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Warriors build a solid defensive foundation in their win over the Magic

The Warriors managed to keep the Magic’s half-court offense largely contained.

Orlando Magic v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors held the Orlando Magic to 115.8 points per 100 possessions — a defensive rating that would rank 16th in the league without garbage time, per Cleaning The Glass. Based on that information, their defensive performance would be considered quite mediocre.

But I would argue that their 121-115 win against the Magic was built on a solid foundation of defense. The Magic did have a bit of variance favor them on some of the looks they got on offense, especially from beyond the arc — they shot 13-of-34 (38.2%) on threes, better than their season averages on attempts (30.0 per game, 29th) and success rate (33.6%, 30th) — but the Warriors held strong and didn’t allow themselves to disconnect based on a couple of good defensive possessions that were canceled out by said variance.

The Magic are by no means world beaters when it comes to half-court offense. Per Cleaning The Glass, they average 96.2 points per 100 half-court possessions — 21st in the NBA and 2.5 points below league average. They instead feast off of the stops their third-ranked defense garners them, mostly off of the turnovers they force (opponents turn over 15.7% of their possessions against them, second in the league).

Which is why the ideal gameplan against them involves winning the possession battle, making them take the ball out of the basket in order to set up your own half-court defense, and forcing them to have to create in the half court against a fortified defensive unit. The Warriors took care of the putting-the-ball-in-the-basket part — they hung 124.7 points per 100 possessions on a typically sturdy Magic defense, fueled by Steph Curry’s 36 points on 12-of-20 shooting (8-of-11 on twos, 4-of-9 on threes) and 72.5% True Shooting. He also had support: six of his teammates were in double figures:

  • Jonathan Kuminga: 19 points
  • Klay Thompson: 15 points
  • Chris Paul: 12 points
  • Andrew Wiggins: 10 points
  • Trayce Jackson-Davis: 10 points
  • Brandin Podziemski: 10 points

The equation is simple: more buckets equals more times the Magic take it out of the basket, which means having to face a set Warriors defense. But that doesn’t guarantee a stop at all for the Warriors, especially in a season where they are allowing 100.4 points per 100 half-court possessions — 20th in the league.

Connectivity has been hit or miss this season, to put it lightly. Most of it has been because of the lack of overall size, length, and disruptiveness across the board, but even traits that compensate for those shortcomings — prescience, grit, knowhow, and effort — have been lacking,

Which is why the possession below is what stood out to me against the Magic:

When Curry switches onto Paolo Banchero, the quick decision by Thompson to come over and double right away — termed as a “switch-to-blitz” or switch-to-double” coverage — compels Banchero to give up the ball immediately toward Caleb Houstan. What happens behind the switch-to-blitz is even more of note. Paul makes sure to rotate to Houstan to discourage a pull-up attempt, while making sure that Curry recovers back toward his original assignment and off of Banchero.

When Jalen Suggs then decides to attack Paul on the recovery, Trayce Jackson-Davis is in good position to deflect the lob. Due to the quick decision to double and Paul’s timely rotation behind the double, the Warriors’ half-court defense wasn’t overly compromised — and managed to force the turnover.

While the Magic are blessed with a couple of advantage generators and shot creators in Banchero and Franz Wagner, the Warriors will take them trying to create something in isolation instead of being put in constant rotation. That approach banks on the faith they’re placing on their perimeter stoppers.

In Banchero’s case, Thompson was tasked with most of the defensive reps on him. Better suited to defend bigger wings and forwards at this point of his career, Thompson did a bang-up job against Banchero despite committing four fouls.

The 27-point stat line doesn’t tell the whole story — Banchero did manage to get to the line 11 times. He was held to a True Shooting percentage of 54.4%, which is 3.6 percentage points below league average.

Most of the inefficiency in scoring was caused by Thompson making things difficult for Banchero:

Defensive versatility has always been a signature trait of the Dynasty Warriors — the ability to play versatile defenders, play versatile coverages, and switch things up on the fly. Their attempts to return to vintage form on that end have been difficult, due to a mixture of personnel shortcomings, botched execution, and not paying enough attention to detail.

For one night, it felt like they rewound to when their defense was at its peak — albeit, against a team that readily makes it easy for opponents to shore up in the half court. Nevertheless, the Warriors pounced on the opportunity to look good against a so-so half-court team — an example of which manifested when the Warriors threw a 3-2 zone curveball against the Magic.

Per Synergy, the Magic are the most zoned team in the league — both on a per-possession basis (5.3) and on the percentage of offensive possessions they see it (5.7%). They score 0.982 points per possession against the zone, 21st in the league.

Against a team that is categorized as a low volume and low efficiency three-point shooting team, the 3-2 zone — with Gary Payton II at its head — was an obvious wrench to throw out:

A more nuanced and advanced defensive maneuver to point out (and bordering on the nerdy/geeky/sicko — but indulge me for a bit) was on this possession. Keep your eyes trained on Paul and Kevon Looney:

When Looney gets switched onto Gary Harris on the flare screen and Paul gets switched onto Wendell Carter Jr., Looney and Paul immediately mind meld their way into an off-ball switch to eliminate the mismatches — which is known as a “scram” switch. This immediately eliminates two potential avenues of attack and allows Looney to defend the ballscreen and contain the ballhandler, which leads to a stop.

The Warriors aren’t always going to face a team that is compromised by their half-court offense and limited by their struggles to shoot from the outside. But it should serve as the template to be replicated on a game-to-game basis — with a couple of tweaks to account for different contexts — against other teams they’ll face.

The lack of size and athleticism will always be present, one way or another. It can be remedied through lineup combinations and rotations (and maybe even a transaction down the line). But perhaps the best antidote is a combination of plain old execution, doing one’s work early, and being connected from the get-go.

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