The Golden State Warriors started out their preseason finale against the Portland Trail Blazers looking extremely flat.
Preseason doesn’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things, but perfectionism to end the preparatory phase would’ve established a semblance of momentum going into the first game that really mattered — especially when that first game is against the prohibitive Western Conference favorites.
The offense didn’t hum like it did during the last couple of games. The defense wasn’t a tightly run ship. Perhaps the effects of a night out to watch the San Francisco Giants’ defeat to the Los Angeles Dodgers took their toll on some of the Warriors’ players. Whatever the case, the Warriors failed to pay heed to the nitty-gritty details that made them look like world beaters (if that world existed solely in the context of no-stakes basketball).
And all of a sudden, after a certain period of time had passed, something just clicked. Perhaps they realized that they were playing against a Blazers team without their superstar, a mid-game epiphany of sorts. We are much better than they are, with more tools at our disposal and a system that is nigh unstoppable with everyone fully committed to it.
A Stephen Curry explosion notwithstanding — he finished with 41 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 assists, on 57/50/80 shooting splits and 74.8% True Shooting (TS) — the Warriors started dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s. It was this penchant for paying attention to details that started to pay dividends, not just on the offensive end but also on defense.
The Warriors mostly do not run a predetermined offense. They rely on read-and-react actions, secondary actions that are “Plan Bs” for when the initial options are well covered, and on-the-fly options that are presented to them depending on what look defenses give them.
But there are certain pet plays the Warriors run that typically follow a highly linear course. Such plays are the ones mostly scouted by opposing teams. A combination of good scouting and good defensive personnel mostly nullifies these linear progressions. But every once in a while, coaches put certain wrinkles within established set plays in order to fool scouting reports.
There was one such example against the Blazers:
The set play above is a normal end-of-quarter set for the Warriors, but they seem to be more keen on running it as a called play throughout the game. The added twist of having the initial off-ball screener screen for the weak-side wing instead of curling around a down-screen himself is a testament to the flexibility and penchant for misdirection the Warriors often have. Details like these are typically missed upon casual viewing, but are often the ones that contribute to the overall winning picture.
On the defensive end, such details often come in the form of off-ball defense. Most of us usually pay attention to on-ball point-of-attack defense, which is a crucial component especially when it comes to pick-and-roll defensive schemes.
An example is Andrew Wiggins on this possession:
While not having the best offensive preseason — 9.3 points on 35/22/64 shooting splits isn’t ideal — Wiggins has mostly retained his sharpness on defense. Being a capable point-of-attack defender, which entails being able to navigate around ball-screens, sticking to your man, and using your length to force misses or block shots, allows scheme versatility — and part of why Draymond Green in the clip above was comfortable in dropping back to take away a potential pass to the roll-man.
The best example of the off-ball-defense component is a possession that involves near-flawless weak-side zoning and “X-out” principles. But that possession wouldn’t have been possible if Curry didn’t do this to set it up:
Curry being the “low man” in the possession above — the weak-side helper who steps up to rollers and any sort of paint penetration — allowed him to draw the charge on Jusuf Nurkić. Curry sacrificing his body in the preseason draws plenty of bated breaths and pounding hearts, but the effort is certainly admirable.
The progression makes more sense when you realize that it set up this particular defensive sequence:
Again, Curry steps up as the low man in an effort to draw another charge on Nurkić. But trying to avoid another turnover, Nurkić stops his roll short and kicks out to the weak-side wing. Jordan Poole is the weak-side zoner, “splitting the difference” between the weak-side wing and the corner.
What comes next is a perfect execution of “X-out” principles. Poole closes out to the wing, while Curry behind him correctly anticipates the swing pass and closes out toward the corner, which runs the corner man off the three-point line. Poole then recovers to contest the mid-range jumper.
These possessions, when taken into singular and isolated contexts, are good examples of how being detail-oriented can garner a team points, or can take away points from opponents. Combining these isolated contexts and turning them into habitual patterns is a recipe for a team that can hang in there with the best of the best.
Seeing the Warriors be this sharp and crisp when it comes to execution of offensive plays and defensive schemes is an encouraging sign, even if it is still preseason. This is the ideal, a vision of the ceiling the Warriors can achieve if they maintain their attention to detail with little-to-no drop-off.
Maintaining this level of detail can be tough, especially as the dog days of the season approach and other factors such as fatigue and injury come into play. Some days will be better than others, and some of the warts will surface.
Those are inevitable; how the team responds to such problems will determine their standing at the end of the regular season.