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The one possession that captures the Warriors’ defensive struggles on the road

The struggles continue on the road — and lack of defense is the number one culprit.

Golden State Warriors v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

What if I told you — devoid of context and further details — that Steph Curry scored 40 points on 10-of-16 shooting on threes, with a true shooting percentage of 83.8%?

You’d probably think it was a game the Golden State Warriors handily won. The logic is sound: whenever your best player produces up to his standards, it’s hard for the other team to overcome that obstacle.

But more often than not, basketball is a team sport; more specifically, basketball is a two-way sport. At its very core, the objective is simple: score more points than the other team. Scoring more points than the other team involves not only putting the ball in the basket over and over — it involves preventing the other team from putting the ball in the basket over and over.

Curry did everything he could to carry the team. Perhaps the only thing he didn’t do well was take care of the ball — he had six turnovers that comprised a non-insignificant chunk of the Warriors’ 21 total turnovers against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Outside of that wart, you can’t put much blame on Curry, especially when most actions the Warriors were able to run successfully in the half court involved using his floor-warping nature to generate advantages.

There’s much to admire about the Warriors’ intricate offense, but whenever they go to their patented one-two punch, it almost always generates an efficient look:

What makes this particular Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll even more deadly is the fact that Klay Thompson relocates from the left corner to the opposite side, making it an empty-corner ballscreen. He does so for two very specific reasons:

  1. An empty corner eliminates the possibility of a “tagger” that helps on the roller.
  2. Having Thompson move toward the other side — taking his defender with him in the process — also makes help from the low man difficult since Thompson’s movement serves as a distraction and an obstacle for the low man.

In short, it may seem like a simple possession, but the reasoning behind the moving parts makes it more layered and nuanced than meets the eye.

That attention to detail wasn’t lost on the offensive side of things. The Warriors managed a 120.8 offensive rating against the Thunder, including a 109.6 offensive rating in the half court. Both marks are equivalent to the best in the league in their respective categories with garbage time eliminated, per Cleaning the Glass.

But the prevent-opponents-from-scoring-over-and-over part of the equation wasn’t met. Not only did the Thunder hang 137 points against the Warriors; they did so on an offensive rating of 126.4, including a half-court offensive rating of 112.4.

They shot 33-of-57 on twos (57.9%), 17-of-37 on threes (45.9%), and 20-of-24 on free throws (83.3%). It’s one heck of an obvious conclusion and it’s very much a form of “duh” analysis, but when you can’t stop your opponent from scoring from inside the arc, beyond the arc, and you send them to the free-throw line a ton of times, it’s very hard to win a game.

The difference in shot-type frequency was stark. The Warriors’ shot profile skewed heavily toward threes — 53% of their total shot attempts were from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, only 14% came from the mid-range area, while 33% (47th percentile) came at the rim.

Meanwhile, the Thunder profiled a more balanced offensive attack: 35% of their shots came at the rim, 30% in the mid-range, and 36% from beyond the arc. They were able to leverage the threat of their three-level scoring to keep the Warriors defense guessing.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the sharp tip of that spear. He finished with 33 points on 24 shots, amounting to a true shooting percentage of 64.1%. He happens to be the most prolific driver in the league, averaging 24.3 drives per game.

Gilgeous-Alexander practically strolled his way to the rim against the Warriors:

While also torching the Warriors in the short mid-range area, where he takes 35% of his shots (84th percentile) and knocks them down at a rate of 48% (70th percentile).

The threat of Gilgeous-Alexander and his teammates getting looks at the rim and in the painted area made the Warriors defense more jittery. Even the threat of someone driving to the rim, a roller getting free for a dunk, or a potential backline mismatch was enough for them to send multiple bodies toward the paint.

Pinching in to eliminate the rim and short mid-range area only served to open up the perimeter, where the Thunder shot 17-of-37. On a night that was full of them, it’s hard to single out a defensive breakdown and award it the most blatant of the night. But the possession below has a good case for taking the cake:

The culprit: Donte DiVincenzo, who shows extremely early help as the low man on Andre Iguodala’s man. Josh Giddey — a high-level passer with the vision to see these kinds of gaps — finds Isaiah Joe on the weak-side corner. Joe is shooting 44.4% on a decent volume of threes, which makes DiVincenzo’s decision to cheat off extremely baffling.

This lack of effort and attention to detail has been a season long problem for the Warriors whenever they don’t play within the lofty confines of Chase Center. Their home-road splits continue to be a case study of the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of their season.

Their 28-7 record at home includes a defensive rating of 108.1 — equivalent to the best defense in the league. On the other hand, their 119.0 defensive rating on the road is equivalent to the second worst in the league.

They certainly do have the personnel, the schemes, and the will to play defense on a championship level, but for some reason, the wheels completely fall off on the road. What was once a team known for their ability to strangle opponents in their own backyard have found themselves suddenly incompetent and at a loss as to how to win away from home.

It certainly doesn’t portend a team who’s capable of repeating their storybook run last season.

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