Whenever the concept of defense in basketball is brought up, what most people likely think of is how teams defend in the half court.
Just by looking at the Golden State Warriors’ defensive performance in the half court against the Cleveland Cavaliers, you would think they did a bang-up job. They held the Cavs to a half-court offensive rating of 80.5 — 17th percentile, and a mark equivalent to the worst half-court offense in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.
But that’s just one half of the defensive equation. What often gets lost in the discussion is how a team tries to set up their defense whenever they miss a shot and don’t garner an offensive rebound.
Transition defense is equally important as half-court defense; some would say that it takes precedence because of the nature and circumstances surrounding it. When scrambling back toward the other end, crossmatches — that is, mismatches that occur due to having to match up to the closest offensive player — can occur. Attempts to crash the board for an offensive rebound are high risk, high reward — the risk being that if the defense manages to grab the rebound, they will have a numbers advantage on the other end due to the board crashers falling behind.
The Warriors certainly have had an increased effort level from some of their players in terms of trying to snatch offensive rebounds. They are snatching 30.3% of their own misses so far this season — sixth in the NBA in terms of offensive rebounding rate. Small sample size notwithstanding, that has been a far cry from the 26.6% rate they put up last season, which was 16th in the league.
You wouldn’t want to tell your guys to stop crashing the boards and go back on defense instead. Getting your own miss and scoring against a defense that isn’t set and is scrambling to match up can be highly rewarding:
But that runs the risk of giving up easy transition leak-outs, with no one back on defense to stop the ball if most of the potential defenders are looking to crash the boards instead — which is what happened to the Warriors on the possession below.
Take a look at Draymond Green, who was initially beyond the arc — approximately around the slot area — but runs toward the paint to position himself for an offensive rebound:
Along with Andrew Wiggins and Chris Paul, Green is one of three Warriors who are attempting to get the offensive rebound. Steph Curry is the shot taker and is in no position to crash, while Klay Thompson is in the deep corner.
If Green stayed put, he would’ve been in position to put up a fight in transition. Although he would’ve been outnumbered, he has shown plenty of times in the past that a one-on-two or one-on-three isn’t much of a hurdle for him to overcome.
But instead, Darius Garland gets an open runway to the other end for the layup that effectively sealed the game.
The Warriors may have been effective at locking down the Cavs’ half-court offense — but that won’t matter if they allow them to basically run in transition for what feels like every possession. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the Cavs were in transition for a quarter of their offensive possessions — 25.7%. Per Cleaning The Glass, that mark is in the 98th percentile and is equivalent to the best transition rate in the league.
Not only were the Cavs frequently running the break — they were scoring off of it at an extremely efficient rate: 164.0 transition offensive rating. And as you’ve probably surmised, it is also a mark that is equivalent to the best transition offense in the league.
When looking at some of the shots they gave up below in transition, common themes emerge:
- The Cavs’ defense deserves tons of credit for denying the Warriors’ non-Curry scorers and funneling the ball toward less-threatening offensive players in the paint, such as Green and Gary Payton II. The Warriors had a 10-of-23 clip at the rim — 43.5%. They clamped down hard in the paint and virtually made it a non-option for the Warriors, who are already hard-pressed to find consistent sources of rim pressure as it is.
- While some transition buckets the Warriors coughed up were due to offensive rebound attempts gone awry, some of them were due to improper crossmatching and a general lack of effort and verve in trying to mount an effective half-court offense whenever they did get back on defense in time. Soft switches, lack of next-man rotations, sagging off of personnel that don’t warrant space — those were prevalent throughout the game.
- Perhaps the most important one of all: The Warriors’ offense sputtered. They themselves didn’t get much efficiency in the half-court: 85.4 points per 100 half-court possessions. While they shot a respectable 16-of-41 (39.0%) from beyond the arc, they scuffled from two-point range: 18-of-53 (34.0%). They were an overall 44.7% on effective field-goal shooting. It doesn’t require nuanced analysis to conclude that more misses equals more opportunities for the other team to run the break and less chances for the Warriors to set their half-court defense.
“It never felt like our offense helped our defense or vice versa,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “We weren’t getting stops. We were taking quick shots, lot of bad possessions. We didn’t turn it over much, but we didn’t have good flow to our offense.”
Another noteworthy thing: After several games of virtually saving the Warriors and keeping them afloat, the Paul-led bench unit also sputtered. The 15 points the Warriors were limited to in the second quarter was in huge part due to the second unit not being able to find a consistent stream of offense in the half court — an occurrence that has been more the exception this season rather than the norm.
Hopefully for the Warriors, their overall offense sputtering — and coughing up points in transition as a result — will also turn out to be the exception.