The Golden State Warriors were outscored by 10 points in the third quarter, against a Cleveland Cavaliers team playing in the second game of a back-to-back. They were without several of their key players in Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen, Collin Sexton, and Lauri Markkanen.
The Warriors’ vintage third quarter failed to materialize, and the reasons were clear. The blitzkrieg that put away many opponents in the past amounted to nothing more than a mere whimper; they scored 17 points and were outscored by 52.6 points per 100 possessions in a quarter where they averaged 30.6 points and were outscoring opponents by 33.9 points per 100 possessions — both league-leading marks.
Entering the fourth quarter with a 13-point deficit, Steve Kerr fielded a lineup of Stephen Curry, Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Otto Porter Jr, and Nemanja Bjelica — a lineup previously unused by Kerr. But the rationale behind such a lineup is quite obvious: Lee (37.5%), Porter (38.6%), and Bjelica (42.1%) are all above-average three-point shooters.
Having bona-fide shooters surrounding Curry is a mutualistic arrangement. An elite offense has the ability to force defenses to have to pick between several poisons — and Curry, the most toxic poison of all to opposing defenses, is made more potent when he has options surrounding him.
Porter had an open look that he failed to drill, much to the relief of the Cavs defense. Curry draws an extreme level of attention at all times, especially on baseline drives such as the one above, where he draws three defenders — including the one defending Porter at the top of the arc.
Spacing can often be the key to Curry’s success, although it is by no means the main driver of his individual greatness. He is more than capable of self-creation as an isolation player in one-on-one situations. But every now and then, Curry needs a spaced floor for him to operate at his individualistic best.
As often as teammates get the best looks of their career when Curry’s on the floor, Curry also benefits from the pull of teammates who are spacing threats themselves.
Curry’s drive and layup is the star of the possession above, but peep at Porter in the strong-side corner, Lee in the weak-side corner, and Bjelica on the weak-side slot. Their respective defenders are non-committal with helping on Curry’s drive, afraid of giving up an open look. As a result, Curry strolls through the lane for the easy layup.
But if help does come on a Curry drive, the investment the Cavs commit in order to stop him in his tracks is crippling. Helping off the corners, stunting at the nail on drives, and throwing out traps often mean someone else is left wide open. Curry is used to defenses committing manpower to halt his rhythm and momentum — and as such, he knows who is left open and finds them.
Curry’s back-cut in the possession above is made possible by the Cavs “top-locking” him in an effort to furiously deny him from getting the ball — but in an ironic twist of fate for the Cavs defense, their efforts to deny him a touch result in him getting an open cutting lane, which ends up in him touching the ball anyway.
Panic ensues — as it always does when Curry is on the floor — and Kevin Love must help off the corner, enabling Lee to cut baseline and make himself available.
Lee’s presence was much needed in the fourth quarter. He benefited on the margins: as a cutter who never stopped moving, such as on the possession above and on another one that was also made possible by the Cavs’ ultra-paranoia of Curry:
And as a spacer, who made himself available on the weak side as a kick-out target:
Curry drawing two on the ball leaves Bjelica open in the possession above, which compromises the backline defense. Love is slow to recover toward the driving Bjelica, who finds Lee open on the weak side for the three.
While Curry’s pull helped his teammates find opportunities for themselves and for each other, it was ultimately Curry — finishing the night with 40 points on 27 shots, 6-of-11 on twos, 9-of-16 on threes, and 72.9% True Shooting — who took matters into his own hands.
Half of his 40 points came in the fourth quarter alone. As usual, his nature as a perpetual motion machine took the Cavs defense around for a loop. Fatigued legs from playing the second night of a back-to-back may have been a factor for the Cavs, and against an elite endurance athlete such as Curry, it dearly cost them.
On the defensive end, the Warriors placed the Cavs into complete lockdown, allowing only 8 points in the entire fourth quarter on 2-of-14 shooting, 0-of-7 on threes, and 6 turnovers that were turned into 15 points by the Warriors.
While variance did play a part in the equation — the Cavs missed some shots that were there for the taking — the stingiest defense in the league managed to stamp their class by making the proper adjustments.
Two, in particular, stood out the most.
Darius Garland’s dynamic nature as a scoring lead guard troubled the Warriors for most of the night. With the ball in his hands, he was able to blow past defenders at the point of attack and all to the way to the rim, while also possessing the confidence to pull-up for threes.
While he was able to get a couple of scoring possessions in the fourth quarter, Garland’s offensive output was held to a mere 5 points on 5 shots. The name of the game for the Warriors defense was ball denial; in doing so, Garland’s rhythm was effectively disrupted, and his touches were limited.
Peep at Toscano-Anderson overplaying and denying Garland on the possessions above. He fights over the down-screen and eliminates the possibility of a catch-and-shoot three in the first clip, while he cuts off the potential pass from Love to Garland in the second clip by getting a hand in the way of the passing lane.
The second adjustment on defense: taking away Love’s open looks on pick-and-pop possessions.
The Warriors were burned for the majority of the game on screen-and-pop possessions involving Love, who is shooting just 20.7% on threes this season on 3.6 attempts per game but decided to reignite his floor-stretching ability against his old rivals.
An example of Love being left wide open:
Love’s shooting is the perfect counter to what the Warriors did above: “ICE-ing” the ball-screen, or forcing the ball handler toward the sideline and denying him the usage of the screen. Love simply parks himself beyond the arc after setting the screen and gets an open look.
In order to take away his open looks, the Warriors started switching ball-screens involving Love, thus eliminating the space he requires for his shots and altogether discouraging him from taking such shots.
The Cavs run down-screen action for Garland above, blown up through switching between Toscano-Anderson and Draymond Green. Green takes Garland, while Toscano-Anderson “peel” switches onto Love and crowds his space, forcing him to back Toscano-Anderson down.
Love is forced to become a passer instead of a shooter, an outcome justified when his pass is picked off by Curry.
The Warriors were able to rally past the Cavs using the principles of space: having plenty of it around Curry and also using the space generated by Curry himself to free others around him, while also limiting the space the Cavs offense had to work with through ball denial, switching, and crowding the passing lanes.
A championship contender knows how to adjust in the face of adversity, knows which strings to pull, and uses the full might of its depth to complement its superstar on both ends — all of which the Warriors managed to accomplish in their win against an old rival.