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How the Warriors built a near-impenetrable fortress against the Lakers

In just the first game of the new season, the Warriors already look sharp defensively.

Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

For the Golden State Warriors, Draymond Green has always been the defensive tone-setter.

No matter what anyone thinks of him at this point — his approval rating among Warriors fans may have reached an all-time low — what he contributes on the court is still undeniable. The well of knowledge and IQ in his brilliant basketball mind is endless; that knowledge has benefited the Warriors on many an occasion.

Even though the narrative of his offensive ineptitude dominated headlines throughout the 2022 NBA Finals, his impact as a defender was still hard to ignore; whenever Green was on the floor, the Warriors were 9 points per 100 possessions stingier on defense throughout the playoffs.

Contract uncertainty will become an underlying storyline. Green can respond in one of two ways: either he will play his behind off in an effort to prove to his team and the rest of the league that he’s still a worthy investment; or he will constantly remind everyone of the precarious tightrope he’s walking as a player whose future is uncertain.

There’s enough faith in Green’s history to believe that he will choose the former. A man who perpetually has a chip on his shoulder always has something to prove; the Warriors will only benefit from Green raising his level of play on both ends of the floor and doing his job properly.

Offense — particularly scoring — is altogether another topic; it’s the defensive end of the floor where Green is still undeniably elite. His contributions on that end range from the outwardly eye-catching, to the more subtle strokes of genius that typically seems unremarkable to most observers.

One of those unremarkable possessions occurred early in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers. It may seem nondescript, but Green set the tone on defense by simply knowing how to defend Anthony Davis:

The Lakers settle into their “Delay” set — the tell being that Davis, the center, is the ball handler at the top of the key. Out of Delay flows “Chicago” action, which is a pindown flowing into a dribble handoff (DHO). This is a common action that generates easy advantages and multiple options — in theory.

Green, knowing his personnel, ducks under the pindown screen since he isn’t at all worried about LeBron James’ shooting. When Davis goes up to hand the ball off to James, Green immediately switches with Kevon Looney — a big-to-big switch that is highly feasible, since switches between similar personnel are highly encouraged in the Warriors defensive scheme.

Green is familiar with Davis’ tendencies and has famously given him fits in the past; this instance proves to be no different. He pushes Davis as far away as possible to deny deep post position, then pokes away the entry pass to reset the possession.

As aforementioned, it was relatively nondescript and otherwise unremarkable. But it sent a message: The Warriors weren’t going to make it easy for the Lakers to score.

Some of the Lakers’ difficulties in generating efficient offense were of their own making. Possessions were often listless in the half court, with rarely anyone moving off the ball. Screens failed to set ball handlers loose downhill; if ever one did manage to get two feet into the paint, timely help from the weak side forced misses or altogether discouraged shots.

It’s no secret that the optimal scenario James operates in is with a spaced floor, with multiple shooters surrounding him. His individual brilliance allows him to pick at the weak links and chinks in the armor. But this Lakers roster isn’t one that provides him that luxury.

When James has Looney on him during another half-court possession, all he can muster is a pull-up mid-range shot that Looney contests:

The Warriors, who consistently cross their “t’s” and dot their “i’s” when it comes to game planning and preparation, know that the Lakers are starved for spacing. Peep at how they sent help against James, without any regard for his teammates on the perimeter:

The help coming from Stephen Curry is the one serving as a massive indictment of the Lakers’ spacing — and perhaps their roster construction. Curry eagerly helps at the “nail” (near the middle of the free-throw line), off of a notorious negative spacer in Russell Westbrook.

Green — trusting that Klay Thompson behind him will “sink” in to take Davis — prepares to “trap the box,” or help on the drive. James sees Green in help position and stops his drive, opting to pull up. Looney does an excellent job of staying in front and contesting.

Practically the same set-up happened in the third quarter — and the Warriors rinsed and repeated their philosophy on James isolations:

Davis also had a difficult time in isolation against a defense with near-impenetrable fortifications. With the floor heavily shrunk and the Warriors ready to send help from every direction, a largely stagnant half-court offense had no hope of succeeding.

Again, to illustrate the fortress that Davis had to deal with:

Even when the Lakers obtain a brief window of advantage, it’s quickly nullified — and once again, the culprit is glaringly obvious:

Davis runs a DHO with Lonnie Walker IV, intending to create an empty-corner-screen-and-roll situation. Curry gets caught up in the screen, which should place Green in a bind.

However, Andrew Wiggins sags way off of Westbrook and virtually switches onto Walker at the nail — typically known as “next” coverage. Once Walker kicks the ball out to the open Westbrook, Wiggins makes a controlled close-out toward Westbrook, who — as expected — misses the three.

Once more, the sore thumb sticking out for the Lakers is Westbrook on the weak-side slot. With all-world talents and one-man advantage generators in Davis and James, Westbrook is plainly a poor fit, especially without the ball in his hands. He isn’t willing to move off the ball, nor is he willing to even set screens for his teammates.

Whenever he does handle the ball, there are flashes of his old brilliance, especially in transition against a non-set defense. But it’s difficult to get a disciplined and intelligent defense on the backfoot. In half-court settings, Westbrook can’t generate advantages as easily as he once could.

As a result, the Warriors defense was all too willing to let him create in isolation:

One-game samples are small and aren’t indicative of how the rest of the games will turn out. The Warriors are considered an elite-tier squad, with a defense that was the second-best during the 2021-2022 regular season. But with two advantage creators in James and Davis who had trouble creating advantages — coupled with a star who just fails to fit with the other two at this point of his career — the Lakers were outscored by a gargantuan 25.1 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass.

There will be teams who aren’t as poorly built as the Lakers; they will give the Warriors more problems and more things to think about. But already being this sharp defensively — they had a defensive rating of 94.4, including limiting the Lakers to an 84.1 offensive rating in the half court — is a testament to continuity, consistency, and culture that is still intact, despite recent controversies threatening to tear it all down.

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