SAN FRANCISCO — One of the defining images of the Golden State Warriors’ five-game dismantling of Dallas in the Western Conference finals last May was Mike Brown, then their defensive coordinator, hopping off the bench with two fists in the air and Draymond Green, their middle linebacker, gathering the signal to switch into a zone defense and relaying it to his teammates on the fly.
The Warriors were at their most fierce last season when their defense was at its most complex, bouncing from scheme to scheme dependent on opposing personnel. They had better point-of-attack options, like a healthy Gary Payton II, and more capable veterans, like Otto Porter Jr., to absorb and execute strategy. Increased youth, decreased health and reduced hunger and attentiveness this season has led to less complexity and a defensive rating that currently ranks 18th in the league.
But Steve Kerr’s coaching staff decided to deploy a playoff-like specified scheme to the Portland game on Tuesday night and — after the Warriors ran away with a 123-105 win — it was the hottest postgame topic.
“I know this coaching staff,” Green said. “I know when they put specific game plans together, it works. I’ve seen it work year after year, playoff run after playoff run. When they lock in and put a specific game plan together, we want to guard guys this way, we want to make this guy score and not let this guy, when they do that, it works.”
Kerr and the two assistants running the defense this season — Kenny Atkinson and Chris DeMarco — delivered the game plan at the walkthrough a few hours before tip. Damian Lillard erupted for 71 points two nights earlier. He beat the Warriors in a more traditional scheme earlier in the month, baiting bad individual defense to earn 16 free throws.
This time around, the Warriors wouldn’t allow that. They decided to actively force the ball out of Lillard’s hands, mostly through an overly aggressive blitz well past the 3-point line or a box-and-1 that had Donte DiVincenzo face-guarding Lillard and plenty of help roaming around in his vicinity.
The most obvious sign that the Warriors were treating this matchup with increased defensive strategy was the signal calling. It was common to see Brown demonstratively dialing up a different scheme last season while the ball was in play. There’s been little of that this season. But it was right out there for everyone to see against the Blazers.
Here is a fourth-quarter possession during an avalanche of a Warriors’ run. DiVincenzo makes a 3 to put the Warriors up nine and then signals to his teammates that they were going to a box-and-1 on the ensuing defensive possession, holding up his fingers like football goalposts.
The box-and-1 is an uncommon look. For it to work on the fly, all five players must recognize the play call, retreat to their assigned spots and understand their assignments.
On this specific possession, it was executed perfectly. DiVincenzo picks up Lillard well past the 3-point line and locks him to take away the easy cut to the perimeter, knowing he has some zoned help waiting down in the paint. Lillard is unable to spring open and kind of wanders out of the action.
Anthony Lamb and Jordan Poole populate the top of the box. Draymond Green and Jonathan Kuminga are at the bottom of it. Lamb and Green communicate beautifully on this possession. Lamb passes the ballhandler off to Poole and sinks toward the paint. Green sees Jerami Grant cutting to the middle and relays that to Lamb. Portland tries to drop a pass into Grant and Lamb steps in front for an interception. Lillard never touches the ball.
Here is a possession from a bit earlier in the fourth quarter. The Blazers begin the possession as many offenses do against the Warriors, using Poole’s man to set a high screen, hoping to drag Poole into some action on an island. But the Warriors aren’t switching or even soft hedging. They’re blitzing and doubling almost out to half court.
At this point, Lillard appears to know what’s coming and is resigned to the idea that it’ll be his teammates who must make shots. He steps right into the double-team 40 feet from the rim, passes it off and watches Cam Reddish miss an open 3 to close a possession where he never came within 35 feet of the basket.
The Blazers roasted the Warriors for 41 points in the first quarter. Matisse Thybulle hit a pair of 3s. Nassir Little and Reddish also connected from deep. The Warriors weren’t committed to the aggressive blitz and box-and-1, dropping back into a more traditional look at times, and Lillard was able to score 15 points in 12 minutes.
“It was kinda on and off, you know?” Lillard said. “They would try to go into normal coverages and not be so aggressive. But I think they wanted to just keep something in their back pocket. And, you know, going into the half with the 17-point lead, it was obvious in the third quarter that they came out and just committed to it. I think for me typically teams are aggressive in pick-and-roll coverages in spots in the half court, but they just committed to it.”
The Warriors said the message at halftime was to avoid an overreaction. Even if Portland’s role players hit shots, don’t suddenly treat them like shooters. The Warriors decided to commit heavier to the game plan to get the ball out of Lillard’s hands and made sure to sharpen up their execution of it.
“Dude can shoot it from half court, but at the same time he also can get to the rim and he’s very quick,” DiVincenzo said. “So you don’t want to pick him up too high. We watched a lot of film of us and other teams picking him up too high, and he just blows right by you and the big is on his heels. So I think the first thing is the pickup points.
“Don’t get too low, but also understand we cleaned up in the second half — when we blitzed, when we were in the box-and-1 — (we changed) where that big was, the angle, so he couldn’t turn that corner. When he bounced the ball out a couple of times and got rid of it, that’s when we did our job.”
There were times when Lillard still got to a more advantageous situation than was designed. But there was a collective five-man commitment to the game plan. That meant, like in the possession below, even if he weaved past a Kuminga and Klay Thompson double way out on the perimeter and worked his way into the lane, Draymond Green would be collapsing on the help side, very willing to give up a Jerami Grant attempted 3 — he went 1 of 8 — instead of a Lillard layup.
The Warriors won the second half 75-40. Green was a plus-26 in his minutes.
“Draymond is as good as anybody I’ve ever seen executing the stuff we were doing tonight,” Kerr said. “It basically becomes a zone on the backside of the play. If you’re going to double Dame at half court or blitz him or whatever, you have to have somebody like Draymond or (Kevon Looney) on the back side — or both of them — to navigate what’s happening because it’s four-on-three. I thought we executed that beautifully.”
The win moves the Warriors to 32-30, inching them into a tie with the Clippers for the fifth seed. They face the Clippers on Thursday night. The success of a more complex defensive game plan begs the question of whether the Warriors will commit to it more moving forward, considering the more traditional approach has led to a lousy season on that end.
Tuesday’s strategy was Lillard-centric, but there are heliocentric scorers all over the NBA and the Warriors can add more flavor to their approach against the varying personnel they’ll face in the coming weeks.
“I think we’ll start to see more of that,” Green said. “Once you get to this point of the season, you’re not only getting ready for that particular game. You’re preparing for the playoffs, going series to series and switching coverage, going quarter to quarter and you can change your coverage and everyone figures it out.”
Lillard had attempted 42 3s in the previous two games. He only got up seven against the Warriors. He was held to 25 points, his fewest since late January. The scheme produced a quieter-than-usual Lillard and a necessary win for the Warriors.
“I told the players in our walkthrough that this is a great game for us because this is kind of what the playoffs are about,” Kerr said. “You got to figure out your opponent and maybe throw something different at them. And then have the poise to stay with it. If you do what we did tonight and take the ball out of Dame’s hands and they hit like four or five 3s right away, it’s really easy to sort of say, ‘this isn’t going to work.’
“But you just have to remember the forest for the trees. You just got to remember 48 minutes, let’s keep at it, but do it a little bit better and trust that what we’re trying to do will work. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, but the main thing is that the team feels it and goes through that process because we got a lot of young guys who haven’t been through it before.”
(Photo of Warriors’ defense on Damian Lillard: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)