Warriors bottle Blazers’ Damian Lillard using playoff-style defensive scheme

SAN FRANCISCO — One of the defining images of the Golden State Warriors’ five-game dismantling of Dallas in last May’s Western Conference Finals was Mike Brown, then their defensive coordinator, leaping off the bench with two fists in the air. air and Draymond Green, their center linebacker, picking up the signal to switch to zone defense and relaying it to his teammates on the fly.

The Warriors were at their fiercest last season when their defense was at its most complex, bouncing from plane to plane depending on opposing personnel. They had better attacking point options, like a healthy Gary Payton II, and more capable veterans, like Otto Porter Jr., to absorb and execute strategy. The increase in youth, decrease in health, and reduction in hunger and attention this season has led to less complexity and a defensive rating that currently ranks 18th in the league.

But Steve Kerr’s coaching staff decided to deploy a specified playoff-like scheme at Portland’s game on Tuesday night and – after the Warriors ran away with a 123-105 win – that was the talk. hottest post-match.

“I know this coaching staff,” Green said. “I know when they come up with specific game plans, it works. I’ve seen it work year after year, playoff after playoff. When they lock down and have a specific game plan, we want to keep guys that way, we want to get that guy marked and not let that guy down, when they do that, it works.

Kerr and the two assistants leading the defense this season — Kenny Atkinson and Chris DeMarco — delivered the game plan during the walkthrough hours before the tip. Damian Lillard broke for 71 points two nights earlier. He beat the Warriors in a more traditional pattern earlier in the month, baiting poor individual defense to earn 16 free throws.

This time around, the Warriors wouldn’t allow that. They decided to actively force the ball out of Lillard’s hands, mostly through an overly aggressive blitz well beyond the 3-point line or a box-and-1 that had Donte DiVincenzo facing Lillard. and lots of help wandering around his neighborhood.

The most obvious sign that the Warriors were treating this game with an increased defensive strategy was the call signal. It was common to see Brown demonstratively dialing in a different scheme last season while the ball was in play. There has been little of that this season. But it was just there for everyone to see against the Blazers.

Here’s a fourth quarter possession during a Warriors running avalanche. DiVincenzo hits a 3 to put the Warriors up nine, then signals to his teammates that they were going to a box-and-1 on the ensuing defensive possession, fingers sticking up like football posts.

The box-and-1 is an uncommon look. For this to work on the fly, all five players must recognize the play call, retreat to their assigned locations, and understand their assignments.

On that precise possession, it was perfectly executed. DiVincenzo picks up Lillard well beyond the 3-point line and locks him down to take off the easy cut to the perimeter, knowing he has a zoned assist waiting for him in the paint. Lillard is unable to open up and somehow walks out of the action.

Anthony Lamb and Jordan Poole populate the top of the box. Draymond Green and Jonathan Kuminga are at the bottom of the case. Lamb and Green communicate beautifully about this possession. Lamb passes the ballhandler to Poole and runs to the paint. Green sees Jerami Grant cut in the middle and passes it to Lamb. Portland tries to drop a pass into the steps of Grant and Lamb in front for an interception. Lillard never touches the ball.

Here’s a possession from earlier in the fourth quarter. The Blazers start possession like many offenses against the Warriors do, using Poole’s man to set a high screen, hoping to drag Poole into some island action. But the Warriors don’t change or even softcover. They blitz and almost double up to half court.

At this point, Lillard seems to know what’s coming and is resigned to the idea that it will be his teammates who will have to shoot. He walks straight into the double team 40 feet from the edge, passes it and watches Cam Reddish miss an open 3 to close out a possession where he never came within 35 feet of the basket.

The Blazers toasted the Warriors for 41 points in the first quarter. Matisse Thybulle hit a pair of 3s. Nassir Little and Reddish also connected from deep. The Warriors weren’t committed to aggressive blitzing and box-and-1, sometimes reverting to a more traditional look, and Lillard was able to score 15 points in 12 minutes.

“It was a bit intermittent, you know?” said Lillard. “They would try to have normal covers and not be so aggressive. But I think they just wanted to keep something in their back pocket. And, you know, going into the half with a 17-point lead, it was obvious in the third quarter that they went out and just got into it. I think for me teams are generally aggressive in pick-and-roll coverage in half-court spots, but they just committed to it.

The Warriors said the message at halftime was to avoid an overreaction. Even if Portland’s roleplayers land some shots, don’t suddenly treat them like shooters. The Warriors decided to commit more to the game plan to get the ball out of Lillard’s hands and made sure to improve their execution.

“The dude can shoot from the half court, but at the same time he can also get to the edge and he’s very fast,” DiVincenzo said. “So you don’t want to take it too high. We’ve watched a lot of movies of us and other teams taking it too high, and it’s blowing right next to you and the big one is hot on its heels. So I think the first thing is the pickup points.

“Don’t get too low, but also understand that we cleaned up in the second half – when we blitzed, when we were in the box-and-1 – (we changed) where was that big, angle, so he couldn’t turn that corner. When he bounced the ball a couple of times and got rid of it, that’s where we did our job.

There were times when Lillard still arrived at a more advantageous situation than expected. But there was a collective five-man commitment to the game plan. This meant, as in the possession below, even if he went past Kuminga and Klay Thompson two-way on the perimeter and shoved his way into the lane, Draymond Green would collapse on the assist side, very willing to give up a Jerami Grant attempted 3 – he went 1 of 8 – instead of a Lillard layup.

The Warriors won the second half 75-40. Green was a plus-26 in his minutes.

“Draymond is as good as anyone I’ve ever seen performing what we were doing tonight,” Kerr said. “It essentially becomes a zone at the back of the game. If you’re going to double Queen at half court or the blitzer or whatever, you have to have someone like Draymond or (Kevon Looney) at the back – or the twos – to navigate what’s going on because it’s four against three. I think we executed that beautifully.

The win moves the Warriors to 32-30, tying them with the Clippers for the fifth seed. They will face the Clippers on Thursday night. The success of a more complex defensive game plan begs the question of whether the Warriors will commit to it more in the future, given that the more traditional approach has led to a lousy season at that end.

Tuesday’s strategy centered on Lillard, but there are heliocentric scorers throughout the NBA and the Warriors can add more flavor to their approach against the varied personnel they will face in the coming weeks.

“I think we’re going to start seeing more of that,” Green said. “Once you get to that stage of the season, you’re not just preparing for that particular game. You prepare for the playoffs, go from series to series and change coverage, go from quarter to quarter and you can change your coverage and everyone understands that.

Lillard had attempted 42 3s in the previous two games. He only got seven against the Warriors. He was held to 25 points, his lowest since late January. The scheme produced a quieter-than-usual Lillard and a much-needed win for the Warriors.

“I told the players in our walkthrough that it was a great game for us because it’s kind of the playoff goal,” Kerr said. “You have to understand your opponent and maybe throw something different at them. And then have the assurance of staying with her. If you do what we did tonight and take the ball out of Queen’s hands and they hit like four or five 3s right away, it’s really easy to kind of say, “it’s not going to work” .

“But it is enough to remember the forest for the trees. You just have to remember 48 minutes, let’s keep going, but let’s do it a little better and hope what we’re trying to make works. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, but the main thing is that the team feels it and goes through that process because we have a lot of young guys who have never been through this before.

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(Warriors defense photo of Damian Lillard: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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