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.”

Zach Randolph receives standing ovation in first game back after mother’s passing

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AP
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Zach Randolph was away from the Memphis Grizzlies and its fans for seven games to deal with the passing of his mother, Mae. When he returned to the floor, something special was waiting for him.

During Z-Bo’s arrival against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night, fans at FedEx Forum gave Randolph a standing ovation in support of his difficult time.

From ESPN NBA:

Randolph dropped 12 points, collected 14 rebounds, and added an assist as the Grizzlies beat the Sixers, 96-91, in a game that went down to the wire.

Teammates of Randolph — like Marc Gasol — were glad to have him back and let Randolph know he was being thought about during his absence.

Gasol even took to Twitter after the game in a heartwarming gesture:

Cavs’ J.R. Smith sidelined with hyperextended left knee

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CLEVELAND (AP) Cavaliers starting shooting guard J.R. Smith will miss at least one game – and probably more – with a hyperextended left knee.

The Cavs said an MRI taken on Smith’s knee on Tuesday did not reveal any structural damage, but he will sit out Wednesday’s game against the New York Knicks. Smith got hurt in the first quarter of Cleveland’s win in Toronto on Monday night.

While his teammates flew to New York, Smith returned to Cleveland to undergo tests. The team said he is day to day while he receives additional treatment.

Smith’s knee buckled after he dropped a short shot in the lane in a 116-112 win over the Raptors. He had been bothered by soreness in his knee for the past week, and that may have contributed to his slow start this season.

Smith, who did not report to training camp before signing a four-year, $57 million contract before the opener, is averaging just 7.8 points and shooting a career-worst 31 percent from the floor. He’s shooting only 19 percent (8 of 42) in his last six games.

It’s not clear who will take Smith’s spot while he’s out. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue has several options, including veterans Mike Dunleavy and Richard Jefferson. On Monday, Lue gave more playing time to DeAndre Liggins, who scored five points as the Cavs beat the Raptors for the third time this season.

Three things we learned Tuesday: Even John Wall’s 52 can’t get Wizards win

Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) goes to the basket past Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo, of the Republic of Congo, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, in Washington. The Magic won 124-116. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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We know you were busy Tuesday night assembling your hipster nativity scene — complete with bacon — so here are the three big takeaways from the night around the NBA.

1) John Wall puts up career-best 52, but that’s not enough to get Wizards win.
There is no more disappointing team in the NBA than the Washington Wizards, and Tuesday we saw exactly why. This season the Wizards have gotten good play from Bradley Beal (when healthy he has shot 41.5 percent from three and scored 21.4 points per game), Otto Porter (who has been sneaky good averaging 14.4 points on 53.9 percent shooting, plus 7.9 rebounds a game), and in particular John Wall. But that hasn’t been enough to overcome a poor defense and indifferent bench.

Tuesday night Wall had a career game — 52 points on 18-of-31 shooting, plus eight assists. He was getting into the middle of a good Orlando defense off the pick-and-roll and hitting shots he hasn’t consistently over the course of his career, plus of course getting his buckets in transition. He was fantastic.

It didn’t matter, Washington still lost to the Magic 124-116. Orlando has a bottom five offense, yet the Wizards allowed them 65 points in the first half and 96 points after three — the Magic were getting the shots they wanted, and these are NBA players if you let them do that they will hit those shots. The Wizards were bad defensively the night before against Brooklyn but still won because, well, Brooklyn. Orlando is too good for that. It was all the same problems for Washington, primarily an indifferent defense and a serious lack of depth.

But it’s not just the defense and bench — the issues are deeper than that. Wall’s postgame quote sums up the problem and should depress Wizards fans.

“Not even just defense, just playing hard. Our job is to wake up and just play hard. Before you made it to the NBA or got any college scholarships, you played hard everyday to get to where you wanted to. To still be talking about playing hard, that’s something that you should be able to just do waking up.”

2) Zach Randolph returns and Grizzlies keep on winning. It was great to see Zach Randolph back on the court — he had missed seven games following the death of his mother and the home crowd in Memphis roared their support when he entered the game.

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The Grizzlies beat a shorthanded Sixers team (no Joel Embiid, second night of a back-to-back) 96-91, thanks to Marc Gasol’s 26 points and 12 rebounds (the night after his first triple-double of the season). While it may not have been the most impressive outing, the victory gives Memphis a four game winning streak — without Mike Conley. That’s huge. We said when Conley went down for six weeks (give or take) that the Grizzlies needed to find a way to stay afloat in the West playoff race, and the Grizzlies have gone 4-1. Granted, all the teams they beat are below .500, but they are beating the teams in front of them. Things are about to get tough (the next four games are Portland, Golden State, then a home-and-home with Cleveland) but this little streak is helping Memphis keep it’s head above water with it’s point guard out. This team always just seems to find a way.

3) Carmelo Anthony puts up 35, Knicks pick up a solid win. This game was close through the first half, but if you watched it you kept thinking, “the Knicks are going to get on a run and blow this thing open at some point.” New York just missed shots in the first 24 minutes — they started 0-of-11 from three — but the looks were often clean and there was a sense those shots were going to start to fall. They did after halftime, and it was the Knicks bench with Carmelo Anthony that went on an 8-0 run late in the third as the Knicks started to pull away and win comfortably over the Heat, 114-103. Depth was key in this game, Miami’s stars (Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson) played well but the bench was a mess, while the Knicks got strong performances from their reserves, particularly from Kyle O’Quinn.

Mostly, this was one of those nights where when the Knicks needed a bucket, ‘Melo went and got it. He had 35 points on 27 shots, and while it wasn’t terribly efficient and was the kind of game he can give the Knicks some nights to propel them to a win.

Anthony scores 35, Knicks beat depleted Heat 114-103

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MIAMI (AP) It’s been a long time since the New York Knicks were in this position.

More than three years, to be precise.

Carmelo Anthony matched a season high with 35 points, and the Knicks took advantage of second chances all night to beat the injury-ravaged Miami Heat 114-103 on Tuesday night. At 12-9, New York is three games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2012-13 season.

“Any time you can put together some wins you feel confident, you feel comfortable, you feel like you’re heading in the right direction, and I really feel we’re doing that,” Anthony said. “We’re heading in the right direction.”

Kristaps Porzingis had 14 points and 12 rebounds for New York, which has won four straight. The Knicks lost Derrick Rose to back spasms in the third quarter, but still scored 61 points after halftime.

“We just came out in the second half knowing that we have to win the game and that we have to play better,” Porzingis said.

Goran Dragic scored 29 points and Hassan Whiteside finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds for the Heat, who fell to 2-8 at home. New York had a 31-13 edge in second-chance points, and outscored Miami 56-36 in the paint.

“Sometimes the ball goes that way,” Whiteside said.

The teams were tied at 68 late in the third quarter, when the Knicks went on a 27-13 run over the next eight minutes to take control. Anthony finished 13 for 27 from the field, and Porzingis and Joakim Noah combined for 22 rebounds.

The Heat had nine players, and might not have any more than that until next week. Justise Winslow missed his 12th consecutive game with a sore left wrist, and James Johnson (right rotator cuff), Dion Waiters (groin), Luke Babbitt (right hip) and Josh Richardson (right ankle) were also sidelined.

None are slated to travel for Miami’s three-game, four-day stretch that starts Wednesday in Atlanta. The Heat are leaving some staff in Miami to work with the injured players.

“They’re getting way more work in than they would get on the road,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

TIP-INS

Knicks: Coach Jeff Hornacek is now 1-5 against Miami. He’s beaten every team he’s faced, and has yet to coach against his former Phoenix club. … The Knicks missed their first 11 3-point tries, then made 7 of their last 14. … New York is over .500 this late in a season for the third time in 12 years. … Not a good sign for Wednesday, when Cleveland visits the Knicks: New York is 0-4 on the second night of back-to-backs this season.

Heat: It was Dragic’s highest-scoring total as a member of the Heat. … Whiteside has led the Heat in rebounds in all 21 games this season. … Miami struggled again from the line, shooting 16 for 27.

ON PHIL

Spoelstra was asked to respond to Knicks President Phil Jackson’s comments last month about the way the Heat had to handle LeBron James when he played in Miami. Spoelstra laughed it off. “I honestly just think he gets bored and likes to throw stuff out there to get everybody all fired up,” Spoelstra said. James and the Cavaliers visit Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.

TALL ORDER

Hilarity briefly ensued in the second quarter when the 7-foot-3 Porzingis had a jump ball against Miami’s Tyler Johnson, who might be generously listed at 6-foot-4. Shocking: Porzingis won the tap.

UP NEXT

Knicks: Host Cleveland on Wednesday, preceding a five-game West Coast trip.

Heat: Visit Atlanta on Wednesday, followed by visits to Cleveland and Chicago.