Potential Warriors playoff run hinges on defense meeting moment


Potential Warriors playoff run hinges on defense meeting moment originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

With the clock ticking toward 11 p.m. PT on Tuesday night, Draymond Green sat at his cubicle in the Chase Center locker room addressing matters related to where the Warriors have been, where they are and where they’d like to go.

He talked about set plays vs. reads, the evolution of Chris Paul as a Warrior and the growth required for young players to properly utilize the offensive gravity of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

And Draymond being Draymond, he naturally discussed late-season defense.

“We’ve seen teams in this league for years that made the mistake of thinking they can just put a great offense out there and their defense sucks and think they’re going to win,” Green said long after Golden State’s 104-100 win over the Dallas Mavericks. “As you run up against the team that is – it doesn’t even have to be as good on offense – just competent on the offensive end but they play defense you going to lose.”

This is and always has been the way to the mountaintop. While the Warriors’ offense weaved captivating spells during the glory years – 2015-2019 – it was their defense that was most responsible for the trophies. Good regular-season habits led to phenomenal postseasons.

And it’s the defense, led by Green, that will dictate whether they advance beyond the NBA play-in tournament and, if so, how far they will go in the playoffs. His ability to guard every position, coordinate the defense in real time and make plays on and off the ball is unique in the league.

The surest way to know there’s a white-hot sprint to the Western Conference playoffs is to glance at the late-season team metrics – specifically the ratings on offense and defense. We’ll focus on each team’s last five games through Tuesday.

The Warriors are 5-0 despite a 15th-ranked offense. Credit a defense ranking No. 2 in the league, with a 102.9 rating that is No. 1 in the West.

“Our defense is the one thing that is non-negotiable,” Green said. “We have to defend at that level.”

It’s the only way the Warriors have a reasonable chance to staying close to teams above them in the standings. And most of those teams smoked the Warriors in the regular season.

Golden State’s misfortune is that it is in the West, where defensive ratings show an April rush building toward blowtorch intensity. No team in the West ranks among the top seven offenses over the five-game span. Eastern Conference teams are mostly playing each other, and 24 games separated the first-place Boston Celtics in the 10th place Hawks. It’s less of a sprint than a slog in the East.

The West is downright malevolent. The 10th-place Warriors were only 11.5 games behind the first-place Nuggets. The much smaller gap points to an infinitely more competitive conference. With defenses getting nastier as the games become more consequential, offense is more of a struggle.

Which largely explains why the Phoenix Suns, the top-rated offense in the West during the five-game span, are only eighth overall.

With the East dominating the offensive charts, the West is home to five of the top eight defenses. Following the Warriors are the Mavericks (fourth), the Los Angeles Lakers (sixth), the Minnesota Timberwolves (seventh) and the Denver Nuggets (eighth).

Golden State’s biggest challenge has been its inability to maintain momentum. The Warriors have gone through 75 games without a six-game win streaks. Each of their two five-game streaks was snapped with extreme prejudice, the first a double-digit loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in November and the second by blowing a 14-point lead over the final 11 minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers in February.

“We lost control of the game defensively,” coach Steve Kerr said after the 130-125 loss to Los Angeles on Feb. 14 at Chase Center. “And I don’t think we adjusted well enough as a coaching staff.”

True on both counts. The Clippers shot 61.9 percent from the field and 62.5 percent from deep in that fatal fourth quarter. They also shot 15 free throws, as the Golden State committed nine fouls. Norman Powell, given enough time and space to be fitted for a tuxedo, went 4-of-4 from deep.

The result was LA rolling to a 44-28 quarter to steal a win with Kawhi Leonard watching in street clothes.

All because Golden State’s defense decided to rest.

Perhaps the most salient question facing the Warriors over the final seven games and beyond is this: Which defense will show up?

The Warriors were 15th in defense through their first 15 games, 17th during the second 15, 29th during the third 15 – with Draymond mostly on suspension – second during the fourth 15 and ninth during their last 15. The only time they looked like a playoff team was when they went 11-4 during that fourth 15-game stretch.

Golden State’s last five opponents, some good and some not so good, have scored, in order: 92, 93, 97, 113 and 100 points. The most impressive of the five was the win over Dallas because that’s the best of five and it was at Chase, where the Warriors have been mediocre all season.

And Green was an absolute star, showing, once again, why the Warriors put up with those spasms of nonsense.

“Every night, the defense isn’t going to be that great,” Green said in the locker room. “But it has to be with those same intentions. If we got those same intentions, playing with the effort that we played with tonight and have been playing with over the last five six games, it’s good for this team.

The Warriors posted a fantastic 99.0 defensive rating in that game. To expect that over the final seven is unrealistic. But it’ll have to be close for them to advance beyond the play-in tournament.

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