The Golden State Warriors have changed so much of the NBA.
Pull-up treys, whirling ball-movement, and transition offense akin to the Mighty Ducks Flying-V have all become poetic staples of Steve Kerr’s team. Their style makes one wonder why a team would try and emulate anything different on the offensive end.
What sometimes slips through the cracks in being recognized is Golden State’s effect on defensive style through their offensive dominance. For three years running, the question has been: Do the Cleveland Cavaliers have enough “switch-y” defenders to keep pace with Golden State’s offense? Perhaps the single-most recognizable play of the one series the Cavs usurped the Warriors in was when Kevin Love did switch onto Steph Curry and shut him down.
The ability to switch all defenders on the floor has arguably become the single-most important factor of team defense of the modern era, as it has proven to be the only way to slow the juggernaut in the Bay Area. So much of Kerr’s offensive tact has been directed towards recognizing a weakness and exploiting it.
In the Rockets and Warriors series, for the first time ever, this tactic is being implemented both ways.
The Houston attack asks the same question of the Warriors: Do they have enough switch-y defenders to slow the James Harden and Chris Paul?
The Wolves “Dropping” To The Rockets Level
For the Minnesota Timberwolves, they immediately recognized the answer to that question when asked was no.
Against ball screens set on Harden or Paul’s man, the Wolves implemented what they call a “2-on-2 Deep Drop.” The literal definition of this defense is that the Wolves are opting to defend the pick-and-roll with two players — instead of two-and-a-half (a third stunter) or three. One of the two is the big (Karl-Anthony Towns, Taj Gibson or Gorgui Dieng) who backpedal (drop) all the way to the fringe of the restricted area when Harden comes barrelling down the center of the lane, the other is primary on-ball defender at the point-of-attack (Andrew Wiggins below).
Wolves Deep Drop Against Pick-And-Roll
To the surprise of many, and often lost in Towns’ dismal offensive series, is the fact that Towns dropped in the pick-and-roll very effectively against the Rockets. KAT showed the agility and wingspan to drop while staying in the airspace of both Harden and Clint Capela.
But it still wasn’t enough.
Give Capela a bubble of air and he is ready to receive the drop-off — often in the form of an alley-oop.
Wolves “Deep Drop” Against Dribble Hand-off
For sideline pick-and-roll action, the Wolves stayed with their ICE-ing of ball screens tactic. While near the sidelines, ICE is used to isolate the ball-handler towards the sideline which essentially functions as a third defender. This defensive scheme is different than the drop in that the big (Towns in the below clip) is not supposed to welcome the ball-handler all the way to the restricted area.
Towns’ job is to slow down Harden until Wiggins recovers.
Against the Rockets, this strategy — even when executed — can feel futile. Harden is a weapon to blow by Towns and he also has Capela with jetpack springs waiting for the lob.
Wolves ICE Against Sideline Pick-And-Roll
While those clips highlight three buckets, the Wolves defensive effort should not be slandered for their work against the Rockets ball-screen actions. The “2-on-2 Deep Drop” is a ploy the team had never used before and they, again, executed it well. ICE-ing of the sideline screens lacked the same level of execution but still made sense as a necessary move when you refuse to — or have the inability to — switch your bigs onto the ball-handler.
And therein lies the foil: Not being able to switch your bigs.
Even the Utah Jazz — the Rockets second-round opponent and the number-one rated defense in the league post-All-Star break — do not have a team full of bigs who can effectively switch. Like the Wolves with Towns and Gibson, the Jazz start two traditional bigs in Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. This also forced their hand in needing to drop Gobert in pick-and-rolls.
Jazz Drop Against Pick-And-Roll
The Rockets weapons in the pick-and-roll are on such a level that a read and react base defense — like the drop or ICE — is exploitable. It’s not a bad tool to have in the bag, but if it is the mainstay of your diet you will die against Houston in a very meaningful way.
Warriors Gettin’ Switch-y Wit It
Perhaps the Warriors were just uber prepared to switch everything due to their extensive experience — against the Cavs and others — in being switched on incessantly. Golden State started Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals with the Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Curry lineup. This grouping not only presents an awful nickname (The Hamptons Five) but also the opportunity for offensive death while possessing the ability to switch everything defensively.
Warriors Switch Against Ball-Screen Action
Without a clear mismatch or any type of collective reads being thrown against them, everything was harder for the Rockets to employ. Harden still got his (41 points) but the surrounding role players were marginalized by the Warriors defensive measures. Houston players not named Harden, Paul or Capela combined to convert on eleven field goal attempts in Game 1.
Houston’s meticulous approach for finding space around Harden penetrations looked completely different than it did against Minnesota or Utah. The Warriors were everywhere.
Warriors Switch-y Lineup Deters Houston From Seeking Pick-And-Roll
Golden State played backup centers David West, Zaza Pachulia, Jordan Bell and JaVale McGee a combined four minutes in Game 1 because those players would greatly limit their ability to switch. Kevon Looney, the Warriors best switching center, was the team’s weakest defensive link as the Rockets attacked him relentlessly when he was forced to play 16 first-half minutes with both Green and Iguodala in foul trouble.
If Green and Iggy are able to play their full rotations next game, Kerr will likely decrease Looney’s minutes even more because playing elite switchers — if you have them — is the best tactic against the Houston offensive attack.
Golden State removed drops and ICE almost completely from their defense in Game 1. It’s not something they have sworn off completely; they have tried it against the Rockets in the regular season, but it was determined that plays like this Looney drop — from a regular season matchup — are not going to be as effective in the playoffs as simply switching.
Warriors Drop Looney In Pick-And-Roll (Regular Season)
For the Wolves (and the Jazz), it’s not so much that the defensive system they ran was a poor move. Rather, the tactic just points to flaws in the construction of the roster. Towns, Gibson, Gobert and Favors are all good-to-great bigs in the modern NBA but they feast on the weak and get eaten by the great.
The last few years in the NBA have informed many things on the offensive end: 3s are king, mid-rangers are inefficient, and all tides rise with elite shot-makers. This too should inform defensive tactic.
A base defense is never going to erase 3-point output, force exclusively mid-range shots, or shut down the best scorers, but it can help slow it. Cavs-Warriors One, Two and Three have been illustrating that and so too is Rockets-Warriors One. The rest of the NBA — notably the Wolves — has yet to catch up in their ability to construct rosters that can hold serve.