A certain offensive possession in the first half was emblematic of the Golden State Warriors’ newfound collective IQ, passing equity, and intelligent off-ball movement. Born out of a typical low-post split action, one would easily assume that the Warriors’ trademark set is there for defenses to stop; opposing teams’ scouting departments must have a folder’s worth of these split actions on their hard drives.
And yet, there’s something about this action that still befuddles opponents.
The slipped screen by Damion Lee to catch Russell Westbrook off guard. The laser-precision pass by Nemanja Bjelica to the diving Lee. The “45” cut by Draymond Green to take advantage of a defense that is paying zero attention to him on the weak-side slot.
All of these components combined to form a motion-offense attack that nullified the blatant advantages of the Los Angeles Lakers: size, physicality, and defensive aggression.
But that wasn’t always the case. The Warriors struggled against such advantages in the first half. The Lakers used their overwhelming size and physicality on both ends of the floor. They posted up early and often on offense to generate a multitude of advantages. They used length and effort to run the Warriors off the three-point line and funnel them toward the rim, counting on rim deterrence to make the Warriors’ lives at the rim a living hell.
“We struggled with their size because we didn’t move the ball,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “The way to counteract size is with ball movement. (During the) first half, we didn’t handle their size well.”
No one had any illusions about this iteration of the Warriors being taken advantage of in areas where size is might: rebounding, paint scoring, etc. Having your tallest active player be a 6’10” stretch power forward who occasionally moonlights as a 5 is a recipe for long nights on the board and defending behemoths in the post.
Anthony Davis is one such behemoth. After Green was benched with two fouls in the first quarter, the unenviable task of defending Davis in single coverage was placed upon Juan Toscano-Anderson. Needless to say, Toscano-Anderson was in proverbial hell trying to stop a transcendent monster such as Davis.
The Warriors’ numbers after the first half were ugly. An offensive rating of 89.8 on 59 possessions spoke to their struggles with creating offense, forced by the Lakers’ insistence on being physical off the ball and using hard close-outs and blitzes to take away the Warriors’ newfound penchant for jacking up threes.
After averaging 53.2 threes in the preseason, the Warriors were on pace to shoot a mere 32 after the end of the first half. It was clear that the answer to the Warriors’ offensive woes had to come from a combination of one of their main offensive pieces having a second-half explosion and a collective reawakening of ball-movement principles that could stretch the Lakers defense thin.
Advantage creation was the key, which the Warriors used to unlock the potential of their newfound depth.
Self-creation possessions by Jordan Poole leveraged his ability to gain separation and space away from his defender. With Stephen Curry struggling from the field, Poole was counted on to pick up some of the scoring slack. While Poole displayed opening-night jitters in the first half, settling down in the second half did wonders for his production.
Poole punished subpar perimeter/point-of-attack defense. He feasted on defensive miscommunication — a botched switch/non-switch provided him an avenue to drive straight to the rim and finish with flair.
Targeting Malik Monk at the point of attack, Poole leveraged his ability to generate some north-south juice by taking Monk off the dribble. He used his penetrative zeal to draw the defense inward, leaving the corners open and lasering a pass to the open man.
The off-ball component of Poole’s offense was equally potent. Dubbed as a protégé of Curry’s, Poole has clearly shown the willingness to use himself as a perpetual mover and generator of chaos. His improved shooting on the move is garnering him increased attention from defenses.
Add in the element of a defender who has trouble with screen navigation — like Monk on the possession below, a “Chicago” action for Poole — and Poole will leave defenders in the dust and go all the way.
Poole — who finished with 20 points on 44.4% shooting from the field and 36.4% shooting on threes — provided the scoring juice to support the struggling Curry. Bjelica, meanwhile, provided the playmaking, some supplementary scoring, and the intangibles that are making him look like an apparent steal of an acquisition for the Warriors.
The Warriors offense can be a highly complicated puzzle with many pieces. We’ve all seen how the likes of Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kent Bazemore struggled to fit within such a puzzle. Without the requisite knowhow in terms of passing, cutting, and recognizing who the keystone of the entire puzzle is, players will be nothing but self-sabotaging hindrances.
Bjelica — who put up a 15-11-4 stat line on 6-of-7 shooting from the field — has been the polar opposite. He knows who butters the offense’s bread. He recognizes Curry’s stature as an offensive magnet and uses it to his advantage. He knows that by screening for Curry, he will garner several chances to create, whether on pick-and-pop possessions or as a passing hub against a disadvantaged defense.
The zenith of Bjelica’s ability to punish a thinly-stretched defense came on a series of possessions late in the fourth quarter. Kick-out passes to the corner and to the wing — helped by a crucial offensive rebound by Andrew Wiggins, and initiated by Curry drawing yet another two-man platoon of defenders — placed the cherry on top of a 121-114 upset victory.
An 89.8 offensive rating in the first half, during which the Warriors were outscored by 10.2 points per 100 possessions, turned into an offensive rating of 125.9 in the second half, during which the Warriors outscored the Lakers by a whopping 22.1 points per 100 possessions.
This was buoyed by a highly productive night from the Warriors bench, which handily outscored their Lakers counterparts, 55-29.
It may be premature to declare this performance by the roster as a revival of the classic dynasty Warriors depth, a “Strength in Numbers 2.0,” if you will. After all, there are still 81 games left to judge the sustainability and feasibility of this roster as presently constructed. But this victory against a top Western Conference powerhouse will evoke plenty of bullish sentiment.
It’s hard to deny the better fit that the likes of Bjelica and an improved Poole — along with other newcomers such as Otto Porter Jr. and returning mainstays like Andre Iguodala — provide. The Warriors’ offensive ethos — and by extension, Kerr and Curry’s offensive ethos — can be demanding, exhausting, and challenging.
But this roster seems eager and ready to step up to such a challenge.