Warriors’ stingy defense has delivered them to the doorstep of an NBA title

The last Warriors title team had five usable centers with varying skill sets, Kevin Durant during his best rim-protecting season, younger versions of Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, pre-injury Klay Thompson and a 6-foot-7 backup point, Shaun Livingston, who could guard wings. You could construct every type of lineup combination imaginable to deploy any defensive scheme.

The current Warriors don’t have that luxury. No healthy player on the roster is above 6-foot-9. Their only true center, Kevon Looney, isn’t a leaper. Their wing depth has lessened. They have three recent lottery picks they don’t yet fully trust in the highest-leverage playoff situations. Their best small-ball group includes Jordan Poole, an explosive young scorer who has had a target painted on his back defensively this past month.

So more creativity and regular attention to detail have been needed for the Warriors to cultivate and maintain a championship-level unit on the defensive end. But they’ve done it. The Warriors generated the best defensive rating in the league during the first couple of months, only fell to second overall for the season despite Green’s long absence. The defense held up well against the Nuggets, Grizzlies and Mavericks to win the Western Conference, and now the Warriors are on the doorstep of another NBA title because they have remained stingy against the East’s best team.

The Warriors beat the Celtics 104-94 in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Monday night, grabbing a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. They gave up only 16 first-quarter points and only 20 fourth-quarter points. The Celtics, in this series, have scored 88, 94 and 97 points in their three losses. In their entire run through the East, they failed to reach 100 points only twice in 20 games. The Warriors have nudged within 48 minutes of a title because they are stopping the Celtics better than any prior opponent did.

Draymond Green still sets the defensive tone. He doesn’t have the same explosion he enjoyed in his late 20s. Green once blocked 17 shots in a four-game sweep of the Blazers. He has only two blocks this entire series and 20 in the playoffs.

But his help instincts are as sharp as ever and, revved up for Game 5, he was identifying mistakes and fixing leaks the entire night.

Watch Green here early in the second quarter. The clip begins with Jaylen Brown searching and getting a Poole switch, a matchup that sends off an alarm bell for Green. The moment Brown begins his drive against Poole, you can see Green — who’s guarding Robert Williams — take an extra leap toward the middle of the lane, showing help early. Brown gets past Poole, but Green is there to contest the layup vertically and snag the rebound.

Another portion of that slow-motion sequence is notable. As Green scoots over to help Poole, Nemanja Bjelica backs up to protect against Williams crashing the offensive glass. He chips Williams, which keeps him grounded, as Green rises for the rebound.

Back in training camp — after the Warriors used their two draft picks on teenagers and prioritized floor spacing with the additions of Bjelica and Otto Porter Jr. — there was a healthy level of skepticism about how they could even maintain a top-10 defense, given the reconfigured personnel. Green was among those with initial doubts.

But Bjelica used his size and brain better than expected. Porter surprised teammates with his rebounding toughness and instincts. Steph Curry had his sturdiest defensive season ever. Poole upped his care factor. Looney evolved into an elite interior anchor. Gary Payton II’s arrival gave the Warriors a perimeter hound who led the league in steals per 36 minutes. Andrew Wiggins developed into a wing stopper. Green, liking his surroundings better than expected, quarterbacked them into an elite unit.

“Mike Brown has been amazing in terms of re-establishing the importance of that side of the basketball, from training camp to now,” Curry said. “Not letting anybody slip up in terms of accountability on that end of the floor.”

The coaching side of this defensive revival shouldn’t be understated. Here is a story that goes into greater behind-the-scenes detail. But the gist is that Steve Kerr handed the defense reins this summer over to Brown, who added variety to the playbook and debuted an internal metric system that publicized the individual defensive effectiveness of each player. If you stunk during any given week defensively, you’d hear about it in front of the entire team.

“We’ve tried a lot of different things over the course of the year,” Curry said. “Traditional man coverage, all the box-and-one, zone stuff that we can kind of sprinkle in from time to time. But at the end of the day, it’s just effort and intensity and kind of relentlessness on that front. We’ve done a really good job of maintaining that for the most part throughout the year and trying to plug in where there’s a little — I guess you call it deficiencies compared to teams of the past.”

In the conference finals, the Warriors mixed up their looks more than ever before, sending a variety of zone schemes and pick-and-roll coverages in an attempt to throw off Luka Dončić’s rhythm. That hasn’t been the case against Boston. They’ve limited the zone looks and stayed in a man base, relying on their veteran players to know each player’s tendencies and shooting capabilities — knowing whom to leave and, as the broadcast mentioned, the need to force Brown and Jayson Tatum to their left.

That’s part of the reason you haven’t seen Jonathan Kuminga or Moses Moody. Kerr and Brown have tilted defense at every tense moment during the playoffs. It’s their tendency. They are more concerned about a coverage mix-up or a whiffed box-out than some spacing issues or the lack of an extra spectacular athlete on the floor.

It still comes down to the players executing the scheme and making plays. In Game 5, various players had big-time defensive performances. Wiggins, playing 44 more minutes as the team’s irreplaceable wing defender, was the defensive co-star next to Green.

Here are back-to-back Wiggins clips, spliced together. In the first, he stones Tatum in a one-on-one situation and forces him into a difficult contested fadeaway, which he airballs. In the second, Wiggins alertly leaps over from the weak side to block Brown’s jumper as he tries to shoot over Curry.

Wiggins finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds, two steals and a block. Those 13 rebounds give him 29 rebounds the past two games, and most of them aren’t the cheap variety. You’ll see him sky into traffic for a defensive rebound in the next clip.

But start with Klay Thompson on the wing. Thompson wouldn’t say when asked whether this has been his best defensive series of the playoffs, but it feels like it. Thompson had a huge strip and a few stops on Brown late in Game 4 and had several nice moments again in Game 5.

Here he is jumping out on Tatum on a switch, sticking with him on a drive and forcing a pass out without needing help that compromises the defense. That leads Al Horford into an uncomfortable drive and a missed floater. The possession ends with that Wiggins rebound in traffic.

Payton’s return has added that extra ball hound on the perimeter that served such a use for the Warriors all season. Payton played 26 minutes in Game 5, had three steals and was a plus-16.

Don’t watch Payton at the beginning of this next clip. The action is taking place on the opposite wing. The Celtics are setting an off-ball screen to get Curry onto Tatum, but Wiggins doesn’t allow it. He’s been fighting through screens increasingly well the past two rounds.

Wiggins gets through the initial screen to stay on Tatum, then, on the next screen, Curry hedges out for the double. Tatum drops it off to Marcus Smart, and that’s when Payton enters the proceedings. He’s about as quick laterally as any other guard in the league. So he pounces into Smart’s periphery to get a body in the mix but is still able to scatter back out to Brown and take away the 3. Brown puts it on the floor, and Payton strips him.

But, again, when the Warriors are at their stingiest, it starts with Green. They gave up the lead briefly in the third quarter but strapped up in the fourth for their most important defensive quarter of the season, limiting the Celtics to 14 points in 11 minutes before the benches finally emptied.

This is one of their stops in the middle of the fourth quarter. Tatum is working against Wiggins and actually gets a bit of daylight on a lefty drive. It’s not a traditional switch situation. No screen is set. But Green is always reading every part of the floor. He switches onto Tatum to shut off the drive, and Wiggins alertly shuffles over to Williams to get a body on Boston’s best rebounder. Tatum fades into another miss, and Green grabs the rebound.

If the Warriors win the title this week, the credit will spray in every direction. So much of it will be rooted in their willingness and ability to reconfigure a championship-level defensive unit despite a more challenging set of ingredients and skill sets.

(Photo of Draymond Green guarding Boston’s Jaylen Brown: Cary Edmondson / USA Today)

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