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The Golden Breakdown: Defensive concerns amid a victory against the Sixers

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The Warriors were able to get stops late against the Sixers, but a lack of defensive intensity early in the game — as well as a big defensive elephant in the room — threatened to give them their third-straight loss.

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NBA: Golden State Warriors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more overlooked aspects of analysis, in this humble author’s opinion, is the significance of body language that players display on the court. Paying extra attention to those nuances in the game — and getting proficient at pointing them out — can make one somewhat of an expert at seeing how players feel, how they approach a particular game, and if they are genuinely invested in the task at hand.

The Golden State Warriors have become so used to winning a whole lot that the only outward expression they can muster after most of them is a proverbial shrug of the shoulder. But after losing a back-to-back slate of games in Florida against the Miami Heat and the Orlando Magic, the Warriors were suddenly determined to end their road trip with a victory.

When the Warriors finally did get the win over the Philadelphia 76ers, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green did a small, slightly-synchronized dance of joy, as if to release several days’ worth of pent-up frustration and pressure.

It was a close win that went down the wire, and in the beginning, it was looking like the defending champions were on their way to a third-straight loss, courtesy of an early display of lackluster defense.

The Warriors of years past took enormous pride in not letting the other team score — sure, the other team may end up scoring in the end, but the Warriors would make them sweat and bleed buckets for a single scoring possession. This season is proving to be a far cry from those early contending/championship days, when the Warriors’ eyes resembled that of a tiger’s, as opposed to the eyes of a lazy and out-of-shape domesticated feline that has been more prevalent as of late.

As Anthony Slater of The Athletic pointed out, defense has arguably been the more important half of the two-pronged arsenal of the Warriors during their last five years of dominance. Leading up to their first title in 2015, the Warriors sported a defensive rating of 100.4, which led the league during the regular season. During their second title in 2017, they ranked second, with a defensive rating of 103.4.

The one outlier turned out to be last season — the Warriors’ 106.8 defensive rating ranked 11th in the league, the first time since the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers that a team won an NBA title while dropping out of the top 10 in defensive rating. Of course, as was also pointed out, the Warriors would eventually flip the switch in the postseason by becoming the best defensive squad out of all the playoff teams in 2018.

This version of the Warriors is on track to become even more of a sieve than last year’s. With a defensive rating of 109.3, they are currently ranked 16th in the entire league. With efforts such as the one shown in the clip below, it’s not surprising to see why that is the case.

Miscommunication on switches, such as the one shown above by Shaun Livingston and Jordan Bell, can lead to wide open jumpers for someone like Tobias Harris, who is shooting 44.1 percent on pull-up two-point shots, according to Second Spectrum tracking data from NBA.com.

The Warriors should be able to defend that kind of action easily, and they normally do not hit a snag in terms of communication. That sort of thing should be second nature to them by now — but the lack of focus and a seemingly increasing penchant for falling asleep has been the culprits behind their recent habit of falling behind early to opponents.

Another point of concern for the Warriors’ defense is DeMarcus Cousins. He seems to have found his groove on offense, finishing with a line of 25 points, 8 rebounds, and shooting 9-of-15 from the field. That end of the floor is slowly becoming less and less of a problem for the big man — the other end, however, is a different story.

Teams have picked up on the fact that Cousins is a huge liability in the pick-and-roll. Even before his Achilles injury made him less mobile and more prone to being targeted, Cousins wasn’t particularly a good perimeter defender. His slow feet and lumbering frame made him more effective down low, where he could use his strength and size to stifle other big men in the post.

But in a world where schemes forcing mismatches is the norm rather than the exception, Cousins is extremely vulnerable to being drawn out toward the perimeter, and in danger of either being blown past by quicker and more agile opponents, or being slow to contest a three-point shot after needlessly helping one pass away, as shown in this clip.

With Joel Embiid being out for the Sixers, Cousins was forced to guard more mobile stretch bigs such as Jonah Bolden and Mike Scott, both of whom are capable of using their three-point shooting to stretch the floor. In his rookie season, Bolden is currently shooting 32.8 percent from three-point range, a respectable rate for a center. As shown in the clip below, Bolden stations himself in the corner, and when the ball gets kicked out, Cousins is forced to close out on him, leading into a drive that results in a three-point play.

In this sequence, Cousins gets drawn into the paint by T.J. McConnell’s foray into the paint. With Bolden stationing himself once again in the corner, Cousins sticks to McConnell for way too long, allowing Bolden enough space and time to knock down the three. Cousins tries to contest, but he is simply too slow to bother the shot.

Here is another Bolden three courtesy of a slow close-out from Cousins. He pays too much attention to the strong-side ball-handler, which is enough time for the ball to be skipped toward the weak side and into the hands of a trailing Bolden.

Cousins was also victimized by Scott, who is shooting 40.2 percent from three-point range for this season. A more astonishing statistic is his 45.2 percent clip on threes in eight games as a member of the Sixers. With that in mind, one could see how Cousins would have trouble with defending a bona fide stretch five like Scott, like what happened in this sequence, where Cousins fails to account for Scott in transition, leading to a wide-open three.

Here is another three from Scott, who sets the screen for Ben Simmons and pops out toward the three-point line after doing so. Cousins inexplicably tries to help Bell on Simmons’ drive, leaving Scott all alone to bury the shot.

Another case of Cousins drifting a bit too far away from Scott, who catches the pass and shoots another three over the attempted close-out of Cousins.

To Cousins’ credit, he would have one good defensive sequence against Scott. Cousins manages to reach Scott before a shot can be put up, which forces him to put the ball down and try to get past Cousins inside. But the big man shuffles his feet and denies Scott a clear path inside, forcing him to pass the ball into the thieving hands of Draymond Green.

That steal by Green was one of three by the former Defensive Player of the Year against the Sixers, all achieved in the fourth quarter. During an inbounds play, the Warriors do an excellent job of covering their assignments. Kevin Durant does not give up ground to his man, and a bad inbounds pass by Simmons falls into the hands of Green, leading into free throws for Durant on the other end.

In this sequence, Green not only does a great job at quickly switching to J.J. Redick, but also gets his hands on the ball shortly after the hand-off, when Redick does not have full control of the ball and is more vulnerable to a steal. Plays like these are a testament to Green’s extremely high defensive acumen; when he is focused and locked in, there is arguably no better defender in the world than him.

Green was also involved in the final defensive play of the game, where he and Durant closed in on Tobias Harris’ three-point shot. Green and Durant do an excellent job of not allowing Harris space upon the catch, forcing him to step on the line for an out-of-bounds violation. If there is such a thing as a clutch, game-winning defensive play, then this would be a shining example.

The Warriors, as they have shown plenty of times before, were able to ramp up their defensive intensity at will, turning on the proverbial switch and clamping down on the Sixers well enough to eke out a close win.

But as has been pointed out before by several parties, this kind of basketball procrastination treads a dangerous line, especially if it manages to carry over into the playoffs. Furthermore, there is the concern of Cousins’ viability in crunch time situations to address.

As expected, Cousins was taken out during the last four minutes of the game, with Steve Kerr opting to put Green in as the small-ball center in a lineup that has more defensive versatility. It’s clear that Kerr puts more trust in his Hamptons 5 lineup, as he should — it is a proven formula, both empirically and statistically. Per Second Spectrum data, the Warriors have a defensive rating of 97.6 with the Hamptons 5, as opposed to a defensive rating of 116.5 with their five All-Star lineup — that is a ginormous difference.

However you want to label it — as a doubled edged-sword, as the elephant in the room, etc. — Kerr will have to manage playing time in the playoffs like he never has before. Cousins will have his uses against certain teams like the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose big men are more traditional paint/low-post bangers. But against teams like the Houston Rockets, Cousins will have his work cut out for him defensively.

The last thing the Warriors need in their attempt to turn on the switch in time for the playoffs is confusion and misunderstandings. Although Cousins has been doing a lot of good for the team, his deficiencies can certainly throw a wrench into the Warriors’ well-oiled machine.

Sixty-three down, 19 more to go.

Stay Golden, Dub Nation.

*All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com