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What went wrong? A close look at the Warriors’ 4th-quarter collapse against the Mavericks

Everything went wrong during their 21-point collapse

SFChronicleSports Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The final Warriors field goal before the Dallas Mavericks proceeded to shut their offense down for nearly nine minutes came from a run-of-the-mill split action.

You know the drill: post entry into a down-screen for Stephen Curry. The Mavs aren’t keen on switching the down-screen action; Josh Green shoots the gap and ducks under the screen to stay attached to Curry. Spencer Dinwiddie then leaves Otto Porter Jr. to trap Curry against the corner.

Curry has seen many traps come his way and has been a foremost expert at dealing with them throughout his career. This instance is no different.

Curry finds Porter, which forces the help from Davis Bertans. That leaves Jalen Brunson as the lone weak-side zoner, and Damion Lee makes the smart baseline cut.

It was lights out after.

The Mavs subsequently went on a 26-1 run. The Warriors wouldn’t score until an Andrew Wiggins drive to the rim at the 1:30 mark. The main talking point has been the Warriors’ failure to generate any sort of efficient offense, especially in the half court (78.2 half-court offensive rating — 11th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass).

The Warriors do shoulder the blame for failing to find a way to score, but we musn’t forget that the Mavs are the sixth-ranked defense in the league during non-garbage time, per Cleaning The Glass. Jason Kidd — someone with a previous reputation for not being a particularly effective head coach — has made huge strides as someone who instills a culture of playing hard defense.

The Warriors offense during the first half had no problems generating offense — a huge part of which was in transition after forcing misses or turnovers.

(Take note of the Warriors defense allowing a stingy 3-of-8 mark at the rim in the first half — we’ll return to that in a bit.)

Kidd doubled down on playing a small switchable lineup to start the fourth quarter, which has been a notorious Achilles heel of the Warriors’ motion offense. With Bertans as their five, the Mavs were content with switching as much screens — on and off the ball — as possible, which bled the shot clock and forced the Warriors to settle for inefficient self-created shots.

They didn’t switch every screen — the Mavs had their best defenders fight over screens if it was feasible — but regardless of how they did it, the overarching goal was to keep their man in front as much as possible to prevent breakdowns and to limit the Mavs from being put in rotation, which would give the Warriors plenty of opportunities to create advantages, something they were successful with during the first half.

Here are a couple of examples.

Q4, 7:36 mark

The Warriors call for a straight up split action with Jonathan Kuminga as the low-post hub, with Porter getting ready to set the down screen for Curry.

As expected of a team that expects a split action about to happen and is content with switching it, Green and Dinwiddie switch the down screen for Curry — which is made immaterial by Kuminga making a move on Bertans. He gets the drop step on Bertans, but the obvious hook by Kuminga gets him called for an offensive foul — which was his fifth personal foul of the night, and would nail him to the bench for the rest of the game.

Q4, 5:37 mark

The Warriors run a sideline out-of-bounds play (SLOB) in this possession:

Kevon Looney sets a high ball screen for Wiggins. Take note at how Dorian Finney-Smith and Bertans deal with it: they opt not to switch, but instead Bertans steps up to meet Wiggins at the level of the screen, which gives Wiggins enough pause till Finney-Smith can recover back toward Wiggins.

Also take note of Brunson, who “tags” Looney’s roll, then recovers back toward the corner when Bertans has safely recovered. With five seconds left on the shot clock, Wiggins is forced to self-create: a mid-range elbow jumper that bricks.

Q4, 4:55 mark

The Warriors seemed rudderless in this possession. It starts out with Looney setting a ball screen for Jordan Poole:

The Mavs switch the ball screen, with Poole getting the Bertans matchup. Poole doesn’t seem confident taking Bertans one-on-one and passes out to Looney. The Warriors audible into Wiggins running around Moses Moody’s down screen.

But Finney-Smith is more than capable of chasing Wiggins, navigating around the screen, and getting a hand up to contest another mid-range jumper.

Q4, 3:54 mark

The Warriors run another SLOB play in this possession, which starts out with a Curry “Rip” screen (back screen) for Gary Payton II:

The Mavs don’t fall for the back screen — which wasn’t solidly set in the first place. Reggie Bullock manages to stay attached to Curry, who opts to isolate; he goes for a tough fadeaway over a good contest by Bullock, instead of drawing out the possession to get a much better look.

Q4, 3:18 mark

The Warriors run their patented “Ram” screen action that flows into staggered down screens for Lee. But of note here is the lack of force and “oomph” behind this action, as if they were content with going through the motions:

Wiggins fails to set the first staggered screen, while Payton is able to make contact with Brunson with his screen, but Brunson is able to close out toward Lee anyway. They resort to a Wiggins low-post isolation, with Payton clearing to the weak-side slot.

Dinwiddie ignores Payton and springs the double on Wiggins, who passes out to Payton, who then finds Lee. With the shot clock about to run out, Lee throws up a three that misses — a shot the Mavs are more than willing to live with.

Q4, 2:30 mark

The Warriors call for a high ball screen for Wiggins in this possession. Take note of who the Warriors have on the weak-side corner:

The Mavs switch the screen — which, considering Luka Dončić is the one switched onto Wiggins, seems like a favorable matchup with which to go all the way to the rim. But Wiggins sees Dinwiddie helping off the weak-side corner as the low man and kicks out to the corner.

Dinwiddie helps off for a reason: he’s willing to give up a Payton three from the right corner, where he’s shooting 37.1% for the season on 35 attempts — 64th among 113 players who have taken at least 25 attempts from that area, per NBA.com. The gamble pays off tremendously, and it’s another empty possession for the Warriors.

While the Warriors offense falling apart — with lots of help from a stingy and effective Mavs defense — was the immediate scapegoat, there is a valid argument that the Warriors defense was equally culpable. It’s tough to initiate any kind of efficient offense if teams are consistently taking the ball out of the basket and are setting up against a set half-court defense.

Here’s where the Warriors allowing a 3-of-8 clip at the rim in the first half comes in — after halftime, the Mavs were allowed to go to the rim almost at will: 14-of-17 on rim shots during the second half. As always, it all starts at the point of attack — and unlike the Mavs defense, the Warriors defense was having trouble keeping their man in front.

Some of the noticeable breakdowns:

Defensive breakdown #1

The Mavs relentlessly targeted Curry on switches during the fourth quarter, whether it was with Dinwiddie on the possession below, or with Dončić when he eventually re-entered the game.

The breaking point in the possession above was Porter opting to stay in help position at the top of the key, which left Green open on the right slot. Green attacks Porter’s close-out and is virtually uncontested at the rim because of the general reluctance of helping off of the Mavs’ shooters.

Defensive breakdown #2

Here was a last-second breakdown that made the Warriors effort during the first 24 seconds of the possession moot:

The Warriors were defending on a string, shutting down driving lanes, and keeping their man in front. They had the Mavs against the corner and facing a potential 24-second violation — until a timely cut from Finney-Smith bails them out.

The culprit: a ball-watching Poole, who, as the weak-side zoner, was completely unaware of what was going on behind him. It was a microcosm of Poole’s night (4 points on a 0-of-7 clip from the field), who seemed disengaged throughout most of the night on both ends.

Defensive breakdown #3

This wasn’t a shot at the rim, but it was made possible through dribble penetration and overhelping, which has been a persistent problem throughout the season:

Peep a close look at Bertans and Wiggins on the weak side. Brunson is able to penetrate and get to the paint against Moody, which forces Wiggins to help off the corner. Bertans sets a sneaky pin-in screen that leaves Finney-Smith wide open for the three.

Defensive breakdown #4 and #5

These two possessions are closely related to each other despite different results. Both were made possible by the Mavs forcing Curry to switch onto Dončić:

A straight-up backdown by Dončić on Curry gets him an easy jumper in the first clip, with no one else on the Warriors willing to fully commit to help, afraid of leaving someone open for Dončić to target.

When the Warriors do commit to help on a Dončić mismatch, Dončić punishes them accordingly; the second clip has Wiggins helping off the strong-side corner — a defensive faux pas — which leaves Dinwiddie open for Dončić to kick out to.

The Warriors being burned by Dončić on switches made them all the more committed to not having Curry switched onto him, which meant having Curry hedge and recover back to his initial assignment and having Dončić’s primary defender recover in time to stay in front.

Which leads us to the final defensive breakdown:

Defensive breakdown #6

The Warriors almost force a turnover in the possession below, and they do an excellent job of bleeding the shot clock. But a last-second breakdown gives Dončić an easy layup:

The Mavs target Curry again; this time, Curry hedges and tries to recover toward Finney-Smith. Wiggins chases Dončić around the screen, but Wiggins fails to get in front of Dončić in time to prevent dribble penetration. Watch Finney-Smith set a screen on Curry to give Dončić a wide lane to the rim, with the help from Porter being too late to prevent the layup.

The Warriors led by as much as 21 points, but their inability to create looks on offense against a Mavs defense intent on stifling creativity, all while failing to contain a Mavs offense built to exploit weak spots relentlessly, comprised the anatomy of a team-wide collapse that has sent them back to the drawing board anew to look for solutions.