At the 7:54 mark of the 4th quarter, the Warriors were down by 16 points to the Utah Jazz. The usual problems on defense were plaguing the Warriors: lack of passable point-of-attack defense; overhelping — both forced and unnecessary — that led to corner threes; and losing the possession battle due to giving up offensive boards and turning the ball over wantonly.
The Jazz shoot the 3rd-most corner threes in the league. They’re just outside the top 10 in terms of accuracy, which is enough to respect their deadliness from that area. The Jazz feasted on a Warriors defense that was forced in rotation.
Rudy Gobert’s roll gravity played a huge part early on:
An empty side pick-and-roll becomes a re-screen pick-and-roll, resulting in Gobert rolling middle. Andre Iguodala pre-rotates into the paint to account for the roll; Gobert senses this immediately and kicks out toward the weak-side wing upon touching the ball. A final swing pass to the corner — and a non-X-out by Iguodala — results in a corner three.
Blown coverages also played a part:
At first glance, it seems as if Andrew Wiggins is at fault here. He allows Mike Conley to blow past him, forcing the low man — Draymond Green — to rotate away from the weak-side corner to prevent a layup, resulting in Conley kicking out to Bojan Bogdanović for the three.
The Warriors have “ICEd” ball screens all season long — force ball handlers sideline by jumping out to deny the screen and funnel them toward a dropping big. Wiggins was anticiapating Kevon Looney dropping back behind him to intercept Conley’s drive — but Looney is playing Gobert unusually high.
Result: Conley forcing the rotation from Green, and another corner three given up.
The Jazz preyed on a defense that had lost its early season sharpness. It seemed as if the same problems that have been plaguing the Warriors were about to send them to their 8th loss in 9 games. On offense, the Warriors weren’t doing enough to attack the lowest-hanging fruit the Jazz were dangling over their heads.
Gobert is undoubtedly a rim-protecting force. No matter what anyone thinks of him, no one else can wall off the painted area like him. Among 48 players who contest at least 4 shots at the rim per game, Gobert allows the 3rd lowest field goal percentage.
But a dirty little (not so) secret when the Jazz have Gobert on the floor is that their defensive scheme versatility is glaringly limited. The dearth of switchable personnel on the perimeter — buoyed by a lack of wing depth — reduces the Jazz’s options, especially when it comes to pick-and-roll defense.
Having Gobert switch out on guards on the perimeter isn’t bad in terms of one-on-one situations. Save for the absolute best isolation scorer in the league (cue Stephen Curry spinning Gobert around like a carousel during their 2017 second-round matchup) Gobert can handle switches on the perimeter decently.
But the problem lies in the backline. Drawing Gobert out on switches obviously limits his ability to wall off the paint and help — and the lack of defensive versatility from the other 4 players prevents them from being reliable backline substitutes.
Which is why the Jazz are content with playing drop coverage — dropping Gobert back in the paint and having him seal it off — while relying heavily on on-ball screen navigation to shut off the ball handler’s space.
There’s just one problem with this: the Jazz have a serious lack of on-ball defenders who can consistently keep up with ball handlers around screens. All it takes is one rock-solid pick for shooters to be set loose — well within Kevon Looney’s wheelhouse.
A wide down-screen by Looney sets Klay Thompson free in the possession above; Donovan Mitchell is far from the ideal screen navigator. With Gobert dropping back, the Jazz are left to rely on stunts from Bogdanović — but Thompson’s release is too quick for it to be effective.
Take this after-timeout (ATO) play:
Looney feeds Green in the post — an obvious tell that a split action is about to occur. As expected, Gobert is dropping back and sealing off the paint. Looney prepares to set a down-screen for Jordan Poole, guarded by Conley.
Peep at Thompson — his cut to the basket serves as an extra layer of assurance that Gobert won’t come out to meet Poole at the level of the screen. Conley is arguably the Jazz’s best on-ball defender, but he can only do so much against a solid Looney screen.
Which brings us back to the 7:54 mark of the 4th quarter. After Gobert tips in a missed shot to extend the Jazz’s lead to 16, the Warriors proceed to go on an 18-0 run, which began on a wide-open Thompson three born out of loose-ball chaos.
It was at this point where the Warriors relied heavily on a potent small-ball lineup: Green at the 5, with Poole as the lead guard handling the creation responsibilities; Thompson, Wiggins, and Otto Porter Jr. were the floor-stretching wings who provided tons of defensive versatility.
A switchable lineup that had Green as its defensive fulcrum was able to string stops and feast in transition and semi-transition:
The stagnation caused by the Warriors’ switching is apparent, but watch Gobert after Jordan Clarkson airballs the three. Gobert’s natural instinct upon running back on defense is to drop back in the paint to seal it off — at the expense of leaving Wiggins, the closest man to him, wide open at the top of the arc.
The Jazz are at a loss as to what set to run in the next possession. What seems like an intended “Chicago” action (wide pindown flowing into a DHO) turns into an improvised two-man screening action between Bogdanović and Gobert.
Staying true to the classic principle of denying the middle, Porter denies Bogdanović the screen and forces him to have to get past him the hard way.
What happens after the stop is even more of note:
Off the dribble, Thompson shakes Mitchell loose and pulls up for a three against — wait for it — a dropping Gobert. One would assume that at the very least, Gobert should’ve met Thompson at the level of the screen; at most, springing a trap would’ve been ideal.
But for Gobert, straying far away from his comfort zone in the paint has been difficult throughout his career.
Sprinkle in a bit of screening ingenuity from Green — he flips his screening angle on two consecutive possessions — and the Jazz had nothing when opting to drop their best defender against an erupting volcano.
The Warriors have had an extensive history of overcomplicating their approach on both ends of the floor. An intricate offense and a complex defense aren’t inherently bad — but when the situation calls for simple solutions on both ends of the floor, it should behoove them to simplify things and grab the lowest-hanging fruit that is there for the taking.
The low-hanging fruit in this instance was twofold: the Jazz opting to stick to drop coverage on defense, and being lured into inefficient stagnation when the Warriors switched heavily and kept isolation possessions in front.
The Jazz aren’t going to be like most other teams in the playoffs — more intelligent schemes with the appropriate personnel will adjust accordingly. But it’s a promising sign that the Warriors went for the obvious gap in the opposing team’s armor and pounded it till it entirely collapsed.
As the playoffs approach and options will progressively become limited, it will be an important approach to adopt.