How to beat the Golden State Warriors in a playoff series? It’s a question the NBA field has asked itself for the past five years.
Outside of, “Have a LeBron James-led team play the series of its lives while watching Draymond Green get suspended”, it’s a question no one seems to have an answer to.
Granted, the field has finally begun catching up this season. Teams structured and restructured their rosters to compete. The fatigue of playing in June (and the boredom of waiting until June) is starting to take its toll on the reigning champs.
Multiple times in their 21 losses in the season, the Warriors have beaten themselves. Even at times when they win, the Dubs reveal weaknesses that opponents will try to exploit in a potential postseason matchup. There’s a growing list of potential answers to this half-decade-old question.
However, the attempts may ultimately be as futile as ever.
Pick and Roll dubs’ Defense
While the addition of DeMarcus Cousins opened new possibilities offensively for the Warriors, question marks about his defense remain.
Before the injury, Cousins struggled in transition and pick and roll defense. In the twenty games he’s played this season, it’s been obvious that Cousins labors in trying to defend the pick and roll.
Opponents tend to target him in the pick and roll by drawing him out of the paint and onto the perimeter. As Cousins is switched onto a guard, the roll man immediately cuts to the basket. By the time Cousins recovers, he’s already beaten because he couldn’t get to the basket to contend.
The Warriors tend to switch on defense but the problem is Cousins still doesn’t (and really, never did) have enough lateral speed to switch and rotate.
So the Warriors have been featuring Cousins in pick and roll coverage by using him in “show and recover”. The problem with that, however, is that he is also too slow to recover and contend the shot after getting beat on the initial cut.
Guards who can play make and shoot should have endless opportunities to score by putting Cousins in pick and roll situations.
Why it May Not Work
On one hand, attacking the Warriors defense via the pick and roll is a solid and sensible strategy. On the other, the Warriors defense has a couple of adjustments with which to counter.
They could ice the pick and roll by trapping the ball handler, forcing him to give up the ball to a teammate near the elbow for a tough shot. It’s important for the defender fighting over the initial screen to also be put himself into position to cover the roll man—so as to eliminate the offense having a four-on-three advantage.
The Warriors could also counter by using Stephen Curry as somewhat of a decoy on defense.
ISO heavy teams tend to go right at him since he’s not quite the defender that Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are. Ironically, this isn’t really a bad thing as it pertains to pick and roll defense.
Why? Because it allows Cousins to roam the paint. Instead “showing and recovering ”, Curry could “show and funnel” his man into the help where Green, Iguodala, Cousins or the recently acquired Andrew Bogut will be waiting.
Force Warrior ISO ball = halt ball movement
The Houston Rockets were able to push the Warriors to seven games in last year’s Western Conference Finals because they constantly switched on defense—to the point they baited the Warriors into playing ISO ball.
Multiple times during the series, the Rockets willingly gave mismatches to Kevin Durant. As a result, it often halted Golden State’s ball movement.
For any other team, taking the mismatch makes sense. Especially if you have a scorer like a Durant on your team.
However, a team like the Warriors thrives off making the extra pass in order to get the best shot possible. Having the ball stuck in ISO is detrimental to the Dubs’ motion offense.
Defenses can then better deny passes to Curry and Thompson. If Durant scores, defenses can (hope to) live with that since he tends to work from midrange more than he does the three.
Why it Won’t Work
The Warriors can counter by simply moving.
When Durant ISOs, there is a regular-season tendency among his teammates to stand around and wait instead of continuously moving off the ball. If the Warriors move while Durant (or sometimes Curry) ISO’s, it opens up opportunities for passes that didn’t exist before.
Secondly, defenses now have to account for Cousins on the offensive end.
Against the Rockets on Wednesday night, Warriors coach Steve Kerr changed how he used Cousins. Kerr split court time to separate him from Green in order to gain spacing. The result? Cousins carved Houston’s defense up for 27 points and, most importantly, seven assists.
I emphasize Cousins’ assists in the Warriors’ 106-104 road win because he is a huge post threat as a passer and facilitator. The Warriors can use post splits to then get Curry, Thompson and Durant some solid, easy looks.
Additionally, Cousins can also be featured as a screener in the Warriors’ own pick and roll schemes. Whenever they face a “switch everything” defense like Houston’s, featuring Cousins as a screener and roll man more often than not ends up in a mismatch.
And that mismatch is the 6’11”, 270 pound Cousins against a smaller player in the post.
“Forget about Dray” defense
It isn’t a secret that Draymond Green made his bones on the Warriors by playing defense, rebounding the basketball and facilitating. His scoring is a luxury item only.
This season, teams have been making scoring from Green more of a necessity, however.
While they deny passes to Curry, Thompson and Durant, they purposely leave Green wide open on the perimeter. He is shooting 24 percent from three on the year and, with every long miss, the opposition has an opportunity to beat the Warriors in transition for fast break points.
Why it Won’t Work
All Green has to do is drive the lane more often.
Opposing defenses gave him the green light to shoot, but that shouldn’t mean jacking up threes. The lane is open, and Green can capitalize by making his shots in the paint and also drawing contact.
Secondly, player movement could help out. Let’s not forget what a tremendous passer he’s always been. When teammates like Curry move off the ball and in Green’s vicinity, he can hand it off and let the scorers score.
Get the ball out of Stephen Curry’s hands
Now this one of the biggest flaws in Steve Kerr’s coaching: He has Curry—a two-time MVP and the NBA’s most dangerous offensive weapon—running a marathon for 48 minutes off screens while Kerr’s seemingly preoccupied with other players being able to score.
There is a saying among some of the Warriors’ fan base that, “No one plays better defense on Steph Curry than Coach Kerr.”
That’s been the truth. Kerr has done opposing defenses a favor by keeping Curry off the ball, and defenses can use this to their advantage by keeping him running.
This means they can force Curry off the three-point line and, if they must, surrender a middy here and there. It also neutralizes his threat of gravity-pulling multiple defenders to him while leaving others (i.e. Thompson and Durant) wide open.
On the occasion that the ball is in Curry’s hands, defenses can press and trap him, forcing a pass and/or a turnover.
Why it Won’t Work
Coach Kerr can and should break out pick-and-roll schemes with Curry and Durant throughout the playoffs.
It doesn’t matter who the roll man is, this combo is virtually unguardable. Defenses could trap, but they better react quickly to cover the roller because the defense will otherwise be at the mercy of a 4-on-3 disadvantage that features Klay Thompson on the wing and DeMarcus Cousins in the post. Not to mention a rolling Durant or Curry to the basket.
Good luck with everything, NBA.
Jannelle Moore is a TBW staff writer who concentrates primarily on the Golden State Warriors, L.A. Lakers and L.A. Sparks while also covering both the NBA and WNBA. She is also the host of I Got Moore, TBW’s NBA/WNBA crossover podcast.