This is what I wrote in my series preview about the Sacramento Kings’ high-post/top-of-the-arc offense — and how crucial it was for the Golden State Warriors to pay attention to details in order to tame the most statistically potent offense in NBA history:
These high-post actions require utmost focus, discipline, and communication if you’re the Warriors. Switches need to be properly called out and executed, while lock-and-trail principles need to be adhered to.
Screen navigation is arguably the one important factor that can make or break a defensive possession when it comes to guarding high-post handoffs. If defenders fall ever so slightly behind, that puts Sabonis’ defender between a rock and a hard place.
In the very first defensive possession of Game 3, the Warriors adhered to the principles stated above. Pay close attention to Steph Curry, in particular:
Curry’s physicality on Kevin Huerter is of particular note. He makes sure to stay in contact, “top-locks” (placing himself in between Huerter and the pindown screen to try to deny Huerter from using the screen), and chases Huerter around the screen. Even if he fails to prevent Huerter from using the pindown, he manages to delay the action and puts pressure on Huerter, who botches the handoff from Domantas Sabonis and turns the ball over.
This opening possession set the tone for the Warriors, who were without two of their best defenders in Draymond Green (suspended) and Gary Payton II (sick). With Green and Payton on the floor this series (for only 25 minutes, which is a small sample size but still telling), the Warriors have kept the Kings’ offense modest and muted:
- The Kings are shooting 36.7% from the field (46.9% on twos and 17.6% on threes) with Green and Payton on the floor together.
- The Warriors have a defensive rating of 94.6 and have outscored the Kings by a total of nine points in those 25 minutes.
Green and Payton are high-level defensive playmakers who both can change the tenor of possessions through their presence alone. Green, in particular, has been the keystone behind the Warriors’ dynastic defense — often underappreciated but as crucial, if not more, than their Curry-fueled offense.
If Curry is considered as the system behind the Warriors’ offense, then Green deserves equal consideration as the system responsible for keeping their defense afloat.
But without their system in Game 3, the Warriors had to bank on a more holistic approach. Without two of their key defensive cogs, the effort needed to come from the entire machinery.
The Warriors were able to keep the Kings’ offense from exploding, limiting them to an offensive rating of 95.1 — far below their league-leading standard. They also limited them to an offensive rating of 88.0 in the half-court, well below the league average of 98.4 during the regular season (and even more of a freefall compared to their 104.7 half-court offensive rating during the season, which was second best).
The one concern about Green not being on the floor was the Warriors’ ability to not only contest shots at the rim, but also their ability to prevent the Kings from getting to the rim in the first place. In Game 3, they were largely successful — even without Green — at limiting the percentage of rim attempts; only 17% of the Kings’ total shot attempts (3rd percentile) were within four feet of the rim.
This possession was of particular note:
Curry makes sure to cut off Malik Monk from the middle and funnels him toward the sideline and baseline. Jordan Poole adheres to basic defensive principles by not committing off of the strong-side corner, especially with Huerter stationed there.
Klay Thompson — realizing that Kevon Looney won’t be there on time to “trap the box” — rotates into the paint from the weak-side corner to stop Monk in his tracks. With nowhere to go and his vision cut off by both Thompson and Looney, Monk has no choice but to go up — but Curry is there to take it away from behind.
With his defensive partners absent, Andrew Wiggins needed to be even more effective at shoring things up at the point of attack and smothering the Kings’ paint attack — both of which he was able to accomplish while also contributing on the offensive end (20 points on 8-of-16 shooting, 3-of-6 on threes).
Again, I return to my original series-preview point of paying attention to details. That includes — but isn’t limited to — switching off-ball actions, chasing/staying attached to movers, and fighting over screens furiously in an effort to keep contact with assignments.
Whenever the Kings run out of handoff options, they typically settle with a Sabonis isolation in the post or a bulldozer drive to the rim. While Sabonis has that ability in his bag, the Warriors can live with a late-clock Sabonis self-creation sequence:
There’s plenty of takeaways from the possession above:
- Moses Moody (who scored 13 points off the bench) fighting over the double ballscreens to stay in front of his man.
- Curry and Donte DiVincenzo switching assignments in the Kings’ attempt to set staggered away screens for Keegan Murray.
- Curry chasing Monk around the wide screen by Sabonis and poking at the ball from behind, forcing the reset.
- On the inbound, DiVincenzo and Thompson switch the handoff between Monk and Murray.
- DiVincenzo and Thompson switch again when Sabonis tries to find either one of Monk and Murray on the off-ball action. DiVincenzo chases Monk and denies him from getting the ball.
- Sabonis then isolates in the post against JaMychal Green with five seconds left on the shot clock. Once Sabonis commits to his spin move, the rest of the Warriors pinch inward and smothers Sabonis, forcing the turnover.
Sabonis’ life in the interior was made extremely difficult. A combination of a connected defense fueled by collective effort, single-coverage success (mostly by Looney), and timely help-side rotations repelled some of Sabonis’ forays inside.
Looney continued to be an annoyance in single coverage:
While the help-side coverage (courtesy of Thompson) was there to act as the line of defense if ever Sabonis did manage to find a runway to the rim:
While the process on offense was at times and adventurous and chaotic, there were eureka moments sprinkled in that were proof of the Warriors adjusting on the fly without a short-roll playmaker and hub in Green.
Without his partner in crime in screen-and-roll action, Curry often had no direct line to the release valve whenever the Kings sent two bodies his way. The Warriors adjusted by involving a third party in the ballscreen action:
Jonathan Kuminga sets the slot ballscreen for Curry and two defenders double him as expected. The Warriors counter by having DiVincenzo stationed nearby on the strong-side wing to act as the release valve — instead of Curry trying to directly find Kuminga on the roll.
With the ball in DiVincenzo’s hands, he’s in a much better spot to find a direct passing angle to the rolling Kuminga, who finishes at the rim.
This action — called “shorting” the pick-and-roll — also occurred on this possession:
Again, anticipating that the Kings are sitting on the expected short-roll action, Curry makes sure to find Wiggins on the wing instead of directly passing to Looney. Wiggins has a much better passing angle toward Looney — and with Huerter pre-rotating in the paint to cover the roll, Kuminga is left open on the weak-side corner and drives baseline for the dunk.
Without Green and Payton II to act as their best defenders, screeners, and roll men, the Warriors counted on a connected and collective effort on defense to limit the Kings’ high-powered offense. They found other ways to unlock the effect that Curry has on defenses who try to get the ball out of his hands.
It was enough to stave off the Kings and extend the series to at least Game 5 — and bought Green and Payton time to come back and bolster the squad to full strength.