Amid these past few days of drama and internal chaos, the Golden State Warriors were rendered ineffective and helpless on offense against a team that was built to stifle them.
Without the on-court presence of Stephen Curry – their captain, leader, and fulcrum of the offensive system – the Warriors were forced to give the scoring responsibilities to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, which played right into the Houston Rockets’ defensive game plan.
Against the Rockets, the Warriors posted a paltry offensive rating of 98.3, which is way below their league-leading offensive rating of 118.4, per Basketball Reference. It was painfully obvious that the Rockets’ switch-everything defense – a scheme that gave the Warriors fits last season – continued to haunt the defending champions, despite the Rockets losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute.
Furthermore, the Warriors placed a heavy emphasis on mid-range shots, which may have served as a detriment to the efficiency of their offense — and may have also made the Rockets’ job on defense easy. The Warriors only took 18 three-point field goal attempts, making 4 of them – good for 22.2 percent. Their 18 attempts were way below their season average of 29.1 three-point attempts per game, per Basketball Reference.
On the other hand, the Rockets stayed true to their identity of being a three-point shooting team, attempting 47 three-points shots and knocking down 16, good for 34 percent. Despite shooting a lower field goal percentage overall – 40.2 percent as opposed to the Warriors’ 42.1 percent – the higher volume of threes attempted by the Rockets resulted in more three-point shots made. Coupled with the Rockets’ suffocating defense, that was what broke the Warriors’ back.
How the Rockets defended the Durant-centric offense
The Rockets’ strategy in defending the Warriors was laid bare in this sequence. They are well aware that among the Warriors’ starting lineup, only two are legitimate scoring threats. When Durant gets the ball, he is looking for a favorable matchup, knowing that the Rockets will switch everything that is screened. He finally gets the matchup that he wants in the form of the much smaller Chris Paul:
Notice how the Rockets approach the mismatch. PJ Tucker, whose man is Thompson, denies Thompson the chance to get a possible pass from Durant. When Thompson relocates to the weak side to clear space for Durant to isolate, James Harden prepares to help should Durant get past Paul. Tucker also elects to shadow the paint, ignoring the relocating Thompson. As a result, the Rockets “overload” the strong side.
Durant misses the shot, but gets the offensive rebound. He passes it to Andre Iguodala on the left wing — who proceeds to get ignored on the perimeter; the Rockets clearly do not see him as a three-point shooting threat. A skip pass to Thompson on the opposite corner doesn’t produce anything, and eventually, the ball finds its way to Green, whose three-point shot is purposefully uncontested by the Rockets. They are well aware that Green has been abysmal from that range, and they will live with him shooting those shots.
During one possession, the Rockets do not elect to overload the strong side, leaving Harden on an island against Durant on the post. The result: a Durant baseline drive for the dunk.
Having learned their lesson, the Rockets quickly revert to packing the paint in preparation for a Durant drive. Off of a Clint Capela basket, the Warriors get Durant isolated on the post yet again. This time, Harden and Tucker station themselves in the paint:
Durant goes up for a turnaround fadeaway jumper, but it misses. The Warriors get the offensive rebound, but the Rockets do not fall asleep on defense — they immediately cover both Thompson and Durant, who are the immediate shooting and scoring threats present on the floor. The ball finds its way to Iguodala, who ends up being called for the travel. Once again, the Rockets obtain their desired result.
The Warriors hunt for another mismatch for Durant to feast on, this time against a slower big man in Isaiah Hartenstein. Durant tries to drive past his defender, but Hartenstein is up to the task. Futhermore, several defenders help off of their men to pack the paint, which bothers Durant enough to put up an air ball.
When Durant is subbed back in during the second quarter, the Rockets immediately turn on their anti-Durant defense. Durant gets the rebound, and tries to get something going for the offensively-beleaguered Warriors, but the Rockets are well-prepared:
Tucker picks up Durant and does an excellent job at cutting off his drive, forcing him out to the right corner. Tucker switches off to shadow the paint; Harden picks up Durant, who makes an ill-advised cross-court pass that is picked off by Capela. The Warriors are forced to foul to prevent an easy transition bucket.
With Curry being re-evaluated on November 24, he will be sidelined for at least four more games. The Warriors will have no choice but to mostly depend on Durant for the majority of their offensive production. While Curry’s presence on the bench has allowed the feud between Durant and Green to simmer down — at least for the time being — his absence on the court is being felt, and it is a feeling that is all too painful.
If there is one lesson that we have all learned from what has happened with the Warriors these past few days, it is this: Curry is what makes the Warriors tick, both on and off the court. His leadership, his demeanor, and his ability to make everyone around him feel comfortable is what has driven the engine of this four-year dynasty.
Durant may belong in the conversation as one of the best players in the league today. Thompson may be the second best shooter in the world, behind his fellow Splash Brother. Green may be the best all-around defender in the league, and the best vocal general the Warriors may ever have.
But without a shadow of a doubt, Stephen Curry and the Warriors are one and the same. Without him, the Warriors become a walking shell of who they really are.
Sixteen down, 66 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.