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The Warriors’ defense is coming undone on the road

It has been one ugly defensive season on the road for the defending champions.

Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

With approximately two minutes left in the first half of the latest battle with their heated rivals, the Golden State Warriors were down by nine points after being down by as much as 20. First-quarter troubles on defense plagued them anew; it marked the seventh consecutive game they gifted a double-digit lead to their opponents.

But they showed signs of life in the second quarter. They started displaying somewhat of a more concerted effort to create stops. Holes started getting smaller and smaller, while their offense backed up their defense.

With Ja Morant sidelined for an indefinite amount of time, the Memphis Grizzlies’ supersub Tyus Jones was tasked with lead guard responsibilities. He brings up the ball and prepares to run “Spain” pick-and-roll (a typical high ball screen but with an additional player — typically a shooter — setting a backscreen for the roller before popping out beyond the arc).

To preface this possession, the typical counter to a Spain pick-and-roll is to have the roller’s defender play deep drop coverage, which allows him leeway to recover toward his man and practically nullify the backscreen. The on-ball defender and the backscreener’s defender must then switch assignments, which keeps everything in front and stagnates the possession.

Look no further than Draymond Green to demonstrate the perfect defense of a Spain pick-and-roll:

Contrast the possession above with this Jones-initiated version:

Take note of the traditional counter to the Spain pick-and-roll and assess what went wrong in the possession above. Breakdowns on defense almost always start at the point of attack; this one’s no different. Donte DiVincenzo attempts to “ICE” Jones — that is, jump in front of the screen to deny Jones from using it and instead shade him toward the sideline.

The problem with “ICE”-ing this particular possession is the fact that Green is no position to “catch” Jones whatsoever. He’s playing too high up instead of being in deep drop, which not only places him out of position against Jones but also makes him vulnerable to the backscreen.

Furthermore, peep at Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on the weak side. Curry communicates to Thompson that he should rotate in the paint since he’s the “low” man whose responsibility is to be the last line of defense. But Thompson has no awareness of what’s going on with the ball — his head isn’t on a swivel, with no eyes on the ball and all eyes focused completely on his assignment.

The result: Jones practically strolls his way to the rim for what amounts to a layup-line bucket.

This was a microcosm of what plagued the Warriors against the Grizzlies on defense and an example of the larger collective maladies they’ve been suffering on the road this season. They’re now 7-26 on the road this season — extremely unbecoming of a team that is coming off of a storybook run last season that was built on the back of an elite defense.

The problem with this particular game was a mishmash of several factors. Steve Kerr’s decision to start four guards with Thompson at the four and Green at the five was an attempt to space out the Grizzlies’ defense with multiple shooters on the floor. In and of itself, it’s a decision that does have offensive merit.

But that also means there are going to be problems on the other end of the floor. An undersized lineup with subpar point-of-attack personnel means that all of the pressure is going to be placed upon rim protection. Green is capable of handling that responsibility in spurts, but if he’s tasked to be both a roaming helper AND the main rim protector, it’s too much to put on his plate, even for a defender of his caliber.

As a result, the Grizzlies practically had their way at the rim, where they shot 19-of-27 (70.4%, 61st percentile). While the dearth of point-of-attack defense was a glaring culprit, there was also a general lack of communication leading to botched coverages.

Take for example this possession — which also happens to be the very first one of the game:

Peep at Thompson in particular: he gets caught up with Xavier Tillman with Jaren Jackson Jr. relocating toward the left corner. Thompson tries to fight over Tillman in what is an apparent attempt to switch assignments with Green.

The problem? Green isn’t thinking switch at all. He stays with Jackson while Thompson finds himself on the wrong end of Tillman, who cuts inside, receives the pass, and scores with no backline resistance whatsoever.

A defensive breakdown of this nature isn’t excusable, but it’s understandable if it involves young players who are getting a crash course in how to defend in the NBA. What makes it worse is that it involves players who have played crucial roles within a dynasty that has much been about elite defense — if not more — as it has been about elite offense.

A similar mistake occurred in the third quarter:

After passing to Dillon Brooks on the slot, Jones comes over to set a screen for Jackson. Again, Green and Thompson aren’t on the same page in terms of coverages — Thompson is thinking “switch”, so he sticks to Jackson, while Green is thinking “stay home”. That results in both of them sticking to Jackson with no one going to Jones, who pops out for an open three.

But even some possessions involved the Grizzlies taking advantages of natural holes within the Warriors’ scheme. In an effort to protect the rim and wall off the paint, the Warriors have been fond of sending early help from their low man to discourage layups and to force opponents to make the long skip pass toward the weak-side corner, which should give the low man ample time to recover and close out space.

This schematic quirk is risky. If the low man is even an inch too deep with their help in the paint, it may be too long of a recovery distance for them to close out in time — which happened multiple times against the Grizzlies:

Look at how far the low man — DiVincenzo in the first clip, Curry in the second — is cheating off the corner to help. Both contribute zero value on their paint help and are way too far to affect corner shooters. This doesn’t necessarily mean that low-man help is inherently bad — it’s how much help they’re providing.

(Although, in Curry’s case, the breakdown in coverage happens initially at the point of attack. JaMychal Green is on the wrong end of the screen and isn’t in position to catch Jones. That compels Curry to come over and help, but once Green recovers, Curry is late to recover back toward the corner.)

Perhaps the most egregious and head-scratching mistake came off of a made bucket:

After making the three, Jordan Poole fails to pick up Luke Kennard in transition, virtually giving up an open three to an elite shooter who’s drilling 45.7% of his threes this season.

The home-road splits have been the story this season. But zooming in further to their quarter splits, it paints an uglier picture: a 124.1 defensive rating in first quarters on the road — a testament to how they’ve been losing road games early by failing to establish a defensive rhythm.

The Warriors have fallen to sixth in the Western Conference with plenty of teams breathing down their neck. They could easily fall back into the play-in slots with a couple more losses, especially with games against deadly teams such as the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns coming up.

They’ve also got seven more road games left on the schedule. Their defense hasn’t traveled. The caveats are that premier perimeter defenders aren’t healthy right now; Andrew Wiggins, Gary Payton II, and Jonathan Kuminga weren’t active against the Grizzlies.

This core has accumulated enough equity to at least give them the benefit of the doubt, that they’ll be able to flip the switch when the playoffs arrive. But they have to be able to get there first.

Even if they manage to do that, the pattern that has emerged this season — one of defensive incompetence and a general lack of verve — makes it hard to believe they’ll figure it out.

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