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.”

After loss, Kevin Durant doesn’t sound like guy looking to bolt Oklahoma City

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder walks off the court after being defeated 96-88 by the Golden State Warriors in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)
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The conventional wisdom around the NBA shifted some as the NBA playoffs wore on, moving from “Kevin Durant is definitely in play” to “Kevin Durant likely stays with the Thunder for at least a year” as the Thunder kept on winning and came close to knocking off the Golden State Warriors. Where is he going to go and have a better chance at a ring?

Of course, when asked directly about free agency after the game, Durant would have no part of it.

“I mean, we just lost like 30 minutes ago, so I haven’t even thought about it,” Durant said. “I’m just embracing my teammates and just reflecting on the season. I’ll think about that stuff, I don’t know when. But we just lost an hour ago, 30 minutes ago, so I don’t know.”

But some of the other things he said over the course of the night sounded like a guy who is going to stay put. At least for now. There was this comment reflecting back on the season:

“I’m just proud of what all we’ve been through this season. We stuck together and we sacrificed for each other. That’s just what makes this game so special.”

Notice the use of the word “we.” He used that word a lot in his postgame press conference.

He used that word more speaking to Sam Amick of the USA Today a little later in the evening.

“We all grew up,” Durant said. “I think more than anything, we embraced the moment. We stayed in the moment every game. I’m more proud because most of these guys haven’t played in this atmosphere before.

“From (fellow free-agent-to-be) Dion (Waiters) to Enes to Andre, Steven – this is his first time as a starter playing, in this type of atmosphere as one of the main guys,” Durant said. “(Veteran) Randy (Foye) never made it to the Western Conference Finals, and he played a lot. Anthony Morrow had never made it to the playoffs, so I was just proud of how everyone just stayed in the moment and enjoyed it. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

And then, the curious kicker.”I see bright things for this team,” he added. “And it’s great to be a part of it.”

Once Durant’s emotions have settled after the loss, he may look at his situation and decide he does want to test the waters of free agency. There are no certainties in the NBA.

However, the sense around the league is that Durant will sign a two-year, one-plus-one deal with the Thunder, where he gets max money next season then can opt out again after one year (the kind of deal LeBron James did last summer). The reason starts with money. Durant’s max salary next season (whether with the Thunder or another team) will start at around $28 million a year, but if he signs a new contract in 2017 — after another salary cap bump and he gets 10 years in the league, so the percentage of his max deal goes up — his max would  start in the $37 million a year range. There’s a risk with a one-year type deal, but it makes a lot of sense because he will make a lot more money and get to make one more run at a ring with Russell Westbrook and the developing cast in Oklahoma City.

We will see what Durant decides, but the smart bet is on him staying in OKC for at least one more season.

In-flight meeting helped spark Warriors rally from down 3-1

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors hoists the Western Conference Championship Trophy after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) A heart-to-heart was in order.

As the Golden State Warriors made the long, frustrating flight home from Oklahoma City last week suddenly facing elimination, Draymond Green gathered with a few fellow starters at a table in the front of the plane to discuss how to get the defending champions back to winning – and fast.

No other choice to avoid a premature end to this record-setting season.

“We just kept talking about what we needed to do and what we were going to do,” Green said.

Somehow, six days later, the Warriors had won Game 7 with a third straight victory against the Thunder after falling behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. And they are headed back to the NBA Finals for a rematch with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the title defense still very much within reach. Game 1 is Thursday night on Golden State’s Oracle Arena home floor.

“We never lost confidence, and every game just played with fearlessness and that confidence that we could get back to the Finals however we had to get it done,” MVP Stephen Curry said after his 36-point performance in Monday night’s 96-88 clincher of the Western Conference finals.

“I knew we were ready for the moment. We were a mature basketball team that tried our best not to listen to the noise outside when six, seven days ago, we’re down 3-1, everybody thought the wheels were falling off and it was kind of the end of our run,” Curry said. “But in that locker room, the talk was positive. It was, `Let’s figure this out, let’s go out and take it one game at a time and claw our way back into the series and see what happens.’ We followed that kind of mindset these last three games.”

In the airplane sit-down, Klay Thompson was clear he could only focus as far ahead as winning Game 5 before shifting to think about how to win another one on the Thunder’s court. Golden State’s most steady player this postseason, he hit an NBA-postseason record 11 3-pointers for 41 points in a thrilling 108-101 Game 6 comeback, then another six on Monday night on the way to 21 points.

Even after two embarrassing, lopsided road losses at Oklahoma City that put the Warriors in a big hole, Green counted on them finding a way to come back. He believed it would happen, “Because once we figured something out, we can get it rolling.”

Those two defeats were by 52 combined points.

“We were not just down 3-1, we had gotten blown out two straight games,” coach Steve Kerr said. “So obviously everything started with Game 5, kind of rediscovering ourselves and our style. Then Game 6 was kind of magical. What Klay did that night, basically putting us on his shoulders and allowing us to have this opportunity tonight at home, it’s a pretty remarkable comeback and it shows a lot about our guys and their will and their grit.”

Green is the one who made it clear to Kerr the Warriors wanted to go for the regular-season wins record rather than resting down the stretch, and they topped the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ 72-wins mark.

This time, the animated, emotional swingman helped Golden State become the 10th team to win a postseason series after falling behind 3-1, and it did it against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the powerful Thunder.

“I think everybody will look at 73 wins and say, `Wow, this team never hit any adversity,’ but there is adversity in every season. It all comes in different forms,” said Green, who had 11 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks. “But when you’re talking down 3-1, and everything’s on the line, that makes it 10 times worse. So it’s definitely the biggest thing that this team has had to overcome, and it took a great, tremendous effort and fight to overcome it.”

The Warriors now must figure out a way to pull off four more wins against James and the Cavs, who will be eager to change their fortunes following that 4-2 Finals defeat last June when Golden State captured its first championship in 40 years.

Kerr made the spot-on decision to move Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup for Game 7 to defend Durant, just as the Coach of the Year did during the NBA Finals last year when Iguodala earned Finals MVP honors.

“To have our back against the wall and do it three straight games is tough,” Iguodala said. “I’ll probably forget about it tomorrow morning because we really want to get another one. But it was good for us to have to battle like that. Hopefully it carries over and we can continue with that intensity we’ve had the last three games.”

Reserve center Marreese Speights offered his postgame insight on Twitter.

“Y’all never seen a 73 win team .. Y’all never seen a player win unanimous mvp… Hahha this story not over!! (hash)history (hash)believe.”

Watch all 17 three pointers from Warriors Game 7 victory over Thunder

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“They beat us from the three-point line the last two games, we beat them from everywhere else,” Kevin Durant said after Game 7.

He’s right. For most of seven games the Oklahoma City Thunder owned play inside the arc — their length and athleticism gave the Warriors tremendous trouble. But the Warriors had the three ball as the equalizer — or, it turns out, slightly more than the equalizer. Golden State shot their way to a series win by knocking down threes the last two games. Often contested, well-defended threes.

Above check out the 17 threes the Warriors nailed in Game 7 (on 37 attempts, or 45.9 percent shooting). There’s a lot of Stephen Curry (7) and Klay Thompson (6) in those highlights.

Here’s the NBA Finals schedule, clear your schedule accordingly

San Antonio Spurs v Miami Heat - Game 7
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The Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Golden State Warriors. A rematch of the highest-rated NBA Finals since the Jordan era, which you know makes the suits at ABC/ESPN/Disney happy. But it’s also good for fans, these are the best teams from each conference, and it should be an interesting matchup.

The NBA has moved away from the Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday pattern of games the NBA Finals has followed for years. Below is the schedule for this year’s Finals, all times are Eastern, and all the games will be broadcast on ABC.

Game 1 – June 2 (Thursday) at Golden State  9:00PM

Game 2 – June 5 (Sunday) at Golden State 8:00PM

Game 3 – June  8 (Wednesday) at Cleveland  9:00 PM

Game 4 –Fri  June 10 (Friday) at Cleveland 9:00PM

Game 5 * — Mon  June 13 (Monday) at Golden State 9:00PM

Game 6 *  — Thu  June 16 (Thursday) at Cleveland 9:00 PM

Game 7 * —  June 19 (Sunday) at Golden State 8:00 PM

* means if necessary