The Brooklyn Nets are widely known as a team whose base defensive scheme is to switch every screening action.
Regardless of their personnel, the Nets will switch everything. They often don’t mind giving up the easy switch — “Here’s Kyrie Irving, we’re okay letting him defend in space if it means bleeding the clock and stagnating your overall half-court process!” — to keep things out in front and under control.
Even though they have vulnerable perimeter defenders such as Irving (who’s a decent defender if he tries) and Seth Curry, those are balanced out by good-to-excellent defenders. Royce O’Neale is one of the more capable wing defenders on their roster. Nic Claxton is one of the better switch-bigs in the league whose length and ability to cover ground allow him to keep up with smaller and quicker guards. Ben Simmons’ limitations as a willing scorer have been canceled out by a defensive pedigree that has gone under the radar as of late.
Kevin Durant has been their best roamer and help defender — but due to an MCL sprain, he was sidelined for this game and still hasn’t played in front of a Chase Center crowd since leaving the Golden State Warriors for the Nets.
The Warriors have plenty of experience against switch-everything teams. To a certain extent, the Cleveland Cavaliers employed it during their NBA Finals battles. The Houston Rockets leaned into switching virtually every screen against the Warriors during the 2018 Western Conference Finals and the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals.
There are plenty of ways to beat a switch. Hunting for a matchup that can be exploited is one such method. Even if switching defenses want plenty of isolations and stagnant half-court sets, it still leaves them vulnerable to shot creators who feast against disadvantaged one-on-one defenders.
The other method of beating a switch: a slip of the screen before a defender can properly make contact with the screener he’s switching onto:
When Klay Thompson throws the pass to Draymond Green and follows it to receive the handoff (known as “Get” action), Seth chases him while Claxton jumps out to take away Thompson’s space. This allows Green to slip into his short-roll comfort zone and pass to a cutting Jonathan Kuminga for the layup.
This bucket turned the contest into a 12-point lead for the Warriors, who at one point led by as much as 17. In the final 5:42 of the fourth quarter, the Nets proceeded to rattle off a 22-6 run to win by a score of 120-116.
A combination of curious personnel decisions and subpar on-court decision making led to the Warriors giving up another won game and providing another candidate for the most frustrating loss in a season that seems to have a plethora of them.
Not long after Kuminga scored on the possession above, Steve Kerr subbed him out for Kevon Looney. Perhaps it was to give Kuminga rest — after all, he had been spending heavy minutes being employed as the Irving defensive specialist throughout the night.
Kuminga has been a revelation as a point-of-attack defender who has switchability up and down the positional spectrum. He spent lots of time hounding Irving, putting incredible amounts of ball pressure and using his length and physicality to throw Irving off and bump him off of his comfort zones:
Kuminga didn’t win every matchup — Irving scored on him at times, as a player of his caliber is wont to do — but he made Irving work extremely hard for his shots, which is all you could ask out of a 20-year-old second-year player with plenty of upside.
Resting him and putting Looney in his place isn’t necessarily a bad decision on paper. Looney provides size, rebounding, and a bit of switchability when defending out on the perimeter (although not to the same extent as Kuminga, a bonafide wing defender).
But the sacrifice that was made by sitting Kuminga was made apparent when the only other wing option left to defend Irving (who was on the floor at that point, at the least) was Thompson:
His one-on-one battles against Irving in the past have been etched in Warriors lore, so Thompson perhaps deserved a chance to show that he still had what it took to put the clamps on Irving. But this post-injury north-of-thirty version of Thompson clearly hasn’t been the same kind of defender that had the lateral quickness to keep up with premier perimeter scorers.
(If we’re going to be detail oriented about things, there was another option for Kerr to send out there to defend Irving: Andrew Wiggins. But having struggled mightily throughout the game offensively [4 points on 2-of-9 shooting], perhaps Kerr chose to sit him out in favor of offense.)
More than just the rotation shuffle and defensive breakdowns, it was the Warriors’ offensive process that was extremely baffling. Knowing the Nets were switching everything, it would behoove the Warriors to seek out the weakest links in order to create a steady stream of advantage creation.
The possession below was an instance of doing the complete opposite:
The possession above was an instance of running a set for the sake of running a set, instead of aiming to create a legitimate advantage. I see little logic in running a double-drag set just for Steph to be switched off of Irving and onto O’Neale and then Claxton, who does an excellent job staying in front of Steph and cutting off his driving lanes, all while using his length to discourage a pull-up.
Why not have either Thompson or Donte DiVincenzo come over to set guard-guard screens to bring either Joe Harris or Seth into the action? Why not force Irving to have to defend in tandem with another exploitable defender?
Instead, the Warriors audible into split action with Harris switching onto Steph around the split screen. With little time left on the shot clock, Steph is forced into a shot that fails to hit rim.
Not only did the Warriors have to find the correct personnel to target — they also had to find the correct person to take advantage of created mismatches.
Thompson struggled throughout the game trying to get himself into a rhythm. He finished the night with 10 points on 17 shots. None of his seven three-point attempts went in, and the Warriors were outscored by a whopping 21 points during his 34 minutes on the floor.
In an effort to get himself into a groove, Thompson isolated against Seth on switches and took it upon himself to score. But the process behind those shots — as was the process behind most of the Warriors’ clutch-period offense — wasn’t sound.
An isolation pull-up three off of multiple dribbles and a turnaround fadeaway from the elbow aren’t exactly the best shots to take against a mismatch:
These baffling decisions from the Warriors during clutch period — the point of a game defined as under five minutes left in the fourth quarter with both teams separated by five points or less — aren’t surprising when you consider their track record throughout the season.
In clutch period this season, the Warriors are:
- 19th in offensive rating (105.3)
- 17th in defensive rating (108.9)
- 17th in net rating (minus-3.6)
They’ve been outscored by a total of 18 points in the clutch this season. As expected, problems in terms of offensive execution and defensive details that have plagued them throughout this season extend toward their clutch-period ineptitude.
This is just the latest example of the Warriors losing the plot plenty of times this season. They’re below .500 once again and are 10th in the West. Conference-wide instability gives them a chance to shoot up the standings if they manage to string together wins and hit a consistent stride.
But the operative word is “consistent” — which hasn’t been what you’d describe this team for the longest time.