A couple of things have to be prefaced when it comes to looking at the Warriors’ newfound death lineup.
First: the Nuggets aren’t the best defensive team out there. They’re middling in terms of overall efficiency (111.5 DRTG, 15th). Their half-court defense leaves a lot to be desired (97.4 half-court DRTG, 21st).
A dearth of reliable on-ball defenders plagues them. You’d be hard pressed to name a premier point-of-attack guy on their roster; Austin Rivers is, by default, their best option, while Facundo Campazzo is a pest himself, despite the size limitations. Aaron Gordon has some equity as a switchable power wing.
After those three, it’s a significant falloff — which places Nikola Jokić in one huge bind, especially against a Warriors lineup that places a premium on perimeter scoring.
Discoveries are often a wonderful thing — and Steve Kerr’s latest lineup discovery of fielding a 5-man lineup of Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and Draymond Green has been no different.
Small-sample-size theater incoming, so take these numbers with a grain of salt: In 11 total minutes of time together against the Nuggets, the aforementioned quintet has outscored the Nuggets by a total of 29 points.
When you extrapolate it to per-100-possessions numbers, it’s even more mindblowing: a 204.3 ORTG (yes, you read that right); a 75.0 DRTG; and outscoring the Nuggets by a seemingly impossible 129.3 points per 100 possessions.
If you don’t believe me, here they are, courtesy of the NBA’s advanced stats page:
If you still don’t believe me (because you somehow thought I photoshopped the image above), look at the numbers yourself.
It’s utterly ridiculous, despite the small-sample size and their opponents’ obvious defensive shortcomings. But that’s been the case with a lineup that is replete with on-ball shot creation, shooting, playmaking, and enough defensive versatility to cover for the backcourt’s weaknesses.
It’s been a complete 5-in-1 solution for the Warriors, who didn’t have the best of starts against the Nuggets in Game 2. They fell behind by as many as 12 points, with Kevon Looney in early foul trouble, which put a hamper on the Warriors’ revolving-door strategy of Looney and Green taking turns in single coverage on Jokić.
Down by 8 at the 6:02 mark of the 2nd quarter, Kerr reinserted Curry and Thompson, which marked the first appearance of the aforementioned 5-man lineup in Game 2. On cue, the first offensive possession resulted in this:
It wasn’t the best execution of a half-court set, but they manage to make lemonade out of what was almost a lemon of a turnover. A freelance offense built on improvisation has always been the Warriors’ forte, and the possession above wasn’t any different.
A Thompson down-screen for Curry — a vintage off-ball-screening action between two of the greatest shooters of all time — results in two defenders going to Curry, and Thompson slipping the screen for a wide-open layup. A tale as old as time.
Even something as simple as an isolation post-up — especially against a mismatch — is hard to defend:
You wouldn’t want these kinds of shots to be a normal part of the diet, but when the situation calls for it (i.e., a Thompson mismatch against the smaller Monte Morris), these are tolerable.
What makes this tolerable in this instance is how the Nuggets can’t help on this mismatch. Helping off just about anyone — Green included — is asking to be poisoned by all sorts of toxins that are equally potent.
Much has been made of the Warriors attacking Jokić’s propensity to defend ball-screens at screen level (with a sprinkling of traditional deep drop, although for obvious reasons, that shouldn’t be an option). With this small lineup with Green at the 5, Jokić is forced to step up higher than usual — almost halfway between the arc and the half-court line.
Placing Jokić on the backfoot, forcing him to defend laterally, and doing it over and over is what Curry had in mind on these possessions:
Not every drive by Curry on Jokić resulted in a successful layup. On several occasions, Jokić has succeeded with screen-level contains that take away the danger of a pull-up, while also cutting off a lane to the rim. It’s what has made him a relatively successful defender in the pick-and-roll, despite his obvious athletic shortcomings.
But Curry is a different breed. Throw an aggressive coverage at him, and he finds ways around them. His partnership with Green is legendary, whether it’s on short-roll possessions that allow Green to dissect a disadvantaged backline, or on Curry relocations such as this one:
The fear that Curry places on defenses creates an enormous amount of pressure. When he tries to bulldoze his way to the rim again, the Nuggets stonewall his attempt — but at the expense of what’s lurking on the perimeter:
The possession above is also what happens when the Warriors force a stop and push the pace. The Nuggets are forced to match up with whoever’s the closest opposing player to them; peep at Jokić picking up Poole on the wing.
When Curry drives, the defense collapses. Gordon denies an open lane, but a last-ditch drop off to Green, followed by a swing to Poole on the wing, garners an open shot. Jokić is too deep inside and too slow to properly contest the shot.
Poole’s ascension as a three-level scorer has been paramount to the success of this lineup. Defenders are forced to crowd his space and close out hard in order to take away the threat of his shot.
Play him close, however, and he responds like this:
What’s allowing all of this freedom and efficiency on offense is the stopping power of this unit on defense. Curry and Poole aren’t an ideal backcourt pairing defensively — you can argue that this Nuggets team doesn’t have the personnel to take advantage of that fact.
But what can’t be denied is how the wing defense and overall versatility of Thompson, Wiggins, and Green are capable covers for whatever shortcomings there may be.
Wiggins, in particular, is thriving as a hardworking wing defender. Part of that is his reduced responsibility on offense; he doesn’t have to be counted on a shot creator, because Curry, Poole, and Thompson already provide plenty of shot creation. Wiggins can be an opportunistic scorer who plays off of the pull that such a trio commands.
Meanwhile, he can continue to defend on the perimeter, close out on shots, and do the little things:
An important stat regarding Wiggins isn’t his points total, nor is it steals or blocks — it’s his 17 rebounds in 2 games against the Nuggets (9 in Game 1, 8 in game 2). As the virtual 4 in this lineup, Wiggins’ effort on the boards has been tremendous. His box-out on Jokić in the second clip above is exemplary, leading to a nifty behind-the-back pass by Poole to a trailing Thompson.
Ultimately, the firepower of this small lineup — the shooting and creation chops of Curry, Poole, and Thompson — and the versatile wing defense and effort of Wiggins aren’t what makes this small lineup possible.
Every iteration of the Warriors going small — the classic Death Lineup and the Hamptons 5 — has been made possible by one undeniable fact.
Green’s ability to defend bigger centers, all while occasionally continuing his role as a roamer with an unlimited well of switching equity, has been the key to unlocking a concept that was once thought to be basketball insanity.
Green’s individual defense on Jokić continued to be sublime. The reigning MVP finished Game 2 with 26 points on 45/0/100 splits and 55.3% True Shooting. Zooming out to an overview of these 2 combined games, Jokić has scored a total of 51 points on 45 shots, with a 51.6% True Shooting mark.
And it’s mostly because of Green’s efforts:
Green makes up for the height disadvantage with deceptive strength, disciplined physicality, and a knowledge of his assignment’s tendencies. He puts pressure on Jokić’s lower base, makes it extra difficult to get close to the rim, and anticipates Jokić’s spin. He knows where the ball is going to be once Jokić finishes his spin, and manages to get a clean strip.
Curry’s legendary status as an offensive fulcrum helps a ton. Poole’s ascension as a dynamic scorer and playmaker has been a nuclear boost. Thompson regaining his old form has been key. Wiggins being the man on the margins deserves more praise.
But it’s Green who has been the keystone holding together this potent and historic combination.