At the 6:12 mark of the 1st quarter of Game 6 between the Golden State Warriors and the Memphis Grizzlies, Tyus Jones brought the ball down after a successful score by the Warriors. Jones — guarded by Andrew Wiggins — was dribbling along the sideline.
It wasn’t by choice.
Wiggins was on Jones for almost the entire length of the floor, not opting to give the guard time and space to map the half-court and dictate his own terms. It wasn’t surprising — after all, Wiggins was locked in to the task at hand.
“This morning during shootaround, I knew he’d have a big game,” acting head coach Mike Brown said after the game. “We changed our pick-and-roll coverage. When we made the change, Wiggs asked, ‘Coach, do you want me to pick up Tyus Jones full court?’ I said, ‘Wiggs, you want to do that for 48 minutes?’ He said, ‘I’m locked in, I’ll do it for 48 minutes, you just tell me.’… When a guy like that comes to you and says that, you know he’s ready for the task at hand.”
The no-middle concept was in full display. The Warriors’ dogmatic emphasis in denying middle penetration was realized through their constant “ICE/Weak” coverage of ball screens. “ICE” is the general term used for on-ball defenders jumping out to deny usage of ball screens, forcing the ball-handler sideline (which acts as an inanimate defender) and corralling them toward a dropping big.
“Weak” is simply shading a ball-handler toward his weak hand, which can go hand-in-hand with “ICE”.
Wiggins didn’t let Jones have his way down the middle, where Jones’ favored floater was a dangerous weapon. He forced Jones to rely almost exclusively on his non-dominant left hand. And Wiggins wasn’t alone.
Behind him, acting as the dropping big, was good old reliable Kevon Looney.
An added benefit of this no-middle philosophy is that actions are limited primarily to 2-on-2 endeavors. Corralling and controlling the ball-handler allows the on-ball defender to stay attached; the dropping big can then recover toward his original assignment once his partner completes his recovery.
Staying attached and recovering in a timely fashion prevents the defense from being put in rotation. The less likely a defense has to compensate for a breakdown at the point of attack, the less likely the entire scheme falls apart. At the end of the day, that is the ideal outcome for any team on the defensive end.
The Wiggins and Looney combo was a stabilizing force on the defensive end for the Warriors. The length and ability to cover a significant amount of ground, coupled with tenacity and doggedness, has morphed Wiggins into the Warriors’ most reliable option against opposing primary ball-handlers. Coupled with excellent screen navigation, Wiggins’ consistency as a defender has shoved him into the limelight as a crucial cog within their defensive machinery.
Looney’s consistency is a hallmark. Despite not being the tallest big nor the most athletic, his extensive experience within the scheme has given him a valuable role within the machinery — a role that he has often excelled in, despite his physical limitations.
Another instance of Wiggins and Looney forcing another missed Jones shot:
Wiggins navigates the initial down-screen by Desmond Bane, but the handoff screen by Steven Adams proves a tougher nut to crack. Wiggins falls behind Jones, but Looney is there as the corralling big; he engages Jones, keys in on his floater, and gets up a good contest to force the miss.
More importantly, Jones’ inability to break down the Wiggins-Looney defensive duo eliminates the necessity of sending help from other parts of the floor. Curry stays attached to Bane, a dangerous long-range shooter. Jordan Poole doesn’t stray far from his position as the weak-side low man. Draymond Green stays attached to Jaren Jackson Jr. on the strong-side corner, which is the fundamentally sound course of action.
While the Warriors are capable of defending on a string should the need arise, Wiggins and Looney holding the fort and keeping actions flat and in front relieves the rest of their teammates from having to rotate, close-out, and spend a considerable amount of energy trying to plug holes.
Wiggins and Looney setting the tone in terms of defending screen-and-roll actions was infectious; their excellence in limiting Jones and other ball-handlers extended to the rest of the team. Per InStat, the Warriors defended a total of 22 combined ball-screens and handoffs by the Grizzlies, who scored a total of 16 points on them — 0.73 points per possession (PPP).
Each of them also excelled individually. Looney spent time guarding Jackson Jr., whose dynamic nature as a mobile big was stifled by Looney’s sturdiness, physicality, and excellent fundamentals.
Looney didn’t fall for this fake handoff by Brandon Clarke. He stayed put, displayed excellent laterality, and crowded Clarke’s space to force the miss.
Wiggins himself stayed put on a fake handoff from Clarke. Upsizing defensively has been another valuable trait from him; Wiggins uses his wiry strength and length to bother Clarke without yielding an inch of space.
A timely recovery on a backdoor cut by Jones — buoyed by his length and ability to stay attached at the hip — allows Wiggins to block what should’ve been an easy layup.
The Warriors outscored the Grizzlies by 14 points during the 32 minutes of Looney and Wiggins being on the floor together. In terms of per-100-possession metrics, the Warriors outscored the Grizzlies by 20.4 points per 100 possessions during those 32 minutes — including a defensive rating of 96.8.
The headlines were all about Looney’s herculean effort on the boards and Wiggins’ clutch shot-making. You can even point to the Warriors finding a solution to their half-court woes as garnering most of the attention.
But Looney and Wiggins setting the tone defensively and locking down the Grizzlies’ half-court offense deserves its own flowers.