The Warriors were losing more than just games during their four-game losing streak. They were also losing their identity. They were losing sight of what made them who they are, the qualities that made them back-to-back NBA champions. They lost their captain, Stephen Curry, to injury. Draymond Green, their heartbeat and defensive maestro was also sidelined by a persistent toe sprain that wouldn’t go away. Everyone was proclaiming it loud and clear, and the Warriors themselves knew it — the losing needed to stop.
The prospect of the Warriors losing a fifth straight game was a clear and present danger, seeing as they were going up against a Portland Trail Blazers team that had unexpectedly snatched away the top seed from the Warriors, at least for a while. The dynamic backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — considered the best backcourt in the Western Conference in an alternate universe where Curry and Klay Thompson do not exist — were primed and poised to take advantage of the Warriors’ recent slump.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, they ran straight into a bear that had awoken from its winter hibernation, angry and hungry to feast on anyone that gets in its way. The Warriors regained their sense of identity, and showed that even without the presence of Curry and Green, they were capable of displaying the tenets of Warriors basketball.
Those tenets — three-point shooting, fast-paced play, and suffocating defense — are what were missing during their lethargic and uninspired brand of basketball the past few weeks. But against the Blazers, the Warriors finally rediscovered those tenets and proceeded to fire on all fronts, blazing a trail of destruction that left the team from Portland reeling and helpless.
A combination of defense, pace, and deadly shooting
Despite the presence of Thompson and Kevin Durant, the Warriors have been abysmal at shooting the three, as if there is a direct correlation between Curry being injured and the rim repelling the Warriors’ three-point attempts. In the seven games that Curry has sat out prior to their game against the Blazers, the Warriors have shot an awful 31.1 percent on threes, per NBA.com.
Their defensive rating during the same period also left a lot to be desired — 111.4 points allowed per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Their lack of energy on offense — as evidenced by their pace of 97.48 — translated to a lack of defensive energy.
Losing four games in a row clearly didn’t wake the Warriors up enough to the fact that they needed to play with more vigor on both ends. The past few games had the Warriors resorting to isolation post-ups and mid-range jumpers by Durant and Thompson. As Warriors fans could attest to, it was like watching someone trying to break through a steel wall by headbutting it over and over again.
The giant monster was sleeping, and it seemed like no amount of poking and prodding could rouse it up. At last, the Blazers proved to be the nuisance that finally woke the monster up, and what happened thereafter was a rampage that had not been seen in what seemed like an eternity.
Thompson starts off the Warriors’ three-point party with a play that represents how the Warriors’ effort on the defensive end led to fast-paced transition baskets on the offensive end. The Blazers run a pick-and-roll, with the Warriors opting to defend it through switching. Thompson switches onto the roll man and sticks with him, sniffing out the bounce pass and forcing the turnover.
This leads to the Warriors pushing the pace on the other end. Quinn Cook sets a pin down for Thompson, who gets fouled while shooting the three.
Cook gets his first three of the game as a result of another example of all three tenets being displayed in a single sequence. Good defense by the Warriors — courtesy of a turnover from containing McCollum and forcing him to make a bad pass — allows the Warriors to push the pace in transition. Cook runs to the wing and Durant finds him for the open three.
The Warriors open up a lot of three-point opportunities through simple dribble penetration that forces the defense to help one pass away. In this possession, Damion Lee manages to penetrate, which draws the attention of multiple defenders toward the paint. A mindful Lee kicks it out to an open Jonas Jerebko.
Another instance of defense translating into offense — Durant gets an excellent close-out block on a three-point attempt, leading to another fast transition basket by the Warriors.
Jerebko knocks down another three when the Warriors run in transition after a missed shot by the Blazers. Increasing the pace does wonders for the Warriors — it allows them to get off shots against a defense that isn’t fully set. Lee’s shot from the corner misses, but the long rebound is hauled in by Shaun Livingston, and the ball finds its way to an open Jerebko on the left corner.
This is another great example of defense and hustle leading to a three-point shot. Jordan Bell — third in line in the Warriors’ young center-by-committee rotation — makes the most out of the trust that Steve Kerr puts in him. He pokes the ball away and dives for the ball, leading to another transition opportunity by the Warriors. The initial shot by Durant misses, but a Jerebko offensive board gives Durant another chance to bury the three.
Lee marks his contribution to the Warriors’ three-point barrage, courtesy of a pin down from Durant. With Bell acting as the passing big stationed at the elbow, Lee uses Durant’s pin down, gets the pitch back from Bell, and pulls up for the three, evoking the spirit of his injured brother-in-law.
Cook’s second three of the game took advantage of the complacency of the Blazers’ three-point defense. A simple high screen from Kevon Looney allows Cook to pull up for the three. Jusuf Nurkić opts to drop back and cover the paint for a potential drive, and pays for his decision to not hedge or blitz.
In this possession, an excellent double team on a driving McCollum forces a desperation pass that gets deflected by Thompson, leading to a steal and fastbreak slam dunk for Durant on the other end. Again, defense —> pace —> offense.
Durant gets his second three of the night courtesy of a simple pin down from Cook. Durant usually receives these pin downs from Curry, who is one of the best screening guards in the league. Cook does a decent job substituting for Curry in this possession, setting a screen that is good enough to force Al-Farouq Aminu to fall slightly behind Durant.
Meanwhile, Thompson knocks down another three courtesy of a familiar play that the Warriors usually run for Curry — a double high screen leading to an entry pass to Durant on the post, after which Curry uses a screen to curl around and rise up for the open shot. Here’s an instance where they ran it against the Utah Jazz earlier this season:
This time, Thompson runs around Looney’s screen and gets the wide open catch-and-shoot three.
Later on, they try to run the play again, but the off-ball screening action is defended and shut down by the Blazers. The Warriors then go into their plan B, which is a Durant post-up isolation. Normally, the double high screen gets Durant a favorable switch onto a much smaller defender, but the Blazers are cognizant enough to keep Aminu on Durant. Despite Aminu being a good defender, Durant calls his own number and buries the mid-range shot.
With Thompson showing signs of heating up, the Warriors opt to run another set that gets him open. With Evan Turner covering him, Thompson slightly pushes Turner away from him, forcing Turner to go under Livingston’s screen. As any basketball junkie would know, going under the screen against a sharpshooter such as Thompson is a recipe for disaster.
In an attempt to feed the hot hand, the Warriors run another play for Thompson, who is forced to pass the ball while in mid-air due to a great contest from Turner. But as soon as Thompson gives up the ball, Turner relaxes and loses sight of his man, who simply relocates, gets the ball back, and gets an open look at the rim.
Cook buries a crucial three-pointer in the fourth quarter that gave the Warriors plenty of cushion to hold on for the victory. With Durant handling the ball, he gets a screen from Cook. The Blazers opt to blitz and double Durant, leaving Cook alone on the perimeter to receive the pass from Durant. McCollum hesitates to rotate onto Cook, since doing so would leave Thompson open. Cook uses that moment of hesitation to his advantage, going up for the three and burying it.
As previously mentioned, the Warriors’ offensive rating in their games without Curry took a significant nosedive. Pre-Curry injury, their offensive rating was 118.8 points per 100 possessions; in their 7 games without Curry — and before their game against the Blazers — that rating dropped to 104.3 points per 100 possessions.
Against the Blazers, the Warriors found their offensive groove once again, posting an offensive rating of 126.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. They shot 48-of-85 from the field (56.5 percent), with a shooting clip of 17-of-32 (53.1 percent) from three-point range. With shooting numbers like these, the Warriors were able to go back to their ways of out-of-this-world efficiency on offense, despite missing the presence of Curry.
It must be noted, however, that an exerted effort on defense led to the Warriors’ incredible shooting night — their 11 steals and 11 blocks were the byproducts of a rejuvenated defense that was as equally lethargic as their offense in previous games. Defensive plays served as the kinetic energy that sustained the Warriors’ transition offense, as evidenced by the Warriors’ 16 fastbreak points. The Blazers could do nothing but bear witness at a version of the Warriors that was all but absent for the past seven games.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the Warriors still need Curry and Green back. But their game against the Blazers proved what the team was still capable of with Durant and Thompson leading the way.
Everyone knows that great defense leads to great offense. For the Warriors, great defense leads to mass destruction.
Twenty down, 62 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.