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How the Warriors carved up the Timberwolves’ pick-and-roll coverages

Despite having an elite defensive center, the Wolves couldn’t stop the Warriors avalanche.

Golden State Warriors v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

There is a lot to admire about the Minnesota Timberwolves’ broadcast team. Color commentator Jim Petersen is one of the best in the business in terms of breaking down what’s actually happening on the floor. The entire broadcast is pretty much catered toward an audience that seeks to be enlightened about the Xs and Os.

While preparing for the Golden State Warriors’ game against the Wolves, this tweet I posted a month ago came to mind:

The fact that a local broadcast has an “Inside the Play” segment is pretty huge. With all due respect to the Warriors’ own local broadcast, nothing beats the Wolves in terms of educating its audience about their team as well as the opponents they’re facing.

But I wanted to focus on the segment above not only because of how brilliant the content is — what Wolves assistant coach Micah Nori had to say was also of particular intrigue.

Last season, the Wolves’ defensive scheme involved aggressive pick-and-roll coverages. With Karl-Anthony Towns, they were keen on bringing him up to the level of ball screens at the very least; occasionally — if the situation warranted it — they would have Towns aggressively hedge or outright trap ball handlers.

This would put a monumental load on the Wolves’ backline defenders — often facing a numbers disadvantage — to rotate and shore up as best they can until Towns could recover in a timely manner.

This scheme garnered the Wolves a defensive rating of 111.0 last season — around league average. Considering how they had a big-man anchor who isn’t particularly known for his defensive ability, being a league-average defense is a pretty respectable accomplishment.

But the Wolves wanted to be more than just a league-average defense, which was a huge reason behind their acquisition of Rudy Gobert in the offseason.

Gobert’s reputation among players and basketball fans isn’t high — but no one can deny the defensive impact he makes just by being on the floor. Going into the game, the Wolves were seventh in defensive rating (109.6), with a half-court defensive rating that ranked second in the league, per Cleaning the Glass.

With Gobert on the floor, the Wolves have been better by 7.8 points per 100 possessions on defense. He reduces opponents’ rim rate by approximately five percent, while opponents are 10 percent less accurate at the rim with Gobert patrolling the paint.

No matter what you think about Gobert, his presence on the floor has been paramount in keeping the Wolves defense afloat — something he’s also done during his previous stint with the Utah Jazz.

However, having Gobert on the floor isn’t a foolproof solution. There are exploitable holes in the schemes he’s involved in — not necessarily because of any inherent flaws he has as a defensive player, but because the scheme itself has weaknesses.

As explained in the video above by Nori, the Wolves are able to play drop coverage with Gobert, which keeps pick-and-roll possessions to a two-on-two endeavor without the need for the rest of the Wolves defense to be put in rotation. It’s a conservative scheme that aims to keep the ball contained and force inefficient shots.

Wolves’ drop coverage with Rudy Gobert

However, drop coverage requires two things:

  1. A big who can successfully contain both the ball handler and his own man
  2. An on-ball defender who can navigate and fight over screens to stay attached to the ball handler

Even with both of the above present, playing drop is a tricky endeavor, especially when the ball handler is a pull-up threat from beyond the arc. When that pull-up threat happens to be the greatest shooter of all time, it’s easy to see why drop coverage — no matter the personnel — isn’t the answer.

Even the Boston Celtics — a near-transcendent defensive squad last season with better defensive personnel across the board — found out the pitfalls of playing drop coverage against Stephen Curry.

As Nori explained in the clip above, the Wolves alternate between schemes depending on which big is involved in the pick-and-roll action. With Gobert, the Wolves primarily drop — and that has consequences against someone like Curry.

With Towns, the Wolves have primarily opted to stay with last season’s coverage: mainly screen-level meet ups to discourage pull-ups and force ball handlers to think twice at the very least and give up possession of the ball at maximum.

Wolves’ screen-level meet ups with Karl-Anthony Towns

But Curry’s transcendent nature as an on-ball offensive threat has reached a point where he has effective counters for every coverage thrown at him. When Towns goes up to meet Curry at the level of the screen, the Warriors — perhaps the most experienced at carving up a disadvantaged backline defense — do what they do best:

A team that is nailed to one or two defensive coverages is at a massive disadvantage against the Warriors. The way to beat a team that has such a dynamic offense — led by a dynamic offensive weapon and an energy-bunny playmaker — is to excel at multiple coverages.

But personnel dictate a team’s ability to play multiple coverages. One can’t switch freely if there are no switchable personnel to be had. One can’t play drop if there is a dearth of capable screen navigators. Aggressive coverages such as screen-level meet ups and hard hedges/doubles are risky without having a backline defense that can survive when placed in rotation.

Even if all-of-the-above conditions are met, there’s just no concrete solution against someone who transcends defensive coverages:

The Warriors run an early offense staple: “Wide” action (their terminology for this is “Quick”). Curry draws two around the screen — certainly more aggressive compared to what Gobert and Towns did in the clips above.

This opens up an opportunity for Jonathan Kuminga to “45-cut “(cutting at a 45-degree angle from the wing) to the paint. Once Kuminga gets into the paint and touches the ball, he immediately fires off a touch pass to JaMychal Green at the dunker spot, finishing the possession off of an advantage created by the Wolves’ aggressive coverage on Curry.

The next offensive possession involved the same action — but the Wolves, not wanting to be burned again by doubling Curry, literally switch it up:

With Naz Reid switching onto him, Curry takes him off the dribble, gets into the paint, and finishes the layup.

The Wolves are typically a sturdy defensive unit — but that has mostly been against traditional and homogenous offenses. The Warriors are anything but traditional; when every other team zigs, they buck tradition and opt to zag.

Their movement on offense, their ability to downsize and play fast, and — most important of all — having Curry on your team to destroy all sorts of coverages go a long way. They torched the Wolves by scoring 137 points, hanging a 131.7 offensive rating, and displaying mastery both in the half court (120.4 offensive rating, 94th percentile) and in transition (170.0 offensive rating, 91st percentile).

Curry is on pace for the best offensive season of his career. Draymond Green is playing like a possessed man. Klay Thompson is finding his groove — he’s up to a 66-of-165 clip on threes for the season, which translates to 40.0% on nearly 10 attempts per game. Andrew Wiggins is making a case for another All-Star selection.

Everyone else around them is starting to flaunt collective cohesion. The Warriors are above .500 for the first time since a home win against the Miami Heat. This may be the start of a form more akin to their championship-winning ways.

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