The Golden State Warriors clinched their spot in the play-in tournament on Monday, and while that accomplishment pales in comparison to the achievements of the recent dynasty, it’s still a feat worth celebrating. The Dubs were always likely to sneak into the tournament off the sheer brilliance of Steph Curry’s offensive prowess, and the size of the two-time MVP’s shoulders, so there’s no real surprise there.
Yet while Curry is without a doubt the most valuable player on the team (and someone who will receive a fair share of league MVP votes as well) because of his offense, it’s been the other end of the court where the Warriors have punched their ticket to game No. 73, and made a strong case that they can do a little damage once they get there.
The Warriors have quietly ascended to the ranks of the league’s elite when it comes to defense. Their defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 110.6 is fifth-best in the league, per Cleaning The Glass, which eliminates garbage time minutes to present a more accurate figure.
That’s a strong number, and it has allowed the Warriors to have a winning record and positive net rating despite sporting a bottom-10 offense. But most importantly, it’s a number that’s been getting better as the season nears its conclusion, and the postseason starts peeking out from behind the couch.
In their last seven games, the Warriors defensive rating has dipped all the way to 101.9, second in the league. That’s been the facilitator for a league-best net rating in that time period, with the Dubs outscoring their opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions.
The usual disclaimers apply: the Dubs have had a friendly schedule during that time, and seven games is pretty small sample size — just under 10% of the season. Those disclaimers should keep us from proclaiming that the Warriors suddenly have historically great defense, but they shouldn’t stop us from recognizing that Golden State’s defense has taken a leap forward, not just in the last two weeks, but in the last month as well.
So what’s behind the steady rise in defensive abilities, which suddenly has the Warriors looking like a team that could scare a contender next week? Some of it is certainly the natural growth and evolution that you expect from a team with a lot of new faces. But beyond that, there are three easily identifiable facets of the Dubs defense that are clearly providing a lift at the perfect time.
Steady minutes for JTA
Juan Toscano-Anderson has impressed teammates, coaches, and fans alike all year, yet minutes were hard for him to come by for much of the season. He played in just seven of the team’s first 20 games, and averaged only 14.1 minutes in those contests.
His minutes were restricted for a variety of reasons. JTA’s two-way contract meant the Dubs could only use him in 50 games, a rule that was thankfully changed midway through the season. But he also found it hard to crack the rotation with James Wiseman and Eric Paschall — players the team had put a bigger investment into — healthy and playing lots.
Steve Kerr has referred to Toscano-Anderson as a “mini Draymond” so many times this year that I’ve lost count, and for a while it seemed that Kerr preferred to use JTA as a replacement for Draymond, rather than a complement.
Now everything has changed. The team has only one healthy center in Kevon Looney, and they’re playing small more often. Kerr feels comfortable playing Toscano-Anderson next to Green, and JTA has played so well that he’s become not just a part of the team’s current plans, but their future plans as well. His offense has evolved enough that the Dubs can play him for defense without it hurting the other end of the court.
In this six-game run, JTA is averaging 31.0 minutes per game, and the defense is thankful for that.
Addition by subtraction
Kerr has been open all year about the balancing act of trying to win now and develop players for the future. While he doesn’t deserve the amount of blame that fans on social media have been quick to dole out, even he would likely admit that it’s a line he hasn’t toed all that successfully.
It starts with Wiseman and Paschall. When healthy, Wiseman averaged 21.4 minutes per game, and Paschall 17.3. But both players have been out since early April, and the defense has shined because of it.
By just about every metric, those two have been the worst players on the team, and sinkholes defensively. It’s understandable: the former is a 20-year old rookie who missed training camp and plays the most important defensive position in the league. The latter is a second-year pro who still hasn’t figured out what position he is on defense, with neither the lateral quickness to slow wings, nor the height to handle bigs.
The simple fact of the matter is that Golden State’s defense performs dramatically better with those two off of the court, partially because of their struggles, and partially because of their replacements. With those two sidelined, Toscano-Anderson, Looney, and Kent Bazemore — arguably the three best defensive players on the team not named “Draymond” — have seen their minutes rise.
Meaningful games, meaningful Dray
Green rather infamously mentioned a few months ago that he “wasn’t motivated” by the concept of the play-in tournament. But now, with each game carrying added weight and meaning, Green is showing up in All-Star form for 48 minutes.
He’s not hiding from it either. Both he and Kerr mentioned after Monday’s victory that he struggles to get up low stakes affairs, and brings his best performances when it matters most.
It currently matters most, and we’re seeing him at a Defensive Player of the Year level. As a result, the team is thriving on that end of the court.
An elite defense plus the presence of Curry is enough to strike fear in nearly any playoff team. If the Warriors were going to access this level of defensive fight, the timing could not have been better.
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