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.”

James Harden scores 27 as Rockets rout Warriors 107-86

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HOUSTON (AP) James Harden scored 27 points and the Houston Rockets routed the Golden State Warriors 107-86 on Thursday night in a rematch of last season’s Western Conference finals.

The Rockets (7-7), who announced before the game that they were “parting ways” with 10-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony, have won three straight and six of their last eight games after starting 1-5 to reach .500 for the first time since they were 1-1.

The Warriors, who were without Stephen Curry for the fourth straight game, have lost two of their last three. Curry has already been ruled out for Golden State’s next two games because of a groin injury.

Houston had a 13-point lead at the end of the third and opened the fourth quarter with a 12-2 run to make it 88-65 and spur Golden State coach Steve Kerr to call a timeout. The Warriors had two shots blocked and committed two loose ball fouls in that span to help Houston pad the lead. The Rockets got 3-pointers from James Ennis and Isaiah Hartenstein to cap the run.

The Rockets then scored the first nine points after the timeout, with six from Ennis, to make it 97-65 midway through the quarter and put the game out of reach. Both teams cleared their benches a couple of minutes after that.

Kevin Durant had 20 points for the Warriors on a night they were just 4 of 18 on 3-pointers.

Draymond Green had five rebounds and five assists in his return after serving a one-game team-imposed suspension for a dustup with Durant in Monday night’s overtime loss to the Clippers. Green addressed the situation for the first time after shootaround but did not apologize for his actions in the heated exchange.

He said he and Durant had spoken and that they were “moving forward.”

“I think there’s no secret that I am an emotional player,” he said. “I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I play with that same emotion. Sometimes they get the best of me. And (if) it doesn’t work to my favor I’m going to live with that.”

While the Warriors dealt with the drama between Green and Durant, the Rockets were left to answer questions about the decision to move on from Anthony.

Anthony played just 10 games for the Rockets after signing a one-year, $2.4 million deal during the offseason.

“In the summer we tried to hit a home run and it didn’t work out,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He tried everything he could. He was great while he was here. It just didn’t work out for whatever reason. I just thank him for his professionalism. It was good. He tried everything he could to make it work and it just didn’t work out.”

The Rockets led by six at halftime and opened the third quarter with a 7-2 run to stretch the lead to 54-43.

Harden scored five straight points to make it 63-47 after his 3-pointer with about 5 1/2 minutes left in the quarter.

Golden State got going on offense after that, using an 8-2 spurt to get within 65-55 a couple of minutes later.

Gary Clark ended the run with a 3-pointer, and two more 3s by him within a minute of each other late in the third extended the lead to 76-59. It was 76-63 headed to the fourth.

TIP-INS

Warriors: Curry was with the Warriors on the trip but it’s unclear when he’ll return. “We’re going to be very, very careful, and obviously he’s going to need plenty of court time before he returns,” coach Steve Kerr said. “When I say court time, I mean live action. He hasn’t had that.”… Kevon Looney scored a season-high 12 points.

Rockets: Gerald Green returned after missing the last two games with a sprained ankle. … Ennis finished with 19 points and Eric Gordon had 17 off the bench. … Houston made 16 of 47 3-pointers.

UP NEXT

Warriors: Visit Dallas on Saturday night.

Rockets: Host Sacramento on Saturday night.

Report: Draymond Green will try to get game check from suspension

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Should Draymond Green have been suspended for his repeated aggravation of Kevin Durant during an on-floor dispute against the Los Angeles Clippers this week? His teammates thought so, and even voted in favor of giving Green a one-game suspension.

Now, Green will try to get back the money he lost via a missed game check.

According to The Undefeated’s Marc Spears, Green will petition to get the money for his game check from the Warriors with help from the NBA Players Association.

Via The Undefeated:

The Warriors responded by suspending Green for Tuesday’s win over the Atlanta Hawks. While Green accepted the suspension, a source said he was surprised at being fined a $120,000 game check and plans to appeal the franchise’s decision with the aid of the players association.

It seems that at this juncture the suspension and fine was part of the team’s way of making sure Durant felt like he wasn’t being pulled over by the strong personality and Leadership position of green.

It’s hard to say whether Green will get his check for the Hawks game back from the team, but that’s probably not the most important part of this story at this juncture. For now, we have to wait and see what will happen with this Warriors squad moving forward.

Mike D’Antoni on Carmelo Anthony: ‘It wasn’t fair for him as Hall of Fame player’

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Things are over between Carmelo Anthony and the Houston Rockets.

It was announced on Thursday that the former NBA scoring champion would be departing from the team after playing just 10 games. This ended a rocky start to the 2018-19 season in which the Rockets tried gapping the loss of crucial role players with Anthony just a season after an unsuccessful stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The writing on the wall was apparent earlier this week, although the Rockets weren’t forthcoming about the situation with Anthony. Houston GM Daryl Morey told reporters on Sunday that Anthony was sick and that he would “expect him to be playing when he’s healthy.”

That doesn’t seem anywhere near a straight answer in retrospect, and now Anthony is no longer traveling with team. For his part, head coach Mike D’Antoni said nice things about Anthony on Thursday as reporters asked him questions leading up to Houston’s game against the Golden State Warriors.

In his comments, D’Antoni called Carmelo a “Hall of Fame” player.

Via Twitter:

Who knows where Anthony might end up from here on out? The Los Angeles Lakers seem like the most popular destination of speculation, although rumor has it the team is not interested in the aging superstar. That’s not to say that the Lakers are out of the running, but it certainly narrows the choices.

Anthony is a sub-replacement level player, he can be a locker room disturbance, and it’s unclear if he would be willing to mentor young guys much the way Vince Carter has done at this stage in his career.

It’s too early to say that Carmelo’s time in the NBA is over, but right now we are still waiting for a team to step forward and decide they’ll take a chance on Anthony.

Jarrett Jack thinks Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant will join Lakers with LeBron

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Jarrett Jack is no longer with an NBA team, but no doubt he is still plugged in and continues to pay attention to rumors and movements around the league.

Of course the biggest rumor heading into the next two seasons is about what will happen with the team surrounding LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers. Kevin Durant has been one rumored target. Some kind of trade surrounding New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis is another.

Jack recently decided to weigh in on what might happen with the Lakers in the coming seasons on Twitter and, according to him, Jack thinks that LeBron will team up with Davis and Durant.

Via Twitter:

This is of the utmost hearsay at this point, and it’s fun to look at these type of assertions by folks orbiting the league because of the cultural impact rumors have on just about everyone. The idea that a recent former player would be weighing in publicly about a super secret plan to get three major superstars on one team in the biggest market in the NBA would have been crazy a decade ago.

Now? Not so much.

Of course the reality of the situation is much different. The Lakers will have the cap space to sign Kevin Durant this summer if he chooses to opt out of his contract with the Golden State Warriors. Weather Davis can find a way to the Lakers is another thing altogether.

The Pelicans big man has appeared to say all the right things externally, and the only way New Orleans is giving him up is if Davis decides to force his way out. Even then, it’s not immediately clear what the Lakers could give up in order to get Davis that wouldn’t completely decimate their team.

Keep these rumors coming, to be honest. I am all for everyone getting in on these rumors early. If they turn out to be true, it becomes a fun tinfoil-hat experiment on what kind of secretive potential discussions were had before things were made official. Then again, if Durant decides to join the New York Knicks and Davis stays put in Louisiana for the rest of his career, it’s an odd commentary on nobody wanting to join up with LeBron in LA.

Either way, it’s a wild story.