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How defense became an uphill battle against the Hawks with no wings to support Draymond Green

Once Andrew Wiggins was sidelined with an injury and Jonathan Kuminga fouled out, containment became an issue.

Golden State Warriors v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Eliminating garbage time from the calculation — which is what Cleaning The Glass does so brilliantly — the Golden State Warriors’ defense coughs up 118.2 points per 100 possessions to opponents this season, which is 21st in the league. In the half court, they allow 101.0 points per 100 possessions, good for 20th in the league.

There’s no question that defense has been the much bigger issue this season compared to the other end of the floor. Much of that has to do with the revolving door of personnel, triggered by injuries, the two suspensions garnered by their best defender, and old habits dying hard.

The Warriors do have a height issue, but I would contend that length — and the occasional lack of it — has been behind their struggles trying to get a consistent stream of stops. Length allows for more overall versatility in terms of coverages, which has always been the dynasty’s main currency on the defensive end, especially during its heyday.

As of the moment, the wing room is hanging on a thread, held together by 6-foot-7 Andrew Wiggins (who has a 7-foot wingspan) and 6-foot-8 Jonathan Kuminga (who also has a 7-foot wingspan). With Moses Moody and undersized-yet-effective “wing” Gary Payton II still sidelined — and Klay Thompson having an up-and-down season as a defender — the Wiggins and Kuminga pairing has held the fort on defense with Draymond Green behind them as the anchor of the entire unit.

In the seven games since Green’s return from suspension — which includes this latest loss to the Atlanta Hawks — the Warriors have limited opponents to an extremely stingy 99.6 points per 100 possessions with Green, Wiggins, and Kuminga on the floor (124 minutes). That mark overwhelmingly clears the best defense in the league by nine points per 100 possessions.

The formula for success seems to be combining the collective length and athleticism provided by Wiggins and Kuminga with the intelligence and tenacity provided by Green. The rim-pressure element has been obvious on the offensive end — but it’s on defense where it’s been fun watching this trio perform their work.

Flashes of an elite defensive unit have been there with these three. The versatility is present: shuffling between various coverages, whether it’s switching, fighting over screens, drop, hedge, etc. Work is being done early due to the accountability and leadership factor being provided by Green. And there has been a renewed sense of purpose combined with a sense of urgency to salvage a season hanging on the verge of failure.

That is the macro perspective behind what they need to do to bring order and a sense of identity to their defense. A micro issue — a major one, at that — has been their inability to contain dribble penetration at the point of attack, which puts the entire defense in rotation and triggers a domino effect of defensive breakdowns.

Wiggins and Kuminga haven’t been perfect and aren’t immune to blame from this issue — but ever since Green has been behind them to shore up the defense, they’ve looked damn near immaculate in terms of point-of-attack containment, screen navigation, and being able to stay in front of ballhandlers.

Everything starts at the point of attack. When things are handily taken care of up front, the chances of breakdowns occurring will considerably be lowered:

Wiggins being able to navigate the screen for Trae Young allows Kuminga to recover. Once Green — the low man — sees that Wiggins is able to stay in front, he returns to his man in the corner to eliminate a potential kickout. Not having to commit to help means the whole defense doesn’t have to leave their man.

Green’s ability to diagnose help and keep everything afloat as the anchor has been a significant factor, but that’s nothing new from a man who is as much of a defensive lifeline for this team as Curry has been for their offense. He remains the most coverage-versatile defender on this team and arguably in the entire league.

He isn’t being feted enough for his ability to play drop coverage as a big in the pick-and-roll. Playing the middle ground is crucial in order to be successful as a drop big; keeping the ballhandler contained while also keeping tabs on the roller is a skill underappreciated and understated in this offense-pilled league.

Green happens to be one of the best to ever perform such a skillset:

The ability to execute a screen-level meetup (also known as a “soft hedge”) back to breaking up a lob for Clint Capela (helped by Wiggins’ excellent screen navigation and being able to stay in front of Young) is something that Green has been doing his entire career:

This type of defense — perfect containment up front and perfect containment behind the point of attack — is what gave this Warriors defense life in 2022 on their way to a championship:

It’s no coincidence, then, that once Wiggins was sidelined with an ankle injury and wasn’t able to return for the second half, the Warriors’ depleted wing room took its toll. He was replaced with more defensively compromised personnel; Kuminga was tasked with more responsibilities guarding Young, leaving the Warriors with fewer looks and personnel to change things up and putting more pressure on Kuminga to be physical — which increased his foul count and ultimately disqualified him.

As much as Green as the center is the ideal, playing that role on the second night of a back-to-back — with both of your supporting wings gone from the game — takes its toll.

The stark difference between having either Wiggins or Kuminga contain Young at the point of attack and having Lester Quiñones guard Young (which is no disrespect intended toward him — but the reality is that he’s not as equipped to even make Young’s ballhandling life a tad difficult) was readily apparent:

By the time overtime arrived, Green found himself having to anchor a defense with three guards, a struggling wing, and having to constantly guard the backline after hard doubles thrown at Young.

The result: another game lost and a wasted 60-point effort from Curry, who did so on 22-of-38 shooting (12-of-15 on twos, 10-of-23 on threes) and 73.8% True Shooting.

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