The Golden State Warriors experienced a tale of two quarters against the Sacramento Kings on Friday night — a tale that seemed like it was going to end happily ever after for the defending champions, but quickly turned into a nightmare scenario that was narrowly avoided through a combination of experience, poise, and clutch play.
Playing a young team that was progressively shying away from the image of a poorly managed, cellar-dwelling organization, the Warriors were intent on leaving Sacramento with a victory against their Northern California rivals, especially after being shellacked into oblivion by the Toronto Raptors in their own backyard.
The game started out well enough for the Warriors. Free of the Raptors’ lengthy defenders and switching defense — not too dissimilar to the switching defensive scheme that gave them fits against the Houston Rockets during last season’s Western Conference Finals — the Warriors were finally allowed to spread their wings and fly against a team ranked 20th in the league in defensive rating (110.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, per NBA.com).
The tale of the first quarter
The first quarter was a return to the Warriors’ vintage motion offense. The whirling dervish of their ball and personnel movement was a pleasant sight for Warriors fans’ eyes, as the embodiment of Steve Kerr’s fantasy of equal opportunity offense was realized during the opening stanza.
The Warriors open up with their staple Motion Weak set, flowing into a zipper cut by Kevin Durant. When that action is stifled, Durant gives the ball back to Draymond Green, which flows into a dribble-hand off pick-and-roll with Stephen Curry. Curry attracts two defenders and makes the quick pass back to Green, who makes mincemeat of the Kings defense with a 2-on-1 assist to Kevon Looney for the easy bucket.
Not only were the Warriors able to break free against a defense that lacked the proper personnel and scheme to bog their motion offense down — they were also able to play their preferred pace and tempo. Coupled with early defensive stops, the Warriors quickly turned the game into a track meet. Despite the Kings being ranked 2nd in the league in pace — 104.85 possessions per game, per NBA.com — the Warriors were still considered the undisputed kings of the pace-and-space philosophy.
The Warriors often insist on making the quick outlet pass to a man that has gone ahead of everyone else on the floor. In this instance, Durant hauls in the missed shot and quickly whips an outlet pass to Looney on the other end. This catches the attention of several Kings defenders away from Durant, who simply trails toward the three-point line and receives the ball back from Looney for the easy three.
With Curry being matched up against De’Aaron Fox, it was an opportunity for the young second year player — currently experiencing the exact opposite of a sophomore slump this season — to show how much he has grown on both ends of the floor. While he has shown a tremendous improvement on the offensive end, Curry serves up a cold lesson to him on defense in this possession.
With Durant posting up on the left side, Curry simply blows past the lazy defensive coverage of Fox for a cut toward the basket.
The Warriors are fond of running a lot of off-ball cross-screening for Curry and Durant under the basket. In this sequence, the Warriors have Curry run to the rim to screen Durant’s man. The direction of Curry’s screen has fooled the defender into thinking that Durant will curl toward the left wing, and the defender adjusts accordingly by preemptively cutting off Durant’s path. However, Durant instead zipper cuts toward the top of the arc, with the defender realizing that he made the wrong call. He tries to desperately catch up to Durant, but a simple fake and sidestep allows Durant to bury the three.
Curry — ever the constant and perpetual motion machine — takes advantage of a hapless Kings defense with this classic give-and-go three, with Green being his big man partner. The Kings allow Curry to penetrate toward the rim, collapsing several defenders toward the paint. Curry kicks the ball out to Green on the right corner, and the Kings relax their attention away from Curry — but Curry himself doesn’t relax. He relocates to the right corner immediately after the pass, receives the pass from Green, and makes the Kings pay for their inattentiveness.
The Warriors go back to running the pick-and-roll involving Curry and Green. With Curry being the ball-handler, the Kings elect to defend this action by having Green’s defender stunt on Curry. This turns out to be a costly choice, as Curry quickly passes the ball to a rolling Green. The defense doesn’t recover in time, and Green goes up for the layup.
The Warriors bank on the success of the Curry/Green pick-and-roll by running it for a second straight possession. Fox gets hung up on Green’s pick, which leaves a lone defender against Curry and a rolling Green. Curry makes the pass to Green on the short roll. Green misses the layup, but Looney is there to put the ball back in.
The Warriors run yet another pick-and-roll with Green as the roll man, with the only difference being that Durant is the ball-handler. Another 2-on-1 situation is created when Durant makes the pass on the short roll to Green, who has Looney situated on the other side of the defender. Green’s excellent bounce pass finds a cutting Looney for the layup.
In this sequence, an off-ball screen for Durant draws several defenders onto him when he manages to bring the ball close to the rim. An uncovered Jordan Bell — who has often been jittery and hesitant when handling passes — manages to handle the excellent bounce pass from Durant for the easy bucket.
To close out the first quarter, Durant and Quinn Cook run a beautiful 2-man game that eventually results in a kick out pass from Durant to Cook for the three.
What the Warriors were able to show in the first quarter was a promising beginning to what many expected to be a statement game. With a renewed emphasis on running their motion sets and sharing the ball, the Warriors were intent on doing away with stagnation on the offensive end.
However, as the game went on — and as the Kings stayed well within the Warriors heels and within striking range — the Warriors were slowly losing ground in the track meet. By the time the fourth quarter rolled in, the offensive euphoria and joy that filled the air of the first quarter was long gone.
The tale of the fourth quarter
The Kings start off the fourth quarter with a furious 15-2 run, thanks in part to a lackadaisical defensive effort from the Warriors coupled with the Kings getting hot from beyond the arc.
1) A dubious offensive foul is called on Jonas Jerebko, leading to an open three on the other end for Buddy Hield — 3-0.
2) After a missed shot by the Warriors, they jog back to the other end of the floor and are made to pay for it by Justin Jackson — 5-0.
3) Alfonzo McKinnie hauls in two offensive rebounds, both after missed shots from Klay Thompson. The second one is a putback dunk that momentarily gives the Warriors a three-point cushion — 5-2.
4) Bogdan Bogdanovic — noticing that the left side has cleared away to create an open driving lane — drives against Jerebko and makes the tough layup — 7-2.
5) The Warriors commit a turnover and are again caught off guard by the Kings, who push the pace. This leads to an open Bogdanovic on the right wing, who buries the three to give the Kings their first lead of the game — 10-2.
6) Thompson gets stopped at the rim, and the Kings give the ball to Hield, who drives inside and kisses the ball off the glass for another two points — 12-2.
7) Green puts up a jumper that badly misses, allowing the Kings to push the pace in transition. Penetration allows a kick out to Jackson on the left corner, who buries the three to stretch the Kings’ lead to seven — 15-2.
The Warriors bring back Curry and Durant after Jerebko misses two free throws. They stop the bleeding by giving the Kings a dose of their own medicine. Green gets the strip, leading to an opportunity for the Warriors to score on the fastbreak. Thompson pushes the pace and drops the ball to Jerebko, who goes up for the basket and the foul.
The Kings’ lead is then cut to two when the Warriors run a simple pin down for Durant. Curry is the screen setter, and the Kings don’t elect to switch when Durant’s defender gets stuck on Curry’s screen. Durant catches the pass and goes up for the wide open three.
The Warriors go back to Durant in this isolation sequence, where he uses his preternatural ability to score to tie the game up at 113-all.
But the Kings would respond with a furious 10-0 run, courtesy of a couple of free throws from Willie Cauley-Stein, a three from Bogdanovic, and a layup from Hield. With three minutes to go in the game, what became a molehill for the Warriors suddenly turned into a huge mountain.
After Durant makes 1 of 2 free throws, the Warriors get a stop and manage to get lucky when Curry’s wayward pass is touched by the Kings on its way out of bounds. The inbound find its way to Durant, who goes up for the quick jumper to cut the lead to seven.
Defense leads to offense, as Green manages to get a good close-out and a good contest to force a miss from the beyond the arc. Durant goes all the way to the rim for the bucket, a foul, and an additional point to cut the lead to four.
In this sequence, Curry plays the passing lane and anticipates the pass going toward his general direction. He intercepts the ball, passes to Thompson up ahead, and gets the ball back to cut the deficit two.
After Durant gets fouled and makes two free throws to tie the game up, Fox reclaims the two point lead for the Kings with a mid-range jumper. But on the other end, the Kings fall asleep and leave Thompson alone on the right wing. He makes the deep three — eventually serving as his second game winner of the season against the Kings — and officially claims the title of “Kings Slayer.”
The first quarter was defined by a tale of vintage Warriors basketball, at least on the offensive end. A plethora of motion cuts, three-pointers, and fast-paced transition opportunities resulted in a 42-point quarter and besting the Kings at their own game of pace-and-space.
However, the fourth quarter was defined by a tale of stepping off the gas pedal and allowing the Kings to furiously act on their hunger for a victory over their more storied Northern California rivals. A 15-2 run during that small fourth quarter window without the presence of Curry or Durant on the floor almost became the killing blow in what was about to become the Warriors’ second straight defeat. But a 17-2 run by the Warriors trumped over the Kings, whose inexperience and youth showed during the closing moments of the game.
The entire game may have been four quarters long, but it was defined by the tale of two quarters, both containing the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the end, the defending champions took matters into their own hands and rewrote the story to a more fitting end.
Thirty down, 52 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.