There were two moments you can pinpoint in Game 1 of the Golden State Warriors’ playoff series against the Sacramento Kings that may have made you think, “Oh, this team is for REAL!”
The first moment was actually three sequences where Andrew Wiggins — coming off a long hiatus with his conditioning and form still a question mark going into tonight — showing why he makes a difference, and why his presence can spell the difference between a deep playoff run and one that might end earlier than expected.
If you’ve forgotten just how paramount Wiggins and his wing defense is to the Warriors — even after a magical playoff run last season that had his fingerprints smeared all over it — then let this possession below serve as a reminder:
With the Kings running high ball-screen action between Kevin Huerter and Domantas Sabonis, Wiggins comes over to provide an additional layer of security in the form of a help-side block, despite Kevon Looney being in good position to handle Sabonis’ roll.
The second sequence comes on one of the Kings’ quintessential offensive actions:
With the Kings running handoff action for Huerter, Steph Curry is forced to be involved in the action by navigating around the screen. He falls behind ever so slightly — often the death of a defense defending the Kings’ vaunted handoffs — but Wiggins is prepared for such a situation.
He helps off De’Aaron Fox on the weak-side slot and fully commits to a switch onto Huerter’s middle penetration — called “Next” switching — and gets in front of him to smother the shot attempt.
The third sequence involves Wiggins guarding Fox in single coverage:
Fox tries to explode past Wiggins with a sudden right-left crossover burst, but Wiggins keeps up laterally and flips his hips quick enough to cut off Fox’s drive to the left. Fox tries to go the other way with a spin, but Wiggins is also there to meet him with a block.
Those sequences by Wiggins contributed to a half where the Warriors limited the Kings — the best offense in the regular season and statistically the best offense in NBA history — to 55 points, a win against a team that averaged 60.4 points in first halves during the regular season, a league best.
A more important stat: The Warriors limited the Kings to an offensive rating of 98.2 in the first half — far below their exceedingly high standards, and also a ways off from their regular season first-half offensive rating of 117.9, which was fourth in the league.
I mentioned in my series preview that the one differentiating factor that could decide this series in favor of the Warriors was defensive ceiling — that is, the Warriors have the experience and personnel to shore up defensively and lock the Kings down when they need to, while the same couldn’t be said for the Kings’ defense against the Warriors’ offense. That seemed to be the case during the first half, where the Warriors were sharp with their rotations, furiously fought over screens in an attempt to stay attached, and baited the Kings into stagnancy.
From excellent off-ball chasing and screen navigation by Gary Payton II:
To Looney being a rock-solid foundation in the Warriors’ drop coverage, such as on this high ball-screen action between Malik Monk and Sabonis:
To Draymond Green defending Sabonis in single coverage in the low post — with the results being what you’d expect:
To perfectly defending the Kings’ handoff action, executed by Wiggins and Klay Thompson:
To everything that has made the Warriors’ defense great over the last decade coalescing into a stop that was made possible by a connected unit:
On the Sabonis dribble handoff to Huerter above that turns into an empty-corner screen-and-roll, Thompson fights over the screen and falls a tad behind. Green is there to help at the “nail” with a stunt, which gives enough time for Thompson to recover and for Looney to get back in front of Sabonis to force the miss.
It was the kind of defensive effort that brought the Warriors to championship status over these years — and it looked like it was enough to tame the Kings’ high-octane offense.
But basketball games have two halves for a reason — and the second half proved to be a much different story.
The Kings exploded for 71 points in the second half, powered by Fox’s 29 second-half points. He finished the game with 38 points on 27 shots (9-of-19 on twos, 4-of-8 on threes), 8-of-12 from the free throw line, and a true shooting mark of 58.9%.
Which brings us to the second this-team-is-for-real moment.
After struggling in the first half, Fox found his groove in the second half by relentlessly attacking the Warriors in the mid-range, which is his preferred method of attack:
Fox’s game is built to take advantage of a Warriors defense that prefers opponents taking shots in the mid-range. Warriors’ opponents attempted 38.8% of their shots in the mid-range — the most allowed in that area during the regular season, per Cleaning The Glass.
While the Warriors allowed a middling amount of jumpers in the “long” mid-range area (shots just outside the paint but inside the arc), they allowed a much-higher amount of shots in the “short” mid-range area, otherwise known as floater range. Coincidentally, that area was where Fox has feasted all season long (36% of his attempted shots during the regular season was in the short mid-range area, 87th percentile among point guards; he made an astounding 53% of his shots within that area — 98th percentile among point guards.
Even though the Warriors are okay with giving up this shot below, it becomes an entirely different situation when it’s against a proven mid-range merchant such as Fox:
Green switches onto Fox and gives him space to operate above the arc. Fox uses this space to settle himself toward his preferred spot — and while this is the kind of shot that schematically makes sense from a defensive standpoint, the Warriors would maybe want to explore a tighter guard to prevent Fox from getting to his comfort zone.
Another thing that stood out to me was the Kings’ use of pace, rim pressure, and spacing — and how it all came together to torch the Warriors in the second half.
These two huge Fox shots from outside were born out of paint touches and rim pressure — something the Warriors themselves didn’t dabble enough with to close the game:
In some ways, this Game 1 was a race to see who could first take control of the game using an inside-out approach. The Kings were the first to reach that point, as evidenced by a well-balanced attack in the paint (they outscored the Warriors by 14 in that area) and a decent 12-of-32 clip (37.5%) from beyond the arc.
Also of note was the possession battle. The Kings attempted eight more shots than the Warriors, buoyed by a 17-9 edge on the offensive boards (50-41 edge in overall rebounding).
If the Warriors are to take Game 2, winning the possession battle is low-hanging fruit for them to grab. Limiting paint touches and getting their half-court defense set as much as possible will slow down an offense that will try relentlessly to keep them on the back foot.
It may also be a series where the Warriors will have to choose between two poisons: Will they keep giving up the mid-range to Fox to prevent them from being put into rotational hell? Or will they take away Fox’s comfort zone in an attempt to cut off the head of the snake?
The joy of watching the rest of this series is finding out which approach the Warriors will choose — and if the Kings have the answers to match.