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.”

Lakers lock up No. 1 seed in West with win against Jazz

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Anthony Davis had 42 points and 12 rebounds, and the Los Angeles Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs by beating the Utah Jazz 116-108 on Monday night.

The Lakers (51-15) own a six-game lead over the second-place Los Angeles Clippers and have five seeding games let before starting their first playoff run since 2013.

“If you’re winning enough games to secure the No. 1 seed, you’re building the right habits that are going to be necessary for you to win in the playoffs,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Obviously we have bigger aspirations than the No. 1 seed, but we are proud of the accomplishment and we’ll enjoy it while we’re getting ready to get our group ready for the playoffs.”

Utah (42-25) has clinched a playoff berth and is fifth in the West, a half-game behind Houston and a half-game ahead of Oklahoma City.

Davis’ final basket resulted in a 4-point play with 42 seconds left, as he sank a 3-pointer while getting fouled by Rudy Gobert and made the ensuing free throw to give the Lakers a 114-104 lead.

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell answered with a 4-point play of his own that cut the margin to 114-106 with 36 seconds remaining, but the Jazz couldn’t get any closer. Davis made two free throws with 5.2 seconds left to wrap up the scoring.

LeBron James scored 22 points, Dwight Howard had 11 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 10 for the Lakers.

Mitchell scored 33 and Mike Conley had 24 for Utah. Gobert added 16 points and 13 rebounds for the Jazz.

The Lakers were coming off a 107-92 loss to Toronto in which Davis shot just 2 of 7 and scored 14 points. Davis was much more active Monday right from the start, as he scored 13 points and shot 6 of 14 in the first quarter alone.

Davis had 24 points by halftime, marking the 20th time this season he’s scored at least 20 points in a half.

“Coach just told me to be more aggressive,” Davis said. “He felt like, and I felt like too, that I just kind of played into Toronto’s defense, accepted the double-team. I was making the right plays, but I still have to be aggressive at the same time.”

Utah stayed close and only trailed 58-56 at halftime because it got its own stellar start from Mitchell, who scored 21 points in the first two periods.

Mitchell then connected on a 3-pointer to cap an 8-0 run by Utah to open the second half.

But the Jazz got increasingly careless with the basketball as the third quarter progressed, enabling the Lakers to seize control of the game. The Lakers scored 14 straight points and went on a 19-2 run late in the third quarter.

“When they turn the pressure up, we’ve got to be able to execute even better,” Mitchell said. “We turned the ball over way too many times. They did a great job of taking us out of our actions. … We went up six, they turned it up even more and next thing you know, we’re down 12 or whatever.”

Even after Utah’s Emmanuel Mudiay snapped that run by hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer, the Jazz still trailed 86-76 heading into the final period.

The Lakers stayed in front the rest of the way.

Watch Shake Milton drain game-winning three, lift 76ers past Spurs

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How do you like Shake Milton now?

After a rough first game where he exchanged words with Joel Embiid on the sidelines, Milton bounced back and hit the game-winning three against the Spurs Monday night.

With the Sixers down two and 10.4 seconds left, Milton was inbounding the ball from the side. He got the ball into a well covered Al Horford who gave it right back, but Milton’s defender Dejounte Murray, sagged off to prevent a lob into Joel Embiid, and that left Milton open.

Ballgame. The Sixers go on to win 132-130.

Philadelphia has split its first two in the bubble.

This was a bigger blow to the Spurs, who are in a race for the eighth/ninth seed in the West and a shot at the play-in series. The Spurs had won their first two in Orlando but are now tied with the Trail Blazers for the nine seed, with New Orleans just half-a-game back after its win. It’s a Battle Royal in the West and this kind of loss could come back to bite San Antonio.

More Zion Williamson, more defense gets Pelicans first bubble win

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For two games the Pelicans played matador defense on the perimeter — Ole! — while the world was asking, “where’s Zion?”

With their playoff dreams on the line Monday night, both showed up.

Zion got to play 25 minutes and scored 23 points with seven rebounds, his attacking the rim opening up the Pelicans’ offense. More importantly, Jrue Holiday brought the defensive on Ja Morant — staying in front, cutting off his drives, and helping hold the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year to 5-of-21 shooting — sparking a night where the Pelicans held a high-powered Grizzlies offense to less than a point per possession.

The result was a 109-99 Pelicans win, their first in the bubble.

Brandon Ingram said after the Pelicans second loss in Orlando they would likely have to win out in their final six games to make the playoffs. Maybe, maybe not, but they have to rack up a lot of wins and this was a big first step. With the victory, New Orleans is 2.5 games back of eighth seed Memphis, and half-a-game game back of ninth-seed Spurs (the eighth and ninth seeds in the West almost certainly will be in a play-in series). There is still hope.

After a relatively unimpressive first two games for Zion — leading to whispers around the league about his conditioning and if he should be playing — he looked more like his best self Monday night. Even connecting with Lonzo Ball to finish a half-court alley-oop.

Zion wasn’t in peak form, going 9-of-21 from the floor and looking winded t points, but he was out on the floor and when he is his gravity opens up everything else. Brandon Ingram led the way with 24 points, including some clutch buckets late and a lot of shot creation. J.J. Redick had 16 off the bench.

The offense was the sizzle, but the Pelicans’ defense was the steak in this game. Alvin Gentry talked about the team defensive strategy on Morant, via Christian Clark of the Times-Picayune.

“We tried to keep him (Morant) out the paint as much as possible, so we gave up some 3s. But luckily for us, he only made one of them [1-of-10]. I thought we did a good job overall defensively. That was the difference in the game. We had our moments in the game offensively where we had great ball movement. But our defense is what won us the game.”

The Pelicans have to bring that energy on a back-to-back — they play the Kings’ tomorrow. Every game is still vital for them, this is a playoff sprint, not a race. Ingram was right, they can’t afford any more losses.

Because of their 3.5 game lead entering the restart, the Grizzlies are safe for now despite an 0-3 start in the bubble — losing every game by single digits. Morant is a future star, Jaren Jackson Jr. might be the best player on this team in five years (he had 22 points on the night), but this is a young team that is not consistent. It needs more shooting and that was evident tonight. They also miss Tyus Jones at backup point guard a lot.

The challenge for the Grizzlies is the five games they have left: the Jazz, Thunder, Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks. That’s a lot of brutal games lined up in a row, and Memphis needs to find some wins in there.

Michael Porter Jr. has breakout game, drops 37, Nuggets top Thunder in OT

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Michael Porter Jr. scored a career-high 37 points and Nikola Jokic had a triple-double to help the Denver Nuggets top the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-113 in overtime on Monday.

Porter, who averages just 7.5 points, had the big performance in only his third start of the season.

“He has got tremendous size, length, he can score the ball, he’s got soft touch and he does so (scores) in a very efficient manner,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “He can also rebound at a very high level. Tonight, we saw all those things put together.”

Porter made 12 of 16 shots and grabbed 12 rebounds. His previous career high was 25 points.

“All I’ve got to focus on is bringing the energy and the effort, lock in on defense and the rest will take care of itself,” Porter said.

Jokic had 30 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists. He scored 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to help Denver strengthen its hold on third place in the Western Conference standings.

It was a key win for the Nuggets, who were missing three starters. Jamal Murray sat out with left hamstring tightness, forward Will Barton sat out with left knee soreness and guard Gary Harris sat out with a strained right hip.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 24 points, Chris Paul had 23 and Danilo Gallinari added 20 for the Thunder, who also were short-handed. Thunder coach Billy Donovan said Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City’s No. 3 scorer for the season, left the bubble to join his wife for the birth of their second child.

The game was close throughout. Denver’s Monte Morris was fouled with 6 seconds remaining, and he made both free throws to give the Nuggets a 109-108 lead. Paul missed the first and made the second of two free throws with 2.9 seconds remaining to tie the game at 109. Denver’s Troy Daniels missed a floater from near the free throw line at the buzzer, and the game went to overtime.

In the extra period, Denver outscored Oklahoma City 12-4 and held the Thunder to one field goal.

“In the overtime, I thought we played terrific on both ends of the floor,” Malone said.