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How the Warriors’ two-way mediocrity plagued them against the Suns

The offense and defense haven’t been good enough.

Golden State Warriors v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There isn’t much more you can say about the Golden State Warriors’ loss to the Phoenix Suns than a couple of overarching facts:

  • The starters were bad on both ends of the floor. No starter finished with a positive plus-minus.
  • Both offensive and defensive showings were bad. At the half, the Warriors only managed to score 95.9 points per 100 possessions; in the half-court, they put up a measly 83.7 points per 100 possessions. Both of them are equivalent to the worst in the league in their respective categories.
  • Meanwhile, they allowed the Suns to score 125.0 points per 100 possessions by the end of the second quarter — again, that is equivalent to the worst defensive team in the league.
  • The fouling problem reared its ugly head again. The Warriors coughed up 52 (!!!) free-throw attempts. Kevin Durant and Devin Booker had 29 attempts between the two of them; the Warriors had 29 as a team.

The starters’ performance could be described in two words: listless and lifeless. In a stark contrast to their win against the Houston Rockets a couple of nights ago, the offense had no spark, little-to-no energy, and often was bereft of purpose.

Two nights ago, the process on offense was full of motion and was rarely stagnant. The currency of their offense has always been movement, both by the ball and by their players. Even if the first and second options were denied, they managed to maintain their flow almost without a hitch.

Even with the Rockets switching the split-cut screen, the Warriors could’ve easily defaulted to an Andrew Wiggins post isolation. Instead, they maintain the flow: Wiggins passing to an open Kevon Looney on the weak side, Steph Curry setting the pindown for Wiggins, and Looney pitching the ball to Wiggins and setting the screen, which creates a good look for Wiggins when his defender ducks under the screen.

One game later, another Wiggins post isolation occurs — but the difference is palpable:

I understand the thought process: Wiggins sets the screen in early offense to force the switch onto Grayson Allen, which is a mismatch on paper. The team is trying to get him going; giving him a favorable matchup is one way of doing it.

But Wiggins doesn’t take advantage of the matchup and settles for a turnaround fade instead of pounding it inside. Moreover, pay attention to the other four offensive players on the floor — they just watch and let Wiggins try to score.

If the Warriors ran second-side action, or even just a typical split action on the strong side like the one against the Rockets, they could’ve gotten a more efficient look. They had plenty of time on the shot clock — Wiggins makes his move with around 15 seconds left — to freelance their way into a progression. But practically no one makes a move to put pressure on the defense.

This possession in the third quarter was much better in terms of process and flow — but by then, it was too late (for the starters, at least):

This knack for stagnation in favor of getting players going is a tricky balance, one that has often landed the Warriors on the side of inefficiency. They’re 13th in offensive rating in non-garbage time (114.5 points per 100 possessions) and 17th in half-court offensive rating (96.2 points per 100 possessions). They are a league-average half-court offense despite having one of the best offensive engines in NBA history in Curry.

The lack of a defined secondary support scorer behind Curry has been a huge factor behind their mediocrity on offense. Chris Paul won’t turn the ball over, but this version won’t slot into that scoring role, either. Wiggins and Klay Thompson both having sluggish starts is something that no amount of preparation can account for if you’re the Warriors (although Thompson has reached the 20-point threshold over the past two games; he finished with 23 on 8-of-17 shooting — 6-of-10 on threes — against the Suns).

The mediocrity also extends to the other end of the floor. They’re allowing 114.6 points per 100 possessions — 16th in the league. In the half court, opponents are scoring an even 100 points per 100 possessions, good for 21st.

Again, the caveat is that Draymond Green has missed six games this season — on track to miss seven after Friday’s game against the San Antonio Spurs. But the lack of defensive versatility in terms of schemes and personnel across the board has been glaring.

The coverages against the Suns — particularly against Durant — were sound early on. Their choice of pick-and-roll coverage against the former Warriors was a “high” drop that occasionally turned into a screen-level step up/soft hedge.

The aim: take away decision-making responsibilities from Durant as much as possible and let another Sun try to score or make the decision. With Dario Šarić in high drop coverage, Durant makes the pass to the rolling Jusuf Nurkić. As the low man, Moses Moody pinches in early to help on the roll and does just enough to force the tough angle.

Another high drop possession that turns into a soft-hedge commitment by Kevon Looney above forces the turnover, with Wiggins navigating the screen to stay on Durant’s hip and Looney getting the deflection.

But the wheels started to fall off defensively soon after. A mixture of incredible shot making by Durant and coverage mistakes started hounding the Warriors.

This one during the third quarter stood out — representative of the lack of attention to detail that’s been plaguing them this season:

Instead of the Suns letting Durant handle the ball, they have him start off of it. He curls around an “out” screen by Nurkić, with Thompson locking and trailing behind. Looney plays the screen high — too high, in fact — which leaves no one to drop behind and help Thompson. Looney is too slow to recover; Durant gets the open lane and layup.

This was a microcosm of the larger problems the Warriors have been facing on both ends of the floor. They can’t score efficiently on a consistent basis, while banking on a 35-year-old all-time-great to be great on a nightly basis. They can’t defend on a consistent basis, while banking on an anchor who has been sidelined due to an inability to keep himself under control.

The offensive and defensive engines have enough left in the tank to keep the whole thing running. But the rest of the parts haven’t been good enough. The result: a machine that is slowly chugging along and leaking oil in multiple places.

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