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The Golden Breakdown: How the Warriors’ defense sealed Game 4 over the Clippers

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In danger of another game slipping from their grasp, the Warriors put the clamps on the Clippers down the stretch, flashing their top defensive form on their way to a commanding 3-1 series lead.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Four Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

At around the 3:57 mark of the 3rd quarter of Game 4 between the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers, the Warriors had just allowed the Clippers to come back from a double-digit deficit to take a 3-point lead. The usual problems for the Warriors resurfaced as the main culprits for their 3rd quarter malaise — a lack of defensive intensity and urgency, as well as mind-numbing turnovers that allowed the Clippers to capitalize on mistakes and translate those turnovers into points.

One such turnover came during this possession, where Kevin Durant struggles to control his dribble against Montrezl Harrell. Durant eventually loses the ball, leading to a fastbreak situation for the Clippers. Harrell sprints toward the rim and gets rewarded for his defensive stop on Durant with a dunk of his own, putting the Clippers up 82-77 — their largest lead of the series so far.

After Steve Kerr’s timeout to halt the Clippers’ momentum, the Warriors realized the immediate danger they were in. They were only two games removed from perhaps the biggest playoff debacle in their 5-year dynastic run since the 2016 NBA Finals. They have experienced being ridiculed and made fun of on social media by the legions of critics and detractors, who take joy in seeing them bleed profusely.

They knew that no matter what happened, they would eventually win the series — but another loss against a team that was supposed to have no chance against them would give them another layer of embarrassment to carry with them for the rest of this playoff run.

The Warriors’ proverbial switch needed to be turned on, for lack of a better non-cliché term. And after that timeout to slow down the bleeding, the Warriors would go on a 36-22 run to close out the game, thanks to the Warriors dialing up their defensive intensity just enough for their offense to overwhelm the Clippers.

After the timeout, the Warriors would go on an 8-0 run to retake the lead over the Clippers. With a 3-point lead after Curry buries 2 free throws, the Clippers’ defense is forced to deal with another Curry-led offensive possession. At this point, Curry had been struggling offensively — but it did not take away from his effectiveness on the floor.

A high pick-and-roll with Kevon Looney allows Curry to penetrate, drawing multiple defenders onto him. Gravity allows Curry to kick the ball out to an open Andre Iguodala on the left wing, who buries the three to tie the game at 82-all.

The Clippers fail to break the deadlock, and the Warriors gain an opportunity to retake the lead. Curry pulls up for a three that misses, but Alfonzo McKinnie gets the offensive rebound. This allows Curry to reload, with his stepback jumper giving him enough space to bury the three over Landry Shamet.

The Warriors then force two straight defensive stops to prevent the Clippers from regaining momentum. With Shamet on the floor, the Clippers have a legitimate catch-and-shoot sniper capable of making deficits disappear with a flick of his wrist. The Warriors are well aware of that — Green and Looney seamlessly switch on a pick for Shamet, allowing Looney to contest the jumper and forcing the miss.

After Curry misses the three on the other end, a long rebound allows the Clippers to have numbers in transition. Green is left all alone to defend 2 players. The ball is passed to Wilson Chandler, who aggressively challenges Green. However, Green lives up to his reputation as a one-man wrecking crew on defense.

With an 87-84 lead entering the 4th quarter, Kerr brings out a lineup consisting of Shaun Livingston, Klay Thompson, McKinnie, Iguodala, and Andrew Bogut — not exactly a lineup capable of explosive offense. With Thompson as the only reliable source of points in this lineup, it was clear that Kerr was counting on them to hold the fort on defense until both Durant and Curry re-enter the game.

With the lead down to 1, Thompson’s individual brilliance shines in an otherwise stagnant offensive possession. With two defenders in front of him — and the shot clock winding down — Thompson pulls up for a three and buries it.

On the other end, Iguodala is covering Lou Williams, who uses a Harrell screen to break free for a catch-and-shoot jumper. But Iguodala does a great job of fighting over the screen to barely get a hand in Williams’ face and forcing a miss.

On the other end, Thompson goes up for a heat-check three, but misses. However, McKinnie sneaks behind the ball-watching Clippers defenders, who forget to box him out. He easily grabs the miss and puts it in for the bucket.

Keep your eyes on Thompson in this possession. He only touches the ball once before relinquishing it, proceeding to use his off-ball gravity to take his defender around for a loop. As the sole offensive threat in this lineup — at least in the Clippers’ perspective — Thompson’s movement parts the Clippers’ defense like it was the Red Sea. Iguodala is being overplayed by his defender, allowing him to cut inside, receive the well-placed bounce pass from Bogut, and turn back time with an explosive dunk.

With Durant coming in for Iguodala, Thompson is assigned to guard Williams. Thompson tracks Williams down, trailing behind him and contesting his shot from behind without making contact. After the shot misses, Durant brings the ball down and sees Thompson matched up against Williams on the right side. Thompson takes advantage of the mismatch, turning around and shooting over the shorter Williams for the mid-range bucket.

Again, watch Thompson’s off-ball movement in this sequence. He uses Bogut’s pin down to attract two defenders onto him, leaving Bogut — who has elected to slip the screen — all alone to receive the pass and the easy layup.

Thompson once again does a great job on Williams in this sequence. Williams tries to drive to his right, but Thompson sticks to him, using his large frame and excellent fundamentals to go straight up without making excessive contact. Williams’ layup falls short, and the Warriors get another crucial stop.

McKinnie displays excellent two-way play in these sequences. A deflected pass toward the corner still finds its way to McKinnie, who drives along the baseline and knocks down a floater. On the other end, a switch forces Williams onto McKinnie, who does an excellent job of stifling his drive, staying put on the ground and not biting on Williams’ pump fakes, and forcing him to give up the ball to Gallinari, whose shot misses.

Bogut fouls out of the game on a Williams shot attempt, which allows Kerr to reinsert Curry and Iguodala into the game to complete the Hamptons 5 lineup that will close the game. After a timeout, the Warriors execute an ATO play using their split action.

With the low post entry pass to Green, Curry initially sets a back screen for Iguodala. The Clippers switch this, and the action flows into a Durant screen for a Curry curl. The Clippers don’t switch this, with Curry’s defender electing to fight over the screen. Durant’s defender gives him an open cutting lane, which he takes advantage of. Green whips the pass to the cutting Durant, who throws down the dunk.

Another excellent display of defense by the Warriors translates into instant offense. Iguodala and Thompson are guarding Williams and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, respectively. When Williams is denied a clear scoring path, he relegates the responsibility to his rookie teammate.

Thompson himself does an excellent job of stifling Gilgeous-Alexander. Eventually, Curry gets switched onto the larger rookie. Despite being at a size disadvantage, Curry proves strong and durable enough to smother the rookie, who is forced to pass to Gallinari. His shot attempt is well contested by Iguodala, who immediately leaks out after the contest. After getting the rebound, Durant whips the pass to the streaking Iguodala for the fastbreak dunk.

In this sequence, Williams is targeted and completely denied by the Warriors defense. Iguodala makes the professional scorer’s life difficult — even with Curry switched onto him, Williams finds it extremely hard to get past the weakest defensive link in the Hamptons 5.

When Harrell receives the ball at the left elbow, Green drops and allows Harrell, a non-shooter, some space. Excellent ball denial prevents Williams and Patrick Beverley from bailing Harrell out of no-man’s land. Finally, Harrell decides to take it inside against Green, who stands his ground and draws a charge.

On the other end, Durant brings the ball down for what seems like an isolation sequence. Iguodala comes up and sets a screen for Durant, who threads a pocket pass to Iguodala on the short roll. Usually, it is Green who is the short roller, but the roles are reversed: Iguodala as the decision maker on the short roll, and Green as the recipient. A 2-on-1 situation is created, with Iguodala passing the ball to Green, who tips in his own miss under the basket.

After a missed shot by the Warriors, Williams tries to ramp up the aggression by driving inside. He attempts to draw a foul by initiating contact with Iguodala, who does an excellent job of staying with Williams without falling prey to his foul-hunting ways. The shot misses, with Curry getting the rebound and ramping up his aggression by splitting the defense, driving inside, and putting the ball high on the glass for the finish.

To effectively seal the game, Durant smothers another Williams drive to the rim. Using the entirety of his 7-foot frame and his freakishly long arms, Durant denies Williams a clear look at the rim. Williams is forced to pass out of this dead end, but the pass finds its way to Curry’s hands for a turnover.

On the other end, Curry almost turns the ball over himself, but the ball fortuitously finds its way back to his hands. He passes out of his predicament, with Durant receiving the ball and pulling up for the three that virtually puts the Clippers down for the count.

The final haymaker, however, comes courtesy of this play, where Shamet is “top-locking” Curry to deny him the three-point line. This results in an overplay, allowing Curry to cut backdoor, receive the pass, and drop the ball to Durant, who goes up for the wide-open dunk.

In contrast to the Warriors’ Game 2 performance, where they turned on cruise control and eventually put themselves into a car wreck of a situation, the Warriors sensed danger early and regained control of the game. For all of the offensive talent on their roster, it is their defense that often puts their opponents in a choke hold — an apt metaphor for what they inflicted upon the Clippers during the 4th quarter.

The Warriors’ 4th quarter defensive stats: a defensive rating of 100.0; holding the Clippers to 35.3 percent shooting from the field; and allowing only 21 points for the entire quarter.

Furthermore, Williams was specifically targeted by the Warriors defense — he finished with only 12 points on 2-of-10 shooting from the field (20 percent) and 1-of-4 from beyond the arc (25 percent). Combined with Harrell, who was also rendered ineffective for most of the game, the duo scored 22 points, their lowest output so far for the series.

While the Warriors’ offense was a big part of their victory — led by Thompson’s 32 points on 6-of-9 shooting from beyond the arc, and Durant’s 33 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists — Doc Rivers begged to differ when asked what caused his squad to have difficulties against the Warriors.

Like the old adage says, offense wins games, but defense wins championships. This game is but a stepping stone to a championship, but the Warriors are making the most out of every step along the way.

Three wins down, 13 more to go.

Stay Golden, Dub Nation.