The mother of all NBA play-in games on Wednesday featured Stephen Curry and LeBron James — two of the most innovative, prolific, transcendent offensive talents to ever set foot on a basketball court. In the end, however, the Los Angeles Lakers’ 103-100 win over the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center — one of the most entertaining games of the year that sent the Lakers to the playoffs and the Warriors to an elimination game against the Grizzlies — more closely resembled the brutish defensive battles of the 90s than an artistic showcase of the modern game’s assault on offensive limits.
But what else would we expect? The Lakers have been the best defensive team in the NBA for the past two seasons, even after James and Anthony Davis missed extended time over the past few months. The Warriors defense, however, has been a little more surprising. Over the last 20 games of the regular season, Golden State led the league in defensive rating, allowing a stingy 106.6 points per 100 possessions. Overall they finished fifth, which must have seemed like a pipe dream when the team sat at 17th after the first month of the season.
The defensive improvement was punctuated by a brilliant performance on Wednesday that allowed them to come within one possession of beating a Lakers team that led the Western Conference when James and Davis were healthy. The Lakers shot 41 percent from the field, including 32 percent from the 3-point line.
“This is what you do during the season. You grow and you practice and you try to get better. And we’ve got good players. I’m not surprised by this at all,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of the defensive effort in Wednesday’s loss. “Our guys have really stuck together and played hard and, as I said, tonight was just a reminder of what we’ve become over the last few months.”
Kerr, who preached from the first day of the preseason that he felt his team could be elite defensively, highlighted the job that Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins did guarding Davis and James, respectively. The two Lakers superstars combined for just 11 points on 3-for-19 shooting in the first half before finding their groove late.
But, as with any great defense, it’s a team effort to put the clamps on. Partly due to injuries, Kerr has whittled his rotation down to eight players as the defense has built to a crescendo in recent months. The insertion of Kent Bazemore into the starting lineup and more minutes for Juan Toscano-Anderson off the bench have added to Golden State’s length and versatility defensively. During the regular season, the Warriors defense allowed 6.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Bazemore on the floor, and 4.5 fewer points per 100 possessions in Toscano-Anderson’s minutes.
“Just attention to detail,” Bazemore said when asked how the defense has improved over the course of the season. “Coaches have been doing a good job of working with us on a game plan. They come to us and are really open with the dialogue amongst the players, and how we feel about it. It’s a collective effort, I think.”
The peripheral pieces have been good, but the play-in game against the Lakers only served to highlight what we already knew: Draymond Green is one of the best, if not the best, defender in the NBA. His communication, instincts and quickness allow him to not only be a tremendous individual defender but also to raise the level of the unit as a whole. Watch as he stifles Davis’ isolation post-up attempt using his strength and quickness, as the other Warriors cover every conceivable passing lane to confuse Davis into committing a turnover.
“We’ve got a hell of a defensive leader in Dray. So I’m always following his lead,” Toscano-Anderson said after the game. “He’s vocal, the energy and the confidence he gives us defensively, and he’s so versatile. I think it’s really led by him, but, you know, guys like Baze, [Kevon Looney] is the anchor down there, and I like to consider myself a good defender. So I think we’ve got a multitude of guys who are pretty versatile and pretty active defensively.”
Toscano-Anderson also pointed out that the Warriors have been clicking offensively, which helps the defense by forcing the other team to take the ball out of bounds and limiting transition. That came in particularly handy against James and the Lakers, who are absolutely devastating on the break.
The Warriors may have lost on Wednesday, but their defensive performance against one of the most dangerous offenses in the NBA, especially in the postseason, has to do wonders for their confidence heading into Friday’s win-or-go-home battle with the Grizzlies, whom Golden State beat in the regular-season finale on Sunday to earn the No. 8 seed. If the Warriors manage to advance, they’ll run into the 3-point-bombing, ball-movement heavy offense of the Utah Jazz, which finished as the fourth-best offense in the league this season. Given what they’ve been able to do recently, however, Golden State must feel secure that its defense can keep them in any game against any opponent.
“We’re in a good spot. We still feel really good about ourselves,” Bazemore said. “Obviously tonight was a little gut punch, but we still feel good about what’s ahead. We’ve still got a lot of good basketball in us. All we’ve got to do is keep giving ourselves an opportunity.”