If there was a tried and tested maxim that was true for these Golden State Warriors, it was most certainly this: What happens in the regular season, stays in the regular season.
During the 2017-18 regular season, the Warriors encountered the first signs of weariness, symptoms of a malaise caused by an apparent boredom and impatience of a team itching to skip the regular season and fast forward straight to the playoffs.
Last year’s regular season couldn’t have gone any worse for the Warriors, who dealt with several injuries to their roster as well as stumbling down the stretch run with a 7-10 record to cap off their final 17 games leading into the playoffs.
It was apparent in the way they fell off defensively. During the 2016-17 season, the Warriors had the 2nd best defense during the regular season, with a defensive rating of 103.4. In the 2017-18 season, that rating dropped significantly, finishing the season at 11th in the league with a rating of 106.8.
Talks of the Warriors’ eventual demise started off as whispers, but they grew louder and louder with every disappointing display. On the other hand, there were certain contingents who wholeheartedly kept their faith in the Warriors’ ability to turn on the switch in time for the playoffs, and their faith was rewarded.
During the 2018 playoffs, the Warriors were the top team in terms of defensive rating at 101.8, which played a significant part in winning their second straight Larry O’Brien trophy. It was proof for everyone to see: This team had the ability to disintegrate their opponents at a mere snap of their fingers.
They had the power to completely overwhelm their opponents. They had scorers and shooters who were able to take advantage of space to create instant offense. More often than not, they had presence of mind to maintain an even keel. Time was often on their side and often under their control, and they were able to make their opponents feel like they were running out of it. There was plenty of heart and soul to go around the team, acting as the heartbeats and engines that allowed them to push through adversity.
All of them combined served to create one harsh reality for the rest of the league: When fully focused and determined on both ends of the floor — especially on defense — this team is nigh impossible to defeat.
This season, they displayed a similar tendency for falling asleep on defense, with a defensive rating that finished 11th in the league (108.5). Despite this worrying trend, the majority chose to shrug their shoulders at this development. They witnessed what the Warriors were capable of doing during the playoffs. The logic was sound: Why worry about this team during a largely meaningless regular season, when they’ve proven they can ramp up their effort and intensity when it really matters?
The answer to that rhetorical question came in Game 5 against the Clippers. Up 3-1, and needing only one more win to send themselves to a second-round showdown with the Houston Rockets, the Warriors flat out failed to keep their focus contained to the immediate moment.
Perhaps they focused too much on their upcoming tango with their fiercest Western Conference rivals. Maybe they looked too far ahead to the lions on the horizon, without heeding the jackals in front of them who were nipping at their heels. They failed to give proper respect to a team that respected their reputations enough to disrespect them on the court.
The Warriors’ offense wasn’t the problem – they finished the night with 121 points, shot 15-of-39 from beyond the arc (38.5 percent), and had an offensive rating of 124.7. They went 10-of-16 on threes in the first half, before they experienced a monumental regression to the mean by shooting 5-of-23 in the second half.
Their offense might’ve sputtered a tad bit in the second half, but it was mainly due to their sense of desperation, their effort to not let the game get too out of hand. A small sense of panic overcame the mindset of scoring singles rather than going for home runs. The Warriors kept shooting and missing jumpers, when they should’ve tried to wear down a defense that, on paper, had no chance of locking them down.
The Warriors took 11 jumpers (from at least 19 feet) after the Clippers picked up their fourth foul in the quarter— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) April 25, 2019
They weren’t supposed to be in this desperate position, if not for another display of leaky and uninspired defense. The Warriors allowed the Clippers to run amok on offense — shooting 54.1 percent from the field, 38.2 percent from beyond the arc, and an astronomical offensive rating of 131.6 (which was also the Warriors’ defensive rating).
Often outshined by their bench squad, the Clippers’ starting unit finally broke out of their offensive rut. Patrick Beverley scored 17 points on 5-of-11 shooting on threes (45.5 percent), while almost singlehandedly outhustling the Warriors on the boards with his 14 rebounds. Danilo Gallinari scored 26 points, while JaMychal Green chipped in 15 points on 3-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc.
But in the end, it was the highly-explosive bench duo of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell who came in and served as the one-two punch that put the Warriors on the canvas. Williams (33 points on 12-of-19 shooting) and Harrell (24 points on 11-of-14 shooting) combined for 57 of the Clippers’ 59 bench points.
Once again, the Warriors could not find an answer to the individual scoring brilliance of Williams, nor could they find ways to stifle the energy and hustle of Harrell near the rim. On more than one occasion, the Warriors found themselves unable to defend the pick-and-roll, letting Williams drive to the rim to score, or letting themselves fall prey to Williams’ foul-hunting ways.
In some instances, the Warriors could’ve done a better job at impeding Williams’ drives to the rim, most notably not letting him drive to his right, which is his preferred mode of attack. In other instances, they defended him as well as they could possibly have, yet his pedigree as a professional scorer led credence to a classic basketball adage: “Good defense is defeated by better offense.”
Despite that, the Warriors still had several instances of defensive lapses, mistakes that a more focused and locked-in version of themselves would not have made. Even the smartest defensive players on the team commit head-scratching mistakes from time to time, like in this instance, where Andrew Bogut, along with Andre Iguodala, tries to trap Williams, leaving Harrell to roll unguarded toward the rim.
Notice Klay Thompson hesitating to switch onto Harrell, since he would be leaving Landry Shamet alone in the corner. This allows Harrell to easily go up for the dunk without any impediment in his way.
When Stephen Curry lets Shai Gilgeous-Alexander penetrate past him, it forces Kevon Looney to step up to the rookie, leaving Harrell alone to receive the pass for the dunk — which is helped in huge part by the absence of help defense to rotate onto the uncovered Harrell.
Harrell’s hustle and effort on the offensive board also did not go unnoticed. Here he is, boxing out Kevin Durant to tip in his teammate’s missed layup.
And as he has done many times before during the season and to the Warriors, Harrell links up with Williams for a bucket. He slips the screen and manages to find the exquisite pocket pass Williams threads in between two defenders. The collapsing defenders are hapless and unable to stop a monster Harrell jam.
These were a few instances of the Warriors completely collapsing on possessions and losing their cohesiveness as a unit on defense. They still can be counted on largely to defend when they put their minds into it, which makes these breakdowns all the more frustrating to watch.
“It’s been a year where things haven’t gone exactly smoothly all the time, so I’m not surprised by anything,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “It’s the NBA Playoffs. This is a 7-game series and you gotta play, you gotta defend, have some urgency. We gave up 129 points on our own floor, and they shot 54 percent. We weren’t right.”
It makes one question if the Warriors are slowly losing their identity as a cohesive, championship-caliber unit. Perhaps they still are, and they have earned the benefit of the doubt until an opponent manages to grab 4 wins in a 7-game series against them.
“What’s the identity of our club? Back-to-back champions,” Kerr said in response to a question. “We’re really good. We’re hanging banners. What’s our identity? We play fast, we play defense.”
Steve Kerr asked about the identity of these Warriors: “Back-to-back champs...We hang banners.” pic.twitter.com/VHPL3AxkME— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) April 25, 2019
No one doubts the Warriors’ identity of being an elite defensive squad. Going into every single game this season, no one has questioned their capability of playing defense — it’s simply a question of if they will play defense.
Last year, they were able to prove that maxim true: What happens in the regular season, stays in the regular season.
In these playoffs so far, that hasn’t been the case. Thankfully, it’s still far from being too late to revert back to that identity.
Three wins down, 13 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.