead immediately matching up on missed shots. Other teams take a more nuanced approach: they want their wings to get back on defense, but send their bigs to the offensive glass hard. Even when they don't get the offensive rebound, forcing the Warriors to spend time and energy securing the rebound can sometimes slow their transition game. But even on made baskets, the Warriors will often look for a quick shot in semi-transition, so defenses must lock in immediately. Limiting transition offense is especially valuable against the Warriors' bench, who can have a hard time scoring out of their half-court offense because of a lack of spacing.
Defenses can disrupt the Warriors by keeping their hands active in the passing lanes. While the idea that the Warriors are particularly turnover prone is a bit overblown—their assist to turnover ratio is second best in the league to the San Antonio Spurs—they are reliant on their passing. Even if teams can't actually get turnovers, tipped passes and deflections can force the Warriors to reset their offense with less time on the shot clock, which keeps them from getting into a rhythm.
The common thread in all of these strategies is to slow the Warriors down, not just figuratively, but literally. Golden State are at their terrifyingly, invincible best when they play loose and fast—lightning strike fast-breaks, hair-trigger early shot clock jumpers—with the ball zooming around to find the open man. While the Warriors have demonstrated their ability to grind out wins in disjointed, low-possession games, that's not when they're most comfortable. Slow down them down and you make them merely mortal. That's how the undermanned Cavs beat them twice in the Finals last year, and that's what they'll try to do tonight.