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The defensive miscues of the Warriors’ all-bench lineup

A crucial first-half stretch forced the Warriors to play catch-up the rest of the way.

Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

At the 2:31 mark of the first quarter against the Denver Nuggets, Steve Kerr sat Stephen Curry for Donte DiVincenzo. This marked the completion of a second-unit lineup consisting of DiVincenzo, Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, JaMychal Green, and James Wiseman.

This was the very first defensive possession the lineup faced:

The end result is DeAndre Jordan obtaining deep post position against James Wiseman — too deep for Wiseman to deter, especially against a wily veteran. DJ knows how to be patient; he bumps Wiseman to prevent any sort of contest and goes up for the dunk.

But what preceded the result was more intriguing.

Out of the baseline out-of-bounds (BLOB) set, the Nuggets have DJ set a wide pindown for Christian Braun, in what is essentially an empty-corner screen-and-roll. Jordan Poole is caught up in DJ’s pick; as a result, Wiseman is left all alone to virtually defend a 2-on-1. He discourages a shot from Braun, but Braun makes the smart play and passes it off to DJ, who subsequently scores.

This possession came around a minute later. See if you can find a correlation:

It’s essentially the same action as the first clip: an empty-corner ball screen without the presence of help from the strong-side corner. Just like Poole, DiVincenzo runs into DJ’s screen, freeing up Bones Hyland for a mid-range jumper he virtually strolls into since Wiseman is in a deep drop.

The possession above is a bit of an anomaly in terms of coverage choice. The Golden State Warriors under Steve Kerr have typically preferred to “ICE” these side ball screens. “ICE” is the term for when the on-ball defender jumps in-between the ball handler and the screen, in an effort to deny the usage of the screen and prevent middle penetration. This “no-middle” concept has been the backbone of the Warriors’ overarching defensive ethos for the better part of their dynastic run.

But when DiVincenzo does “ICE” the ball screen in a subsequent possession, Hyland finds another way to score:

Most of this is scoring ingenuity from Hyland — in other words, tip of the cap to him for finding a way to kiss the ball off the glass. But to nitpick slightly, it could’ve been defended better. Wiseman is worried about a potential dump off to DJ, but that’s why Jonathan Kuminga is helping on the roll by “tagging” or touching DJ. It would’ve been better if Wiseman was focused on stopping the ball and discouraging a shot from Hyland.

Hyland scores on a near-identical possession — except this time around, there’s no screen:

DiVincenzo does his job — he forces Hyland against the sideline and funnels him toward help. Trust is important when it comes to backline defense; DiVincenzo trusts that someone behind him will rotate and help on the drive. JaMychal Green initially shows help but is afraid of a pass to the strong-side wing, so he hesitates.

Ultimately, the help must come from Wiseman. Again, he is too worried about a dump off to DJ at the dunker spot — but peep at Kuminga already “sinking” in against DJ, which should give Wiseman license to show early help.

Instead, the help comes a beat too late, and Hyland scores on another layup.

Another attempt at an “ICE” from DiVincenzo is countered by DJ abruptly flipping his screening angle — not once, but twice:

When Hyland gains control of middle ground, this is where JaMychal must come in. Jeff Green — located on the weak-side wing/slot area — has been a below-league-average distance shooter for his career (34%). His success rate on threes above the break last season was 32%, which would make one comfortable with leaving him momentarily open.

JaMychal shows help at the “nail” (middle portion of the free throw line) and virtually switches onto Hyland to cut off his middle penetration — this is called “next” coverage.

Naturally, Jeff is open one pass away. As the nearest source of help, JaMychal is more than entitled to help and then recover toward Jeff. Unfortunately, Jeff drills the three — a risk that didn’t pan out.

Probably the most damning defensive breakdown came at the end of the first quarter:

Most people will probably focus on Jeff being wide open in the weak-side corner for the three, but the breakdown occurs much earlier, at the point of attack. This time, it’s DiVincenzo who’s the culprit; he lets Hyland blow by with little resistance. DJ seals Kuminga in the lane (“Gortat” screen), while JaMychal — as the low-man — is forced to help off the corner to “trap the box.” Hyland perceives the wide-open corner and makes the pass. Too much room and time is given to Jeff, even for someone who shot a mere 31% on corner threes last season.

Up till the 8:49 mark of the second quarter — where Kevon Looney and Andrew Wiggins were finally reinserted — the all-bench lineup had a tough time trying to contain actions at the point of attack, resulting in the Nuggets outscoring the Warriors by 12 points during a near-6-minute stretch. Communication was nonexistent, hesitation reigned over assertiveness, and the aforementioned trust was either unjustified or lacking.

Kerr has some work cut out for him when it comes to seeing which second-unit combinations work and which don’t. Clearly, this iteration with Wiseman-Green-Kuminga as the frontcourt presents a multitude of problems, not just defensively but also as a unit that lacks the required spacing, resulting in ball handlers operating in virtual phone booths.

Poole took only five shot attempts and had four turnovers. Some of that can be attributed to a general lack of aggression, while part of it must be credited to the Nuggets’ improved corps of point-of-attack defenders in Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

A significant part of his struggles, however, may be plainly because of the space — or lack thereof — that he had to work with:

But the defense was more of a sore point. To illustrate the difference, look at how the tenor of defensive possessions changed when Wiggins was included in the second unit during the fourth quarter:

Another second-half change Kerr made was putting in Moses Moody, who made an immediate impact at the point of attack and in pick-and-roll defense:

Ultimately, the reality is that throwing out an all-bench lineup bannered by Poole isn’t a feasible path toward second-unit success, for a variety of reasons. The starters are composed of a higher caliber of players, so it’s expected that they’ll perform much better in terms of on/off metrics,

But for all of the starters to post positive plus/minus marks and the bench squad (with the exception of JaMychal) to put up negative plus/minus marks is telling. You don’t need to look at the numbers to know that having Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson on the floor is much better and more impactful.

Green, in particular, was a defensive maestro — nothing new and nothing shocking, but still a sight to behold.

On the backs of their starters and revamped second unit combinations, the Warriors outscored the Nuggets in the second half, 71-58. But a 70-52 first-half rampage by the Nuggets — buoyed by that crucial 6-minute stretch from the all-bench lineup starting from the late first quarter up till the early part of the second quarter — ultimately did the Warriors in.

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