We need to address one hulking elephant in the room.
There’s a reason small-sample-size theater is taken with a huge grain of salt. “Theater” is the appropriate description; it may reflect the realities of life, but it can also delve into the fantastical and outright ridiculous.
The Golden State Warriors’ newfound “Death Lineup” of Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and Draymond Green torched the Denver Nuggets when it was initially introduced. How could it not? The possibilities on offense were endless, especially against a team bereft of premier perimeter defenders, with a big-man anchor who, while being a largely improved defender, wasn’t equipped to shoulder the role of defensive lynchpin.
We don’t need to delve deep into why this lineup works against figurative sieves. It’s quite simple: the Curry-Thompson-Poole trio provides arguably the greatest shooting equity out of any three-man combination in NBA history.
The actions involving them are endless. One shooter can screen for the other — perhaps even “ghost” the screen to punish aggressive coverages — while the third parks himself on the weak side to virtually eliminate a defender from the equation. Dribble penetration and getting two feet in the paint to draw defenses inward opens up kick-out avenues, which can generate open shots or compromise defenses even further by putting them in rotation and forcing them to scramble against swing-swing sequences.
The Warriors’ fondness for movement shooting places their potent marksmen in positions where they can thrive the most. Even one of them in any given 5-man lineup can draw out a plethora of defensive breakdowns from opponents; when you put three of them in one lineup, it becomes a comically unfair and untenable position for the defense.
The concerns defensively were there, but the thought process behind having a historically transcendent defender in Green and a sturdy wing defender in Wiggins was that they could shore up some of the potential holes. Thompson still isn’t the same lateral mover that he was prior to his injuries, but he could still survive in a pinch against quick and shifty guards, while also being able to switch up against frontcourt operators.
Curry’s natural limitations are still pronounced: a small guard without any outlier physical and athletic attributes. But his motor and ingenuity compensate for such deficiencies; an increase in muscle mass and functional strength has also helped him weather the bumps and bruises, and has improved one area of his defense: screen navigation.
Poole remains the sole defensive weak spot. His defensive fundamentals still need improvement; his lateral movement is lacking, and his hip fluidity is limited. Being blown past by his assignments forces him to compensate with swipes and reach-ins, causing him to pick up unnecessary fouls.
The Nuggets’ lack of premier perimeter scoring gave Poole plenty of respite and allowed him to hide mostly as a weak-side off-ball operator. The Nuggets’ preferred diet of post playmaking in lieu of repetitively setting ball screens didn’t force Poole into as much of the action as they probably should’ve.
A near-perfect blend of offense and defense translated into godly numbers. After the initial 2 games against the Nuggets, the New Death Lineup sported a 204.3 ORTG and a 75.0 DRTG, while outscoring the Nuggets by 129.3 points per 100 possessions — all in 11 total minutes of time on the floor.
Apply the context previously aforementioned — the Nuggets’ insufficiencies on defense and the natural advantages such a lineup has over the opposing personnel — and those numbers, while astronomical enough to warrant praise, are massively inflated and limited in scope.
Contrast this with how the lineup is faring against the Memphis Grizzlies — especially on the defensive end — and it’s night and day. The Grizzlies are a more perimeter-oriented team — fueled by a perimeter buzzsaw — which translates to more ball screens and isolations.
The Grizzlies won’t hesitate to adopt a seek-and-destroy strategy. They will hunt for mismatches — and Poole has been the one they’ve hunted the most.
Morant is a blistering 1.67 points per possession (PPP) on isolations over the last 2 games against the Warriors, a massive uptick from his 0.97 PPP on isolations during the regular season — and an even more stark difference from his 0.53 PPP on isolations against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round.
The Warriors giving up the easy Poole switch onto Morant isn’t ideal. It’s bad enough that Morant licks his chops and systematically breaks down his man — he also pounces on switches that are botched. In the first clip above, Poole found himself on the wrong end of an action when Ziaire Williams flipped the angle of his screen at the last minute, giving Morant an open lane toward the rim.
Screening ingenuity played a huge part in the Grizzlies forcing those switches — flipping the angle at the last second, screening from the other side, etc. — and it acted as a counter to the Warriors’ attempts to “pre-switch” screens to prevent Poole from being involved.
The Warriors’ pre-switching before Poole could be brought in was the correct call, but an offensive star of Morant’s caliber found ways to hurdle it.
The Warriors made it too easy for Morant to pick his spots and attack the matchups he wanted. It also didn’t help that they eschewed a relentless approach on the other end of the floor — in other words, they didn’t target Morant enough to take advantage of his shortcomings on the defensive end.
Forcing Morant to defend all sorts of actions — both on the ball courtesy of ball screens and isolations born out of forced switches, as well as through off-ball screens and putting him in rotation — is low-hanging fruit.
The on-ball element is of particular note. Per InStat tracking, Morant was forced to defend a mere 4 possessions as the on-ball defender in the pick-and-roll (allowed 4 points, 1.00 PPP) during Game 2, and wasn’t forced to defend a single isolation possession.
Contrast that with the number of times he attacked the Warriors in the pick-and-roll as the ball handler (9 possessions) and in isolation (12 possessions). Therein lies the philosophical differences between the two teams: the Warriors opportunistically attack mismatches but don’t actively seek them; the Grizzlies aren’t afraid of intentionally drawing them out to maximum effect.
These possessions where Morant was either marginally involved or uninvolved in the action felt like missed opportunities:
In 11 minutes of total playing time against the Grizzlies, the once-dreaded New Death Lineup has been outscored by a total of 11 points. Extrapolate that to per 100 possessions, and it has been outscored by a whopping 51.4 points per 100 possessions, with an extremely struggling offense (83.3 ORTG) and a Swiss-cheese defense (134.8 DRTG).
There’s enough time for things to change and for adjustments to be made. But Steve Kerr is almost forced to play this lineup out of the gates, and most certainly as the predominant lineup going forward. The loss of Gary Payton II due to injury limits Kerr’s defensive lineup versatility, with virtually no choice but to meet firepower with firepower.
But that doesn’t mean eschewing defense completely, which means not giving up the easy switch and letting Morant dictate the tenor of half-court possessions. There must be fiercer resistance against Morant trying to do whatever he wants, while also grabbing the opportunity to make him work on the other end, which would hopefully affect his offensive output.
Otherwise, it could be a very long series for the Warriors — one that might not end favorably for them.