There’s an interesting trend going on with the Golden State Warriors.
In only four games into the regular season, we’ve seen how resilient this Warriors team has been. All of them have involved the Warriors surrendering a halftime lead — with a subsequent comeback leading to a hard-fought win at the end.
Of course, the ideal scenario would be to not dig themselves a halftime hole in the first place. The Warriors, despite being undefeated at 4-0, are far from being a finished product, far from the well-oiled machine they are striving to become, one that could earn them a respectable finish in the Western Conference standings.
In three of those four games, the aforementioned trend is seen when you look at their defensive efficiency. Against the Los Angeles Clippers, they allowed a first-half defensive rating of 126.9; against the Sacramento Kings: 124.0; and against the Oklahoma City Thunder: 118.0.
Those numbers drastically go down after half-time. During the second halves of their three games against the aforementioned teams, the Warriors defense emerges from its hibernation and transforms into an entirely different entity. Their defensive ratings reach elite levels: 98.0 against the Clippers; 88.2 against the Kings; and 81.3 against the Thunder.
Warriors vs. Clippers— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) October 27, 2021
1st half DRTG: 126.9
2nd half DRTG: 98.0
Warriors vs. Kings
1st half DRTG: 124.0
2nd half DRTG: 88.2
Warriors vs. Thunder
1st half DRTG: 118.0
2nd half DRTG: 81.3
But why are the Warriors digging themselves a hole to start games? On the defensive end of things, there have been several instances of a failure to contain dribble penetration and an overall difficulty to stay in front of individual assignments. This was apparent against the Kings, who got into the paint almost at will.
Lack of passable point-of-attack defense, combined with virtually nonexistent rim protection, allowed the Kings to wantonly pressure the rim. Two notable perpetrators were Davion Mitchell and Tyrese Haliburton, the Kings’ rookie and second-year player, respectively, who used a combination of athleticism and craftiness to generate a multitude of advantages and points.
It all starts at the point of attack. If one cannot contain, the pressure is transferred over to the backline defense; in these situations, it’s common for them to be disadvantaged numerically, positionally, or an unholy combination of both.
Mitchell and Haliburton took it to the Warriors in the first half:
But in the second half, the Warriors adjusted through a shrewd combination of scheme variability and improved connectivity. They switched between different coverages and schemes; on some possessions, they would stick to man-to-man and switch every screening action, counting on improved point-of-attack defense to stagnate possessions and force inefficient shots.
On other possessions, they would change it up entirely. On the possession below — taking place after Luke Walton calls a timeout to draw up an after-timeout play (ATO) — the Warriors render Walton’s plans ineffective by throwing out a 1-2-2 matchup zone, forcing the Kings to have to shelve their set and find a way to stretch the defense.
Which they failed to do:
The willingness to give opponents different looks has been a common theme so far throughout this season. This particular iteration of the zone — a 1-2-2 to discourage and limit dribble penetration and force outside shots — has been deployed in all of their four games so far.
Failing to overcome an entrenched defense is often due to inefficient offense, and the Warriors have largely forced inefficiency from all of their opponents so far. The Kings, after blitzing the Warriors with an effective field-goal percentage of 64.4% in the first half, were limited to 54.1% in the second half.
The Clippers were also severely limited in the second half of their game against the Warriors: 41.2% eFG in the second half, after putting up 62.1% in the first.
Against the Thunder? The same pattern emerges: 62.5% eFG in the first half, 34.5% in the second half.
The pattern of a flat start turning into a soaring finish was present against the Thunder. Dribble penetration led to shots at the rim, which consisted 38% of the Thunder’s shot profile in the first half. The Warriors allowed a blistering 11-of-15 clip at the rim against the Thunder, who had near-complete command of the matchups at the point of attack.
This led to an overall balanced shot diet. Complementing the Thunder’s paint attack was a steady stream of perimeter shots created from rim pressure. They shot 7-of-16 on threes during the first half, some of them against a scrambling and compromised Warriors defense.
The perimeter stopping power was virtually non-existent:
But the second half against the Thunder, as it was against the Kings, had a more concerted effort from the Warriors defense. Their heavy usage of the 1-2-2 matchup zone had the Thunder suddenly struggling to generate dribble penetration, which in turn forced them to take shot attempts the Warriors were willing to live with.
The outcome of an NBA game can often be predicated on which end of the floor has control of the other: Can an offense manipulate and bend the opposing defense enough to break it? Or will the defense influence the offense enough to engender impatience, inefficiency, and frustration?
The Warriors accomplished the latter in the second half:
The Warriors limited the Thunder to only 11 shot attempts at the rim during the second half, with only 5 of them going in. In return, the Warriors mounted their own assault on the rim on the other end, in an effort to increase the pressure on a Thunder defense intent on selling out on Stephen Curry, in an effort to disrupt his rhythm and throw him out of sorts.
Curry had an “okay” game: 23 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists, on 43/44/100 shooting splits and 67.3% True Shooting (TS). Being face-guarded by a defensive hound such as Luguentz Dort throughout the game, Curry relatively had limited scoring windows and opportunities.
He used his magnetic pull on several occasions to get his teammates going, notably in terms of opening up the rim for paint attacks. It helped Andrew Wiggins during one particular possession.
The Warriors use Curry as misdirection; they give the Thunder the impression of running “Motion Strong,” a staggered-screen action for a man in the corner. The Thunder place their full attention toward Curry — but are then caught off guard by a sudden secondary action.
Wiggins, stationed in the left corner, “face” cuts against Josh Giddey and catches him off guard. There is no help behind Giddey — mostly because the “help” in this case, Darius Bazley, is preoccupied with the faux action being set for Curry. That gives Wiggins license to attack the defensively limited Giddey, who fouls Wiggins on his way to the rim, giving up a bucket plus the free throw.
It was one of several instances of the Warriors’ rampant rim aggression. Wiggins, when determined and focused, has the downhill juice to just about have his way against anyone at the rim, which can put an enormous amount of pressure on defenses.
Case in point.
Wiggins gets a switch onto Giddey and blows past him. The rest of the Thunder defense collapses inward, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander “sinking” toward Draymond Green to cut off a potential drop pass.
That opens up the weak-side corner, where Andre Iguodala is stationed. Wiggins kicks it out to Iguodala, who subsequently drills the corner three.
The sample size is still small, but the Warriors’ penchant for rim pressure is paying dividends, opening up shots on the perimeter like the one above for Iguodala. Per PBP Stats, 37.0% of the Warriors shots are at the rim — fourth in the league, and blowing away last season’s rim attempt rate of 28.6% (21st).
Combining increased rim pressure with an emphasis on minimizing effective opponent rim pressure has given the Warriors an early 4-0 foothold within the Western Conference, a statement start out of the gates that is evoking plenty of bullish sentiment about their season.
There is still a lot of work to be done — namely, not having to be placed in a position to have to come back from a halftime deficit, and extending the level of play in second halves to the entirety of the game. But the positives are still noteworthy. The Warriors, with players who didn’t fit in last season, are now inundated with depth, collective buy-in, and a dogged toughness that has become the hallmark of their early season perseverance.
Keeping a healthy balance of bullishness and wariness is the sound approach when it comes to monitoring the progress of this team. Nevertheless, such progress is something that should be watched with great interest.