The first: a loss is still a loss, and it is a loss that probably shouldn’t have happened, considering the Nuggets — even with reigning MVP and current MVP candidate Nikola Jokić playing — were severely depleted. The Warriors are currently a much deeper team than the Nuggets; this game was a wasted opportunity for them to extend their Western Conference lead.
The first half was a nightmare, with the Warriors turning the ball over nine times, scoring a mere 36 points with an offense that looked lost and discombobulated without Draymond Green’s direction and playmaking chops, and a leaky defense that struggled to find answers against Jokić in the low post. Jokić also had the requisite support from his skeleton-crew supporting cast. Will Barton had 17 points in the first half, while the Nuggets bench outscored the Warriors bench, 17-8. The Nuggets lorded over the paint, scoring 28 points inside.
The Warriors unsheathed every kind of defensive coverage against the Nuggets: man-to-man, switching, 1-2-2 zone defense. Even a box-and-one was employed against Jokić — which was either busted through high-low passes, or through perimeter shot making by the rest of the Nuggets, who shot 7-of-15 on threes during the first half.
Not only did the Warriors’ lack of offensive execution and verve play a part in their first-half lethargy; their lack of defensive tenacity allowed the Nuggets to build a seemingly insurmountable 24-point lead at the half.
As the second half began, it became clear that the Warriors defense had a couple of adjustments in mind — not just from a schematic standpoint, but also from an execution and effort standpoint. Jokić found it tougher to have his way down in the post due to well-executed doubles. Rotations were more crisp, with the Warriors defending beautifully on a string. Stops and turnovers were being translated into transition or semi-transition points, which are the most efficient form of offense.
The difference was apparent in how the Warriors’ defensive efficiency massively improved as the second half began. Their leaky defense and terrible energy during the first half resulted in the Nuggets to scoring 130.4 points per 100 possessions. But the Warriors plugged the holes and stopped the leakage altogether in the second half, allowing an extremely stingy 61.7 points per 100 possessions.
Warriors' defensive rating vs. the Nuggets— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) December 29, 2021
1st half: 130.4
2nd half: 61.7
Finished the game with an overall 95.7 defensive rating. Something to build off of going into Denver on Thursday.
Which brings us to the second truth: losses can be part of a learning process. The Warriors learned that even without Green to captain their offense and marshal their defense, they are perfectly capable of imposing their will — especially on the defensive end — against their opponents.
Double teaming Jokić
Jokić finished with 22 points and 18 rebounds, in what was an apparent display of dominance in the paint and the low post. Without Green — who has had notable success in the past in terms of defending Jokić in single coverage — the Warriors were hard pressed to prevent the Nuggets star from imposing his will and dictating offense.
As aforementioned, the Warriors tried everything in the first half — straight-up single coverage, zones, box-and-ones — but could not find an answer. It was then that in the second half that the Warriors finally found the solution: prevent Jokić from dictating things by simply getting the ball out of his hands.
Whenever Jokić started to back down in the post, the Warriors would send help from the weak side or from the nail, especially as the shot clock winded down. These late-clock doubles would place an immense amount of pressure on Jokić to make a decision — and while he’s an elite decision maker, speeding up his processing increases the chances of him making a mistake.
Coupled with sound backline decisions on some of these doubles, the Warriors were able to force turnovers or live with contested shots from non-Jokić Nuggets players. The pressure started to get to the Nuggets, who committed nine of their 15 turnovers in the second half. Jokić alone committed over half (8) of those 15.
Rotations and defending on a string
Along with trying to force the ball out of Jokić’s hands as much as possible, the Warriors were able to return to arguably their best defensive trait: defending on a string. Strong chemistry, connectedness, and a culture of accountability are the roots that have allowed the Warriors to be near flawless when in rotation.
Where other lesser teams give up after a couple of swing-swing passes on the perimeter, the Warriors are dogged in their pursuit of stops. Helping the helper is a huge aspect of their ability to be crisp and confident with their rotations.
Weak-side zoning/splitting the difference, disciplined but aggressive close outs to force tough shots or run shooters off the line, low-man help-side rotations to relieve teammates who have been beat on back cuts, and the requisite “X-Outs” to cover those who are left open — these are all team-defense principles the Warriors have nearly perfected whenever they are focused and laser sharp.
Turning defense into offense
Transition offense is the most efficient form of offense, mostly due to the prospect of facing a defense that is scrambling to get back to the other side of the floor. A team playing with pace can often catch an ignorant defense unawares — which necessitates the importance of getting stops and forcing turnovers.
The Warriors are far from the most efficient transition offense in the league. Per Cleaning The Glass, their 116.9 points per 100 transition plays ranks 24th in the league. But that also may not take into account their scores in semi-transition, or their buckets in the half court after obtaining a stop or forcing a turnover. In such situations, cross matching in transition can often garner them mismatches, which technically doesn’t count as transition offense, but still adheres to the principle of turning defense into offense.
The Warriors’ league-best 101.6 defensive rating is a product of multiple factors: forcing tough shots, preventing shots from being taken in the first place, forcing turnovers, and turning half-court possessions into stagnant and inefficient ones. In contrast to the first half, the Warriors were able to accomplish all of the above against the Nuggets.
Additionally, they were able to capitalize on the stops and turnovers they forced.
But despite the Warriors’ defensive improvement in the second half, their overall offensive execution cost them, up till the very end. Their 17 turnovers and the Nuggets’ 12 offensive rebounds hemorrhaged extra possessions, which ended up in the Nuggets having 11 more shot attempts than the Warriors.
Even more egregious was the fact that the Warriors were able to get to the line 31 times — but left 15 free throws on the table. A more successful night at the stripe may have more than covered for the three-point deficit.
The record books will state this as a loss, and it may be one the Warriors will look back on and point to as a defining moment when the factor of home-court advantage in the playoffs comes into play. But the lessons learned from this loss will most certainly be factors when the Warriors play the Nuggets in an immediate rematch in Denver on Thursday.
The defensive culture and tenacity are already there. All they will need is for the offensive efficiency — albeit, without its best passer, playmaker, and conductor — to complement them.