With 28 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the Golden State Warriors’ NBA Finals rematch against the Boston Celtics, Steph Curry got an easy layup off of a Jayson Tatum turnover — an attempted skip pass toward the weak-side corner that Jordan Poole easily tracked and intercepted.
Off of a made basket, one would think an NBA-level defense would easily cross their t’s and dot their i’s while going back on defense: What coverage is being played? Man or zone? If man, are we all matched up to who we’re supposed to match up with?
Matching up is arguably the most fundamental concept in transition defense. It can be tough when it’s off a turnover or a missed shot because players are taught to pick up the players closest to them while running back. Smaller players can get cross-matched onto bigger frontcourt players, while lumbering bigs can find themselves defending out on the perimeter against quick and shifty guards.
Obviously, it’s much easier to go back and match up properly when it’s off a made bucket. Which is why this possession was extremely baffling:
Jaylen Brown drills the clutch wing three to complete the Celtics’ rally from a deficit that was once as big as 11 points. But what made Brown inexplicably open on the wing — and off of a made bucket?
So, making sure that everything on the transition-defense checklist is all accounted for:
- What is the coverage being played? Answer: man-to-man.
- Who’s supposed to be matched up with who? Answer: Draymond Green on Al Horford; Andrew Wiggins on Jayson Tatum; Curry on Malcolm Brogdon; Klay Thompson on Marcus Smart; and Jordan Poole on Brown.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that Poole — who otherwise had a good showing on defense — forgot where he was supposed to be and who he was supposed to be picking up.
Let’s say that Poole was where he was supposed to be: showing early help on potential drives and being an extra defender toward the side where the ball is — a form of what is typically termed as “strong-side overloading.”
The gripe that I have with that is that any sort of Smart-Brogdon two-man action isn’t grounds for sending an extra weak-side helper. Those are two very good players, but one would think that a theoretical Tatum-Brown action would command that sort of coverage — which clearly wasn’t the case.
Granted, it wasn’t just Poole’s fault. Curry and Thompson botched a switch on the guard-guard screen between Smart and Brogdon. That left Smart — shooting 32.9% on threes prior to the game but was 3-of-6 at that point — momentarily open.
Smart then finds Brown trailing toward the weak-side wing, with Poole compelled to help on Smart — leaving him even more out of position and in no condition to recover and contest the Brown three (to Wiggins’ credit, he tried but couldn’t do anything against the space and rhythm Brown was provided with).
But whose help was it supposed to be? Thompson was on his way to recovering and contesting Smart’s potential shot. If anything, it was Wiggins who was supposed to be stunting at Smart, not Poole. If Wiggins commits to a full contest, the next man making the rotation should then be Poole, whether it be toward Tatum or Brown.
Somewhat related to being out of position on defense, overhelping has also been a major problem this season for the Warriors — I’ve written about it several times this season alone (including in this piece, this piece, this one too, and don’t forget this one).
Green himself explicitly mentioned a defensive ill the Warriors have been plagued with throughout this season: strong-side overhelping, or helping one pass away off of the strong-side corner.
“Lamb did a great job of stepping in and taking a charge…although he did help off of strong side corner…so I told him great job..but don’t help like that again” -Draymond— Justin (RIPKOBE) (@ThePackageJG) January 17, 2023
It’s of my opinion that avoiding helping off of the strong-side corner should be the rule without exception — unless, of course, your name is Draymond Green.
Even on most of Green’s “overhelp” off of the strong-side corner, he doesn’t fully commit to help on drives — he stunts to throw drivers off for a split second but is almost always still in position to recover and stick to his man in the corner.
But even Green has moments where he forgets to stick to the rules. It happened against the Celtics in overtime:
The Celtics run Elbow action off of HORNS (ball handler up top, two players at the elbows, and two players on both corners). Brown sets a backscreen for Tatum that Wiggins and Thompson switch — but Wiggins ends up on the wrong end of the switch on Brown, who backcuts.
Green’s instinct as a help defender is to help on the cut, but Thompson is already there to step in front of Brown — which renders Green’s full commitment to help unnecessary. All it does is help the Celtics pull away even further, courtesy of a Horford corner three.
Admittedly, it’s tough to keep instinct in check. Even the most drilled and disciplined defenses/defenders have these mini-brainfarts every now and then. Human nature is a hump that can be extremely difficult to get over.
But the best defenses minimize these brainfarts to the utmost degree. There were plenty of reasons why they were ranked second in defensive rating last season and rode that pedigree toward a championship.
More than just having better personnel and having the greatest defender of his generation anchoring their defense, they had one key ingredient last season that feels glaringly absent this year.
The lack thereof has them as the 11th-ranked defense in the league when eliminating garbage time — decent, but not transcendent.