Well, that’s 10 in a row.
The Warriors may not have played their most impressive game of the season Thursday night against the Timberwolves, but it was plenty good enough to beat a young, upstart on the road with, quite frankly, very little overall challenging by the home team. Golden State 129, Minnesota 116.
The Warriors got up 33-17 before the first quarter was over and the rest of the game was spent managing and maintaining a lead for the final three quarters. Steph Curry ho-hummed his way to 46 points, going 15-for-25 from the field, including 8-for-13 from beyond the arc.
As the wins pile up, it feels like it’s getting harder and harder to beat this team. We keep hearing things like: “We’ve never seen anything like this team before” or “This team is changing the way the game is played” and the fact of the matter is: these statements are accurate.
But how do you explain how this team is so different? How do you describe the way in which they’re changing the game before our eyes? What makes them so unique? Well, I would put it this way: This team, right here and right now, is making a mockery of some defensive principles, ideals and foundations that we’ve never even thought to question. The reality is that sound defensive strategies, many engrained for generations, don’t work against this team. In fact, they work against you when you play the Warriors.
“HELP DEFENSE.” The concept of help defense has been taught to every team on every level for as long as anyone can remember. The idea is simple: When you’re playing man-to-man defense, if a teammate gets beat, you come off your man and help the beaten defender.
If your man has the ball on the perimeter and he beats you into the lane on a drive, perimeter teammates are taught to sink in and big men are encouraged to step up and stop penetration. That’s great when you’re playing every single team on planet earth not called the Golden State Warriors. When you’re playing the Warriors, help defense becomes an awful concept — and one that will get you beat.
Close your eyes and imagine Curry playing at the top of the floor, fiddle-faddling with the ball, measuring his opponent as he sets out to make a play. Picture Curry getting by his defender and getting into the top-of-the-circle/foul line area. When that happens, inevitably, the defense sinks and sucks in because the instinct is to help the defender Curry beat.
For generations, coaches have taught the “shell drill,” where an entire defensive unit is taught to move, in unison and together depending on where the ball is. As the ball gets further away from your man, you’re taught to drift from your man and toward the ball.
But that is a terrible philosophy to employ against the Warriors. Why? Because Curry has become so good with the ball and such a solid decision maker that once he gets to penetrating and he sees the help coming, he knows exactly where the ball needs to go — the open man.
As soon as Curry gives that ball up, you are a major disadvantage against the Warriors. They have too many passers, too many shooters and too many players on the floor who know how to play the game and know how to exploit a scrambling, short-handed defense.
When Curry gives the ball up in that type of situation, it’s a given the Warriors will get a good shot. And a lot of the time, that first pass Curry throws after penetration will lead to several more passes — all called “making the extra pass.” Sometimes that ball even gets all the way back to Curry, who by that time is now wide open.
As hard is it is to understand and as hard as it is to implement, you’ve got to try to make Curry play inside the arc. That doesn’t mean “let him score.” It means as a defense you must absolutely, positively try to maximize Curry’s two-point attempts. You’ve got to make him shoot 22 footers, just inside the line, or mid-range shots or tear drops or make him finish at the rim. Can Curry do all of these things? You betcha. But until defenses better limit Curry’s 3-point attempts, it’s tough to see any team having success against them. It’s simple math.
Curry has taken 205 field goal attempts this season and more than half (110) have been 3-pointers. He’s making 47 percent of his shots behind the arc, which is better than most players in the league shoot from 2-point range. While it is no doubt easier said than done, you’ve got to try to take that shot away from him.
So even though it goes against every old-school defensive philosophy, it might be best to simply leave a defender on an island against Curry. The alternative is worse, which is sending help and allowing Curry to get the whole gang involved.
“PROTECT THE RIM.” There are still coaches who cling to this philosophy with their hearts and souls. And on the surface, it’s not a horrid mandate to cling to — against teams other than the Warriors. Now, look, there’s nuance here. Nobody is saying to give up easy baskets at the rim against the Warriors.
But get your priorities straight. Protecting the rim against the Warriors is not something you should spend time on. “Protecting the 3-point line?” Now that’s something to get behind. When you play the Warriors, protecting the rim often works against you.
If you’re going out of your way against the Warriors to not allow them to get to the basket or if you’re stressing no easy buckets, then chances are you’re implementing a defensive approach in which you’re asking/encouraging players to hang around the basket area.
That’s the last place you want to be against the Warriors. Because if you’re in full help mode, trying to protect the interior, or you’re in no-mans land between helping and not, it’s exactly where the Warriors want you. One simple kick-out pass to a perimeter player — and this can come from Curry, Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala — sets up an awful dynamic: defenses running out at a Warrior’s perimeter player who just caught the ball and has a live dribble. You cannot have consistent success against the Warriors if you’re always “running out” to their shooters. By that time it’s over because good offensive players measure you there and it’s not difficult to do. You’ve got to be out there already. Against the Warriors, lose the “rim protection” mantra.
“EVERYBODY’S GOT GET ON THE DEFENSIVE GLASS.” Yeah, that sounds great, but it’s not really a sound strategy against the Warriors. Put it this way: If you send five guys to the defensive boards, you darn well better come up with the rebound. Because if you don’t come up with that rebound, you’ve created a built-in scramble situation for your defense on that second shot. And there is no worse place to be against the Warriors than looking around for a man to guard. That’s feast time for them.
Instead, maybe consider only defensive rebounding with three guys and make sure two of your smaller, perimeter players don’t go anywhere near the rim to help out on the boards. Instead, you might need two players to specifically NOT rebound and instead linger on the perimeter near Curry or Klay Thompson or Barnes.
Think about it: The Warriors take a ton of 3s and what often happens when long 3s are missed? They become long rebounds. And when the Warriors get long offensive rebounds, they’ve got you over a barrel. Because again, that’s a built-in advantageous situation, when you have the defense as far from set as can be.
When you’re playing the Warriors, you’re probably better off making Festus Ezeli or Andrew Bogut or Green convert a follow up, rather than have one of those guys get the rebound only to fire it out to the perimeter where there are now only Warriors players — because that’s what happens when you send everyone to rebound.
The Warriors took 38 3-pointers against the Timberwolves, burying 18 of them. The 38 3-pointers represented 43 percent of their total number of shots. If the Warriors are going to take that many 3-pointers and make that many 3-pointers they won’t be challenged this year. It’s simple math.
The Warriors are playing a new game of basketball right now, a different game, and it’s going to take some different kind of defensive thinking to beat them. Because if you haven’t noticed, some of the tried and true methods just don’t work against them.
***Here’s a link to my podcast — The Sal and Steiny Show — that I put at the end of most of my stories. It’s got a lot of sports and hoops talk and some people think it’s a good listen. Check it out here.