The Warriors are putting defense first — just ask the Clippers

Steph Curry was 0 for 8 from 3-point range.

Kevin Durant was 5 for 17 from the field — more shots than points.

Klay Thompson had only 24 points as the leading scorer, a far cry from Monday’s 60-point performance.

Warriors 115, Clippers 98 — and it did not feel that close after the four-minute mark of the first quarter.

So much for that idea of the Clippers being the major threat to Golden State. Yes, it’s the regular season and yes it’s early and sure, yes, the Clippers can play much better than they did vs. the Warriors in the blowout on Wednesday night. But all we can go on is what our eyes have seen and the data shows us and that story is this: the Clippers are now 1-8 vs. Golden State since Steve Kerr took over as coach in 2014.

There will be time to bury the Clippers deep, deep down, to toss away the good wins they’ve had vs. the Spurs and Cavaliers and instead once again sing that old chestnut, “The Clippers are frauds who will never win anything significant,” but for now, let’s instead take notice of something important from this game that resonates going forward.

 
The Warriors contested everything Wednesday. USATSI

The Golden State Warriors have a defensive gear that was missing in their 73-win parade last season, and that makes them an entirely different animal, especially when the postseason arrives.

That team became so good on offense, particularly at shot making, basking in the radiant glow of Steph Curry’s singular ability to space the floor all 90 feet, that it took plays off defensively. The Warriors were still good on defense, but they weren’t great. Kevin Durant has helped change that, slowly.

At the start of this season, Golden State legitimately struggled on defense, and it continues to have problems. For example, entering play Wednesday night, the Warriors gave up a 107.6 defensive rating with their starting unit this season. They are only ninth in defensive rating this season, even after holding the Clippers to 39.6 shooting from the field.

But they’ve gotten better week by week, and now have the third-best half-court defense, according to Synergy Sports. They still have had problems with transition and getting back, but they were dominant in both aspects Wednesday against the Clippers.

For example, the Warriors made life a living hell for Blake Griffin in transition. Typically the best way to attack Golden State (as the Thunder showed last spring in the playoffs) is to go right back at them in transition. But now when Griffin gets out to attack the rim, he’s got a 7-footer whose arms can disrupt any pass-out attempt he makes. Meanwhile, Stephen Curry’s defense is nothing to go overboard about, but he is great at swiping at handles and jumping passing lanes. Like so:

Durant’s length is a real problem when you’re trying to make tough passes in traffic. It’s just this gigantic spider (Durantula, shout-out J.E. Skeets) whose gangly appendages just wreak havoc on your passing intentions.

And Griffin didn’t have any better luck with Draymond Green back. Notice that Zaza Pachulia is also back, which helps force Griffin to pass, and Green is able to swat the ball from behind without fouling.

The Warriors really targeted J.J. Redick all night. Redick is a world-class shooter and he opens up the rest of the Clippers offense, but they never gave him an ounce of daylight. Redick’s one limitation is he’s not super long or athletic, and the Warriors just went at him constantly with theirs.

The Warriors put up 16 points on 14 Clippers turnovers, including eight in the opening quarter where they established a lead they would never relinquish.

So yeah, the length is a problem. But it’s not merely their natural abilities or the way they scheme teams. You have to have the individual mental effort to maintain focus and the physical determination to make these plays. This one is the best I can provide as an example.

It’s a transition sequence. Klay Thompson is watching Chris Paul — the Point God, one of the best point guards ever — come up the floor. He has to watch out to help if Paul drives. Paul passes to Redick in the corner. Not only does Thompson close out, but watch how he closes out, with his hand straight up.

This seems like a small deal, right? But I can’t tell you how often a defender will close with his hands out to the side to contain the drive vs. a poor shooter, because they don’t have the wherewithal to know who they’re defending, or the determination to hold their hand up while closing, because that’s hard to do. But in doing so, this is the contest that Thompson was able to make on Redick:

redickcapture.png

No look, there, and the result is a steal.

This is what the Warriors are doing this season, when engaged. They have games where they slip, and it costs them, like vs. the Rockets. But overall, more and more, this team is showing what it really is: a terrifying unit that can put defense first. They don’t need to use crazy Steph Curry shots as a crutch. They don’t get suckered into going for home-run shot after home-run shot when everything they do results in a better and better offensive look, but more than that, they’re willing this season to start with their defensive play.

If that’s the kind of beast they’re going to be in the playoffs, the Clippers, the Rockets, the Spurs — and yes, the Cavaliers — will be in a world of trouble. We’ve never seen a collection of offensive talent like this. Now they’re starting to put on the same kind of show on defense, where the highlights don’t come from.

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