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.”

Magic had one highlight: Aaron Gordon in transition with dunk (VIDEO)

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Golden State didn’t have much trouble with Orlando Sunday, pulling away in the second half as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson each had seven threes.

But the Magic did have one highlight: Elfrid Payton found Aaron Gordon in transition and we know the man can finish. Enjoy.

 

As expected, Last Two-Minute report says DeMarcus Cousins didn’t foul Dwyane Wade

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It was an obviously wrong call. NBA officials get far, far more right than wrong over the course of a game — there are not better referees on the planet (watch FIBA ball someday) — but they are human, and they make mistakes. Sometimes pretty egregious ones. And that’s what happened at the end of the Kings/Bulls game.

And that’s what happened near the end of the Kings/Bulls game. Dwyane Wade went up for a layup/dunk he missed, but he landed a bit awkwardly and a referee apparently thought that was because DeMarcus Cousins touched him. The foul was called, even though Cousins did not foul Wade in the least.

The NBA’s Last Two Minute Report agreed:

Cousins (SAC) has his hand on Wade’s (CHI) back while he is airborne, but he does not extend his arm and push him and the contact does not affect the shot attempt.

This was expected. Of course, that does not mean the teams will replay the end of the game, it just means the NBA admits there was a mistake. One that may have changed the outcome of the game. But that original outcome stands.

DeMarcus, how do you feel about that?

Dirk Nowitzki starts Mavericks toward 122-73 rout of Lakers

Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) reacts after scoring during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
Associated Press
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DALLAS (AP) — Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks had something to prove on Sunday following two straight tough losses.

Coming off a three-point effort in an overtime loss on Friday, Nowitzki scored all 13 of his points in the first half and Dallas gave the Los Angeles Lakers the worst loss in their history, 122-73.

“We didn’t show up to play,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “It’s embarrassing for us as a team and for us as an organization. The effort just wasn’t there tonight, which I don’t understand.”

The 49-point defeat just edged Los Angeles’ two previous worst losses at 48 points, most recently 123-75 at Utah on March 28, 2016.

The Mavericks’ winning margin was the third-largest in their history.

It was Dallas’ 13th straight win over the Lakers, who have lost six of their last seven games overall.

After a season-best three-game winning streak, the Mavericks had blown a nine-point halftime lead at Miami on Thursday and lost to Utah on Friday.

Nowitzki was 1 for 13 against the Jazz, including a missed 3-pointer that would have tied the game in overtime.

“I looked sluggish the other night on that back-to-back,” Nowitzki said, “but took a day off yesterday, didn’t do anything. Felt a lot better today.”

The game was close for 10 minutes, with Dallas leading 23-22 before the Mavericks scored the next 15 points to blow it open. Nowitzki had seven points during the run. He played just 20 minutes.

Justin Anderson led seven Mavericks in double figures with a game-high 19 points in 16 minutes, his most playing time since Dec. 27.

The Mavericks led 67-33 at the half and never looked back. They both scored their most points and allowed the fewest in a half and a game this season. The 34-point halftime lead was the third-largest in franchise history.

The Lakers scored their fewest points in a quarter, a first half and a game.

“What’s deflating is that we didn’t guard anybody tonight,” Lakers forward Julius Randle said.

Lou Williams led the Lakers with 15 points.

Dallas’ Seth Curry scored 14 points, including seven straight in the first quarter.

Wesley Matthews and Deron Williams also had 13 points. Devin Harris and Pierre Jackson scored 10 each. Rookies Jackson and Nicolas Brussino (eight points) each reached career highs.

TIP-INS

Lakers: They played without D'Angelo Russell, second on the team at 14.3 points per game. An MRI taken Saturday showed a mildly sprained right MCL and strained right calf. That left the Lakers with rookie Brandon Ingram starting at point guard, and they had a season-low 10 assists. … Larry Nance Jr. (bone bruise, left knee) returned after missing 16 games and scored four points.

Mavericks: Dallas’ record winning margin was 123-70 win at home over the 76ers on Nov. 13, 2014. They beat the Knicks 128-78 in New York on Jan. 24, 2010. … J.J. Barea missed his 26th game this season because of a strained left calf aggravated on Friday. Coach Rick Carlisle said he didn’t expect Barea back until after the All-Star break (Feb. 24 at the earliest). Andrew Bogut (strained right hamstring) could return this week, according to Carlisle.

LENDING A HAND

Mavericks G Deron Williams moved into 20th place in NBA history with 6,715 assists, passing Kevin Johnson. Williams has had at least seven assists in seven straight games; on Sunday, he had eight, seven by halftime.

LONG-RANGE

Nowitzki tied J.R. Smith for 15th place in 3-point field goals by making one for a total of 1,729.

 

Celebrating anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game (VIDEO)

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Sorry to bring this up Raptors fans…

It was 11 years ago today (Sunday) that Kobe Bryant dropped 81 points on the Toronto Raptors in an eventual Lakers win. We thought it would be fun for everyone south of the border to take a walk down memory lane.

Remember, this was not just Kobe padding stats, the Lakers were on a two-game losing streak and were down 14 at the half to the Raptors. This was a Lakers team that started Kwame Brown and Smush Parker — I still say getting this team to the playoffs was one of Phil Jackson’s great coaching jobs — and the Lakers needed Kobe to step up and take over. So he did.