Notes on the Warriors Defense: ICE, Sagging and Speed

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Previously we discussed the basics of the new Warriors Offense (part 1, part 2) since that's where all the camera friendly passing and cutting is happening. This article will look at the Warriors Defense while also looking at the recent thrilling Blazers game which was the first really interesting game for the Warriors defense.

ICEing the Pick and Roll

The pick and roll/pop is the most common play in the NBA, so every team game plans to stop it. In brief, the pick and roll/pop begins when a player (the "pick") sets a screen and the ballhandler (the "ball") forces their defender (the "small") to run around/into the screen. When it's run correctly, the defense has to decide if and how the big helps to defend the ball (and thus allows the pick to "roll" to the basket or "pop" out to spot up for a jump shot).

Be sure to read this excellent overview of the common strategies for defending pick and roll. There's no right answer because every known scheme gives up something to stop something and requires different personnel.

As documented by Joe Moore, in 2010-2011, the Warriors pick and roll defense scheme was The Hedge. This means the big hedges (jumps out to make the ball go around him), thus allowing (in theory) the small to catch up to the ball. In practice, if you have slow big men (as in Lee and Biedrins), the ball can drive around them or the pick can roll hard to the basket before they can recover from hedging.

By 2012, the Mark Jackson Warriors had switched to "ICE" (or "Blue") and this greatly improved their defense. In ICE, the small actually forces the ball to one side away from the screen and when possible *away from the middle*. This allows the big to drop back to contain the ball on one side when it drives. If you want a really good video with an on-court demo of ICE, and I know you do, check out Coach Nick's video.

Warriors ICEing the Pick and Roll

Vanilla ICE. Here's an example from the Lakers game last week. The Lakers Price and Davis try a sideline pick and roll. Watch how Iguodala forces Price to go away from the screen and Speights sags into the lane to prevent Price from driving. He passes to Davis, who declines the long 2.

Notice what the D is giving up. The big man can always get a midrange 2 and the small can usually get a midrange 2 (in this video Iggy recovers really well so that shot isn't there). In the modern NBA, this is good, because midrange 2s are less efficient than shots at the rim or from 3.

Two Sided ICE. It's a little harder to ICE high pick and rolls, but here Price tries a high pick and roll one way, that gets ICEd. Then he tries it on the other side and that also gets (sort of) ICEd by Ezeli sagging off on the other side of the pick. The Lakers reset to an ISO post up and get a tough spinning hook shot to go.

The Warriors ICE in a way that clogs up the paint. Notice how the Ws have three men sagging towards the paint. Barbosa in particular has left his man at the arc to stand one step away from the paint.

This is an intentional scheme. They are aggressively sagging into the paint to make it hard to drive. Basically, Bogut (or Ezeli) stays near the rim. The ball side defenders play ICE. The weak side defenders stay one step away from the paint, ready to help in the paint. This of course leaves shooters open, so they are relying on the speed of the guards to sprint out to recover to shooters or disrupt the pass.

Now you might say, of course the Ws should sag in off the Lakers since Byron Scott has forbidden the Lakers to take 3s. Okay, how about the Blazers? The Lillard-Aldridge pick and roll is a powerful one, as both of them are fast, smart and can shoot from distance or finish at the rim. The Warriors played their version of ICE and regularly disrupted the PDX pick and roll.

Green ICE. In this sideline PnR, Draymond is the sagging big, instead of Bogut. Because Green is fast, he has more flexibility in where he can sag. In this case, he comes all the way out, turning the ICE into a Lillard trap. Lillard gets a pass out to LA, and Green uses speed to recover to bother LA. Notice Klay was also there (one step away from the paint!) trying to keep LMA at the elbow and also loosely marking Matthews at the arc (leaving Matthews an awful lot of room).

Warriors Switching and Sagging

The Blazers could not get traction with the Pick and Roll and ran dribble pitches and other plays to get some drives to the rim.

Dribble Pitch. On this next play, PDX has had enough of the ICEd pick and rolls and goes to a nice dribble pitch. Now Lillard has Curry behind him and should now be playing 5 on 4, right? Except the Warriors all sag into the paint, and I mean ALL, turning it into a 1 on 4. By the time Lillard hits the paint, every single Warrior has sagged into the paint and surrounded him to funnel him to Bogut who swats him.

Mystery Play. For this next clip, see if you can identify the PDX play.

Yes, it's our friend HORNS. Two bigs high, two smalls low, feed the elbow, away screen. This turns into a beautiful double screen dribble pitch to Batum which works well until it's blown up by a very heady switch by Green on to Batum (the original defender Barnes was four steps behind). Barnes gamely switches to LA and wrestles him down the lane. This turns into Matthews getting stripped (and perhaps fouled) by Klay.

Here you can see two important aspects of the Warriors D. First, the Ws have a lot of versatile defenders. Barnes, Green, Klay, (Iggy on the bench) can guard 2-4 well and can guard 1 and 5 in a pinch, so they can all switch without a mismatch.

Second, notice where Curry is standing. The camera shot is a bit artistic, but if you follow the play, he has left Lillard at the 3 point line to sag in one step from the paint, counting on his speed to zone both Lopez (in case Bogut has to help) and Lillard (for the kickout).

The End of the Portland Game, Out of Bounds Plays and The Trap

This article is getting long, so let's wrap up with a look at the end of the Portland game which showed off these aforementioned aspects of the Warriors D: sagging and switching.

I'm going to omit a discussion I wrote where I tracked how the Warriors defended Aldridge. Basically, a mix of double teams, fake double teams and single coverage. I thought Green did an excellent job except that Aldridge made some All-Star difficult midrange jumpers over the shorter Green. So by the end of the game, the Ws needed to throw a new twist in.

Big Stop 1. Sagging!

The new twist is that Green denies the entry to LA. Look how hard he works to deny the entry! Bogut zoned behind LA to prevent the lob, since his man Lopez was way above the arc. Then as soon as the ball reverses, Green (wait for it) sags down to one step out of the lane. The play resets into a Lillard ISO on Curry at the top. This would be doom if it were really 1 on 1. But it's a team game, so instead...

... it's a big miss that turns into a transition opportunity for the Ws (analyzed below in Bonus Play). Curry provides good on-ball D on Lillard, but he was helped by the sagging three men in the paint. Lopez tries to help by blocking off Bogut from swatting Lillard, but he just adds to the congestion in the lane, so Lillard has to make a tricky bank shot sailing out of bounds along the edge of the lane.

Big Stop 2. Switching!

Here is the next play, another huge turning point in the game. PDX has the ball with a 2 point lead, 46 sec left. If they can use clock and score, PDX just needs to make free throws for the win.

LA is ISOed, but does not spin baseline (where he was just killing it). Instead, he drives middle, so he's doubled by Curry. The spacing is off (Matthews should have been over more earlier), so Ws can switch beautifully to recover from the double. Barnes rotates to take Curry's man, Curry gets across court to rotate to Matthews, so Ig can protect the rim. Klay gamely zones Batum on the baseline and Blake in the corner. Lillard throws to Batum (probably a skip pass to Blake would have been better) and it ends with Green's swarming double and his patented tomahawk steal, and a desperation 3. You know that this ends with Ig taking it coast to coast and getting free throws (and hitting 1 out of 2).

Notice another thing: the inbounds play is bad. There are no picks, just three guys breaking for the near sideline. They had a hard time getting the ball in. And notice how easy it would be for the Warriors to double team and trap any of the three receivers flat against the sideline. Or even if you didn't notice, at least Ron Adams noticed. This leads him to tell Kerr to trap instead of fouling right away on the next play.

Big Stop 3. Blake Butt!

Here Ig has closed the gap to 1 pt, but Portland just needs to get the ball in and get fouled. They run a bad out of bounds action (very similar to Big Stop 2) with players running with no screens right to the near baseline and this time the Ws trap.

Great trap, fumble, butt bounce, surprising overrule by officials on replay. (I didn't think the evidence was strong enough.)

Bonus Play: Curry layup or kick out ?

This isn't about the Ws defense, but it's about two questions people had about the ending.

First, on a late fast break, Curry got to the basket and passed out to Klay at the arc. It's most interesting to see the play develop from the Lillard miss (Big Stop 1). There's a basketball saying: If a guard misses a layup at one end, there's going to be a layup at the other end. Lillard got so far under the basket on his miss that Curry could run out and start a break leaving him far behind.

Some people wondered if Curry would be better served just taking the layup. In my opinion, this was a fantastic and correct find by Curry. You can see that Lopez did a great job of catching up and was going to bother the shot. Batum was right behind and about to jump to block (and the man has super hops). Curry's layup was going to be a difficult finish, and there is Klay, so forgotten that he's not even on the TV screen. The right call. And you can also hear what 10,000 people sound like yelling in terror (Klay catch) and then relief (Klay miss).

The second question people had was why was the last play called for Klay? On paper, it seems weird to call a curl for Klay, who was well defended by Matthews as well as any human or cyborg could have done, and who had to make an extremely difficult finish fading away. Why not something for Curry or one of the usual Iggy/Curry perimeter 3 things, or the Triple Curl out of bounds play for Curry? In my opinion, it's because Klay missed the previous 3. I think Kerr estimated that Klay needed a chance to redeem himself. As evidence, in the postgame, when Klay was asked about the winning play, he first insisted on processing his miss of the open 3.

Wrap Up

The Warriors so far are playing an aggressive version of ICE where not only are pick and rolls being ICEd, but the paint is packed by having the weak side defenders sag towards the lane, and they dare people to pass to the outside shot before our speedsters can get there. It will be very interesting to see if they continue this. Offenses like the Spurs' which emphasize the open corner 3 will feast on this scheme. The Clips with Paul driving may be better than PDX at spacing and spotting up for 3, so it will be very interesting to see what happens there.

Another advantage to forcing long shots is the longer rebounds may support the counterpunch running game. On there other hand, (without actually doing the analysis), I'd guess that the sagging and leaking out contributes to the offensive rebound problem the Warriors have had. Basically, any long rebound is up for grabs since the whole D has sagged into the paint or is getting ready to fast break.)

This FanPost is a submission from a member of the mighty Golden State of Mind community. While we're all here to throw up that W, these words do not necessarily reflect the views of the GSoM Crew. Still, chances are the preceding post is Unstoppable Baby!