If there’s a lesson to be learned from the Golden State Warriors’ 111-107 close-shave win over the Boston Celtics, it’s that looking at the box score — particularly, the defensive efficiency — isn’t always indicative, nor does it provide a complete contextual picture of how a team played defense.
Excluding end-of-quarter heaves, the Warriors coughed up a defensive rating of 110.3 against the Celtics — far above their league-leading standard of 100.5 points allowed per 100 possessions heading into the game. Some of that can be attributed to the Celtics’ shot-making, while some of it is due to rare defensive breakdowns — emphasis on “rare,” because the Warriors have been nearly perfect this season in terms of connectedness and communication.
The Warriors, for the most part, were well connected and laser focused on defense against the Celtics, who are one of the more confusing teams on offense (107.9 points per 100 possessions, 20th in the league heading into the game) despite having the likes of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on their team. The lack of secondary actions and progressions, especially when it comes to off-ball/weak-side movement, is glaring.
Which plays right into the hands of the Warriors, who feast on stagnation and lure opposing offenses into low-quality shots.
The first defensive possession that stood out came from rookie Moses Moody, Jordan Poole’s replacement on the starting unit. Moody isn’t able to replicate Poole’s role as a secondary shot creator and playmaker, but what he lacks in terms of offensive firepower, he compensates for with defensive poise and maturity.
Peep his defense on Brown on the possession below:
The scheme for this particular possession against Brown calls for Moody to “Ice” the screen — that is, jump in front of the screen to deny Brown from using it, forcing him sideline and funneling him toward Kevon Looney, which forces a reset.
Moody trusts the defense behind him and allows Brown to stroll to the rim, all while trailing close by. Moody’s trust is rewarded — Looney goes up for a vertical contest, which allows Moody to block Brown from behind.
The Warriors’ offensive interchangeability has been an oft-praised trait — the numerous amount of high-IQ playmakers and operators on the team allows Steve Kerr to mix and match his personnel, with little-to-no drop-off experienced when he subs out particular players for different ones (with the exception of Stephen Curry, of course).
But I would argue that the Warriors’ defensive interchangeability has been their stronger suit this season. Missing the services of a defensive stalwart such as Andre Iguodala over the past two years has made the Warriors highly dependable on Draymond Green to act as the anchor and defensive floor general; without him on the floor, they have had to be precarious with their defensive personnel.
With Iguodala’s return, the Warriors’ flexibility in terms of substituting particular defensive personnel for others is widely expanded. At 36-years old, Iguodala isn’t the spring chicken he once was anymore — but he retains the intelligence and know-how of playing team defense.
With Green off the floor, Iguodala capably plays the role that Green has become quite renowned for:
Track Iguodala on the possession above. He plays the role of a “free safety” in defense, similar to how Green roams the floor, ready to help on any disadvantage situations that may arise: closing-out, shadowing, switching, etc.
The Warriors in rotation, while rarely beaten, does need the presence of someone who can help whenever someone is beaten on a close-out, or beaten off the ball through cuts. Iguodala plugs holes whenever holes pop up — a role he has proven capable of playing in the past, and one that he’s continuing to play well, even as he has become the team’s elder statesman.
Even with Iguodala playing the role of a Green doppelganger, nothing beats the original. Green’s intelligence on defense is an astounding sight. His floor awareness is unmatched; he is cognizant of everything that’s unfolding around him, and almost always never misses a beat.
Green lures offenses into thinking they have an opening, only for him to shut that opening off in an instant:
With Green “splitting the difference” on the weak side in the possession above — that is, acting as the lone zoner covering two defenders on the weak side — he gives the impression of helping on the Marcus Smart drive in order to lure the pass to the wing. Once that pass is made, Green turns on the jets, closes out hard, and blocks Josh Richardson’s shot, leading to a cherry-pick dunk on the other end.
Later on in the game, the Warriors are in need of another clutch defensive possession with the game on the line. As such, the Warriors insert Green, Iguodala, Looney, Andrew Wiggins, and Gary Payton II, in the hopes of forcing a crucial stop that will put the Warriors in the driver’s seat.
The possession above is a masterclass in switching and timely help. Peep at the first off-ball switch between Wiggins and Payton, followed by a late Wiggins switch and sink against Robert Williams III, which cuts off a potential drop-off pass. Green then passes off Brown to Iguodala on the wing to help on the Tatum drive, which forces the pass out to Brown.
Iguodala then closes out on Brown, who attacks off the catch, straight into the helping arms of Payton. That, in turn, allows Iguodala to sneak from behind and strip the ball from Brown, forcing the turnover and completing the beautiful defensive dance.
Iguodala has proved himself to be clutch in the past, and he didn’t disappoint against the Celtics. He continues to provide value despite the decline of his raw production — he shoots an abysmal 16.1% on threes, and is shooting 36.5% overall from the field.
But with the chips on the line, or rather — to use a more appropriate figurative situation — with the fate of the universe on the line, we all know who we want stepping up.