Stephen Curry, Jermaine O'Neal, Joakim Noah, Andrew Bogut

Extra Pass: Golden State Warriors defending at historically high level

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BOSTON – Game-planning for the Golden State last season, the Phoenix Suns wrote “Finesse” on their whiteboard.

“Be physical with them, and they tend to back away,” said Jermaine O’Neal, who played for Phoenix last year.

Now a Warrior, O’Neal didn’t hesitate to share the observation of their defense with his new teammates.

“I told guys. I said, ‘The perception of our team has been finesse a finesse, soft team,’” O’Neal said.

But that’s not how O’Neal saw his new team. That’s not how these Warriors see themselves. And that’s not how reality sees them, either.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

Golden State ranks third in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions (101.7). This is absolutely a team winning with defense, a marked change from the Warrior Way culled during two stints and 11 years under Don Nelson.

Does anyone realize it, though?

“I bet, if you ran a poll of 10,000 people today and said, ‘Where does Golden State rank defensively?’” O’Neal said, “I guarantee you it would probably be only like three or four, maybe five, out of 10,000.”

Old perceptions die hard.

Whether cultural or coincidence, this is just seventh time in the last 30 years the Warriors’ defensive rating relative to league average has been better than their offensive equivalent. Considering the Warriors have also played faster than league average 32 of the last 33 years, they spent decades – most of them before we commonly used per-possession rather than per-game measures – building a reputation as an offense-before-defense team.

With Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson bombing from long distance at historic rates, these Warriors aesthetically resemble Nelson’s. But Golden State actually ranks higher in defensive rating (third) than 3-point percentage (eighth).

And make no mistake. They view themselves as defense-first team now.

“We’re going to stick to the way we guard things and make teams beat us the way that they have to beat us,” forward Draymond Green said. “They’re going to beat us on our terms. They’re not going to be us on their terms. If they beat us on our terms, we can live with that. But we make teams beat us, when we’re at our best defensively, they have to beat us on our terms.”

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The Warriors allow 4.4 fewer points than the NBA average per 100 possessions, their best relative defensive rating since moving to Oakland in 1971. It’s their second-best mark in franchise history, behind only the 1963-64 team that featured a man named Chamberlain.

How far Golden State has come in such a short period of time is even more remarkable.

Two years ago, Mark Jackson’s first as head coach, the Warriors allowed 4.5 points more per 100 possessions than league average. Last season, they dipped to 0.3 under. And now, at 4.4 below, they’re on pace to complete one of the best two-year turnaround ever.

That two-year improvement in relative defensive rating (-8.9 points) would rank top five all-time. Half the rest of the teams completing that group – the 1999 San Antonio Spurs and 2007-08 Boston Celtics – won a championship.*

*The other two: 1999 Philadelphia 76ers and 2009-10 Milwaukee Bucks

It’s not necessarily that making such large defensive strides builds a sure-fire winner – though, it doesn’t hurt – but it’s indicative of a team headed in the right direction overall.

How has Golden State gotten on this path?

“Personnel one,” said Stephen Curry, the Warriors’ best and longest-tenured player.

Personnel

Golden State traded for an injured Andrew Bogut in 2012, and he played just 32 games last season.

But when healthy, Bogut is an elite defender, and the Warriors showed their faith in him with a three-year, $36 million extension before this season began.

Prior to that, Golden State added another elite defender, signing-and-trading for Andre Iguodala on a four-year, $48 million contract this summer.

In the previous three years, Iguodala has finished ninth, seventh and eighth in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Bogut peaked at sixth in 2011.

Simply, defending well requires good defensive players, and Iguodala and Bogut are excellent defensive players. After Mark Jackson talked about instilling a defense-first culture when he became the Warriors’ head coach in 2011, they put their money where their mouth is.

Iguodala definitely boosted the Warriors’ defensive talent, but he didn’t necessarily change their mindset. That had already been done. He said he realized in training camp, the way players were already competing, this team had the potential to excel defensively

“You know if we kind of just took the same mindset – just stopping the guy in front of you – and put it in a team concept, we’d be good,” Iguodala said.

Team concept

Even with renowned defensive assistant Michael Malone now the Sacramento Kings’ head coach, Golden State has continued the pick-and-roll system it implemented last season. Generally, the player guarding the ball handler forces him inside the arc. The big sags below the screen, yielding a mid-range jumper but preventing a drive or roll to the paint.

“It doesn’t change from game to game,” Curry said. “We understand what our identity is as a defensive team, and regardless of who we’re playing, we’re going to stick to the plan.

“There’s only so many options you have at how to guard a pick-and-roll. It’s just the teams that bring the effort every single night, bring the communication, they’re rewarded.”

Golden State has certainly been rewarded.

The Warriors force opponents to take 48 percent of their shots inside the 3-point arc but outside the restricted area, a low-efficiency range for most teams. Only the Pacers and Spurs have induced more such shots.

Golden State also allows the second-smallest share of opponents’ shots as corner 3s (4.8 percent). Only the Trail Blazers (4.1) allow fewer of those high-percentage looks.

This is one area where Iguodala has really accelerated the Warriors’ growth.

Last year, a middling 6.5 percent of Golden State’s opponents’ shots were corner 3s. That number was a similar 6.3 percent when Harrison Barnes played with the Warriors’ current other starters – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Andrew Bogut.

That lineup with Barnes this year has improved to allowing 5.0 percent of opponents’ shots to come from the corner 3. But with Igudoala, it’s a minuscule 3.8 percent.

Iguodala is just that much more adept at freelancing to cause turnovers and still closing out on shooters in the corner.

“They kind of lean on me as far as letting me do what I know I can do, but also not getting burnt,” Iguodala said.

Part of the buy-in stems from how much these players believe in their offensive potential, even though Golden State ranks just 14th in points per possession. As they describe it, they know points will come as long as the focus on the end of the floor that matters most.

“We have a great coaching staff who preaches defense and don’t know about shots you take and don’t care about turnovers,” Green said. “We can offset the turnovers. We can offset some bad shots.”

The David Lee Effect

If one player symbolizes the Warriors’ defensive revival, it’s David Lee.

Lee, whom Kirk Goldsberry famously at last year’s Sloan Conference as “The Golden Gate,” has demonstrated impressive defensive improvement.

From 2007-08 to 2011-12, Golden State ranked last in the NBA in defensive-rebounding percentage. Though their defense was also suspect in other areas, even the possessions they guarded well turned demoralizing when opponents all-too-frequently got second chances.

“It’s a tough way to try to play defense,” said Lee, who played for the Warriors during the final two years of their five-year run of last-place defensive rebounding.

After posting a career low defensive-rebounding percentage in 2011-12 (19.9), Lee upped that to 24.5 last season to help the Golden State lead the NBA in defensive-rebounding percentage.

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Lee’s defensive rebounding has fallen off a bit this season, likely because Bogut – ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive-rebounding percentage – is stealing some. The Warriors still rank a robust fifth in defensive rebounding this season.

If Lee’s defensive rebounding has suffered, his defense has improved in other areas.

Goldsberry’s critique centered around a stat he created that showed opponents hit 61 percent of their close shots when Lee defended within five feet of the basket.

In a similar stat – measuring opponents’ field-goal percentage when the defender is “within five feet of the basket and within five feet of the offensive player attempting the shot” – Lee rates even better this year.

He holds opponents to 48.1 percent – better than Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan and DeAndre Jordan.

“As I’ve gotten some criticism for it in the past, I’ve tried to get better and better at it,” Lee said. “I think this year, I’ve finally kind of broken through.”

Kyrie Irving feels validated after hitting game-winning shot to bring title to Cleveland

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Back in July during the pre-Olympics USA Camp in Las Vegas, I asked Kyrie Irving what had changed for him, what was different for him after winning an NBA title. His answer was about the doors it opened, the possibilities that suddenly felt available to him. A month after winning the title he still seemed a little overwhelmed by the experience, and he hadn’t fully processed it yet. Which is completely understandable.

Now, as training camp is set to open for the Cavaliers and their defense of that title, Irving clearly has gotten used to being a champion — and he feels validated. Look at what he told Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“Yes, my life’s changed drastically,” Irving told cleveland.com Saturday, during Irving’s friendship walk and basketball challenge downtown for Best Buddies, Ohio — an organization that gives social growth and employment opportunities to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“It’s kind of, you’re waiting for that validation from everyone, I guess, to be considered one of the top players in the league at the highest stage,” Irving said. “That kind of changed. I was just trying to earn everyone’s respect as much as I could.”

It’s amazing to think of the impact one shot — Irving’s three over Stephen Curry with 53 seconds left in Game 7 — can have. If he misses, there is less pressure on the Warriors to answer with a three, maybe they come down and get a bucket inside for two (one could argue they should have done that anyway rather than hunt for the three), from there maybe the Warriors win. If so, that could change everything from Kevin Durant‘s summer plans to what the Cavaliers’ roster looks like today — there’s a good chance Cleveland’s lineup would have changed if they lost to the Warriors two Finals in a row.

One shot can have that kind of impact on a player, too.

Kyrie Irving was one of the top five point guards in the NBA for a while, a score first guy but one who had some floor general in him and got some steals. A lot of time seemed to be spent focusing on his flaws defensively and passing. But with that shot, he feels validated. If he carries that confidence into next season, the Cavaliers just got better.

Check out top 50 plays from Kevin Garnett’s Hall of Fame career (VIDEO)

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First Kobe Bryant. Then Tim Duncan.

Now Kevin Garnett. The Hall of Fame class in five years is going to be stacked.

But before we move on from Garnett’s announcement this week that he is retiring after 21 years in the NBA, let’s look back at his greatest plays (compiled by the folks at NBA.com). Enjoy this for 11 minutes rather than watching your NFL fantasy team flounder. Again.

D’Angelo Russell said he used to play as Luke Walton on NBA 2K; Stephen Jackson calls that crap

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 30: D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers speaks during a news conference to discuss the controversy with teammate Nick Young before the start of the NBA game against the Miami Heat at Staples Center March 30, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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Did anyone ever fire up NBA 2K9 back in the day, decide to be the soon-to-be-champion Lakers, look at a roster with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom then say “I’m going to be Luke Walton”?

D'Angelo Russell says he did.

The Lakers young point guard has praised the new Laker coach at every turn — Russell and Byron Scott did not get along, the point guard is much happier now — and that includes talking about Walton’s playing days to Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report.

“I told him I remember playing with him on (NBA) 2K; I used to always play as him. I’m a fan. I’m definitely a fan. Because he was a point forward. I can’t speak on Elgin Baylor and all those guys, but my era, I know he was a point forward.”

Really? NBA veteran and current analyst Stephen Jackson called Russell out on that.

Jackson has a point.

Report: No, J.R. Smith isn’t talking to Sixers

CLEVELAND, OH -  JUNE 22: J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates with the fans during the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 championship victory parade and rally on June 22, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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What is with the ridiculous, unrealistic Philadelphia 76ers rumors of late? Last I checked recreational use was not legal in Pennsylvania. Not that the law is stopping anyone.

The latest silliness follows this logic:

This summer the Sixers made runs at veteran guards such as Jamal Crawford and Manu Ginobili (and they forced the Spurs to pay up for the Argentinian to keep him).

The Cleveland Cavaliers and J.R. Smith are in a staring contest, and Smith remains a free agent.

The Sixers have more than $22 million in cap space still.

So…

No. Not happening.

Or, we could have just asked Smith who has said he is not talking to other teams and doesn’t want to play anywhere but Cleveland.

I can get why Sixers management would want to bring a veteran and beloved, hard-working pro such as Ginobili in to lead and mentor a young team. Does Smith bring that same demeanor? I get that Smith in Cleveland has developed his game, and that he has matured and backed off his hard-partying ways (he gets a hall pass for the days after winning a championship), but is Smith the veteran you bring into a young locker room?

Can we move on from the ridiculous in Pennslyvania? Well, probably not until after the election, that is a battleground state.