Poole — going into the game while in the midst of a debilitating shooting slump — finally found his stroke. He put up 31 points on 21 shot attempts, including a 7-of-16 line (43.8%) on threes and 70.8% True Shooting, easily the most efficient scoring performance of his young season.
On a night where Stephen Curry wasn’t performing up to his elite standards, Poole took the offensive reins early and kept the Warriors offense afloat. He scored almost at will against a Hornets defense that ranked 27th in non-garbage-time defensive rating (112.5) going into the game.
Such defensive mediocrity played into Poole’s hands through a variety of scoring means. He took his man off the dribble, using his quick burst and shifty handles to freeze defenders on the spot, go all the way to the rim, and score over a team that has virtually nonexistent rim protection, mostly due to their fondness for playing small lineups.
Other times, Poole was an off-ball dynamo who was beyond the processing capabilities of the Hornets defenders. On two-man games, wide down-screen actions, early offense ball-screens against drop coverage, and corner shots that punished roll-man tagging and helping one pass away, Poole did maximum damage.
On a particular possession, Poole took the Hornets around for a loop... literally.
The Warriors ran their pet “Ram” screen action above, but with a variation: a “Loop” action that involves staggered baseline screens, a progression that caught the Hornets off guard. Draymond Green setting a hard screen on two defenders helps, as well — Poole is set loose for the open three.
Poole had been shooting 24.3% on threes going into the game; with the way he was shooting in preseason, there was bound to be an aggression to the mean. He finished the night by increasing his three-point percentage to 30.2%.
Sooner or later, the shots would start to fall in. Fortuitously, they fell in on a night where Curry had an off game, apparently due to not feeling too well.
“Steph has been under the weather the last couple of days and clearly was not himself,” Steve Kerr said. “He still almost came out of the game with a triple-double because he’s Steph, but Jordan really picked up the slack especially in that first half when we couldn’t get much going offensively, so he was great.”
With Poole setting the tone on offense in the early stages of the game, the Warriors defense was able to function as a collective, limiting the second-best offense in the league to 92 points on 37.4% shooting from the field, including an effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) of 42.9%.
The name of the game for the Warriors defense was engendering inefficiency through limitation of movement, minimizing defensive breakdowns, and timely rotations and plugging of holes. They forced the Hornets into shots they wanted them to take; in particular, they forced the Hornets into a plethora of mid-range looks (12-of-32).
During Kevon Looney’s minutes on the floor, the Warriors emphasized drop coverage combined with “ICE” defense, which involves forcing ball-handlers against the sideline and denying them the use of ball-screens, funneling them toward the dropping big and forcing mid-range jumpers.
The Warriors’ switch-everything scheme with a smaller lineup — that is, without Looney on the floor — also forced inefficiency. Switches were timely, while point-of-attack defense was sharp. It was a rare sight for any Hornets player to blow by their man.
Such was the quality of the Warriors defenders, who moved their feet, kept their hips fluid and mobile, and kept their assignments in front for as much as possible, which minimized the possibility of overhelping.
If there were any concerns about the Warriors’ point-of-attack defense this season — mainly due to losing on-ball stalwarts such as Kelly Oubre Jr and Kent Bazemore — this showing against the Hornets may have laid those to rest. The peskiness and doggedness at the point of attack that Oubre and Bazemore provided last season may have been sufficiently replaced — and arguably improved upon.
Gary Payton II was relentless as an on-ball defender. Virtually every ball-handler assigned to him — whether by design or through a switch — had to deal with his quick hands that seemed to evoke a magnetic effect whenever the ball came close to it.
Quick lateral movement allowed Payton to keep up with his assignments.
But his contributions weren’t limited to the defensive end. Payton finished with 14 points in 17 minutes of playing time. He wasn’t treated as an offensive threat by the Hornets defense — more of an afterthought — but he thrived on the margins, cleaning up stagnant possessions and missed shots.
He snuck behind enemy lines. The Hornets’ glaring lack of box-outs allowed Payton to grab offensive boards and put-backs.
Payton’s off-ball equity was also on display. He leveraged the defense’s ignorance of him through timely positioning and cuts. He feasted off of the massive attention that the likes of Curry and Poole commanded.
Payton has seen a relatively limited amount of time on the floor this season. He has mostly been used as a defensive specialist, tasked to hound opposing lead ball-handlers in order to coax turnovers. But the game against the Hornets was the first time he was given extended minutes — minutes that were well-earned.
“(Payton) dominated the game while he was out there and just changed everything with his defense, his activity, and three steals,” Kerr said. “He is just an electric athlete. It’s hard to stand out on an NBA floor athletically because all those guys, it’s the world’s greatest athletes, and he jumps off the page when you see him out there.
“Think about how hard he’s worked to get to this point. Just clawing his way to a roster spot. It’s taken him about five years of bouncing around the league we’re all just thrilled for him. He deserves this.”
The sample size is small — but during Payton’s 55 minutes on the floor this season, the Warriors have limited opponents to 91.7 points per 100 possessions, and have outscored opponents by a whopping 23.4 points per 100 possessions, per PBP Stats.
Payton’s efforts — as well as the entire team’s — have now garnered them the designation of being the stingiest defensive team in the league, with their 97.1 defensive rating slightly edging the Miami Heat’s 97.9. Their culture and identity of being a connected defensive unit is carrying over from last season, where they finished 5th in defensive rating.
That culture, combined with an offense that will hopefully finish much higher than 20th, could very well garner them a place among the elite of the Western Conference. That will take a collective effort on both ends of the floor. Some will have standout performances on certain nights, while others will have their moments to shine.
Against the Hornets, Payton stole pretty much everything that he could get his hands on — the ball in opposing ball-handlers’ hands, or defensive rebounding opportunities. But the most important thing he may have stolen tonight was the spotlight, an opportunity five years in the making — but one that is well deserved.