Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Beating The Warriors

The Golden State Warriors are easily the most fascinating storyline of the playoffs because we still know so little about them. Any team that wins 67 games, especially given how stacked the West is, is a potential juggernaut who has to be favored to win the NBA championship. However, when a team wins that many games it's usually on the tail end of a dominant run, after they have already established themselves as perennial contenders. This is only Golden State's 3rd trip to the playoffs and this is really the first time this particular group of players has been together. I say that because switching out David Lee for Draymond Green is what has taken this group to the next level so this is the first season that the Bogut-Green-Klay-Steph core has been tested.

The Warriors are a good example of why I think PF is the most important position in the modern NBA. The guy you have at that spot is who dictates the identity of your team. So there's only so much you can take away from their first two trips to the playoffs, when they had Harry Barnes and David Lee, respectively, at the position. A Golden State team with Draymond Green at the 4 is potentially revolutionary in a number of ways and they present unique strengths in how they attack and unique weaknesses in how they can be attacked. That's what these playoffs are ultimately about to me - how will Golden State be tested and are they really as unbeatable as they looked in the regular season?

They have looked dominant at times in their first two wins over the Pelicans, but those games were both played in Oracle and the 8 seed acquitted themselves well for the most part. After getting punched in the mouth in Game 1 the Pels came back and made it a game before falling short in the fourth quarter. In Game 2, New Orleans was the team that came out aggressive, controlling the action for most of the first half before ultimately succumbing to a 2nd-half comeback and being unable to execute in the 4rth quarter against a stifling Warriors defense. The Pels have shown enough to where you think they would be able to get at least one game in New Orleans. Then it will just come down to whether they can hold that 2nd game and turn it into a series. Here's what I would be looking at if I were them.

1) Don't turn the ball over + control tempo

This probably goes without saying in any playoff series, as it's virtually impossible to beat a good NBA team if you are constantly coughing up the ball and giving them easy run-outs. However, it does feel especially true with the Warriors, given that they have the No. 1 rated offense and the No. 1 rated defense in the league. Teams with that profile are generally going make an absolute killing going defense to offense. They have a bunch of long athletes at every position and their goal is to get into you and dictate tempo. If they can speed you up and force you to turn the ball over, you have pretty much no chance. Pretty much everyone but Bogut can push it up the court which makes it really hard to pick up Steph and Klay in transition and those guys walking into transition 3's has to be the most efficient offense in the league.

Take a look at the box score from Game 2. Both teams had 13 TO's yet somehow Golden State had 24 fast break points to only 7 for New Orleans. That's the difference in the game right there. I'd almost be paranoid enough to where I wouldn't want to push the ball too much against them - take a bad shot in transition and you might as will give them 3 points the other way. That's why I think the absence of Jrue Holiday is so important in this series. Tyreke Evans has been distributing the ball well but he still takes a lot of bad shots and doesn't always have a great feel for controlling tempo. You have to have a great PG whose not going to get sped up and who turns the game into station-to-station basketball while still being able to selectively run and get easy baskets.

2) Make the 3 and 4 positions shoot the ball

The Warriors aren't so much a great shooting team as they are a team with two great shooters who hoist 3's from anywhere with no conscience. Everything in their offense is revolved around getting Klay and Steph open looks from 3 so that's the first thing you have to take away as the opposing team. You can't give them open shots off screens - you have to make them give up the ball or take them with a hand in their face. Just as important is sticking to the Splash Brothers when the ball is moving around the perimeter. You have to give up something against the Warriors and you would rather it be from 3's from the other guys - Harry Barnes, Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Leandro Barbosa.

3) Don't let their front-court players beat you as passers

Part of what makes Golden State great is that everything fits together. There aren't many passing tandems at the 4 and 5 position better than Draymond and Bogut which means the Warriors can run offense through their big men and play both Steph and Klay off the ball. The key is you have to make their big guys score the ball, particularly Bogut, because he doesn't want to do it. A good example of is when the guards come off screens and the other team doubles, they are going to slip the ball to either of the big men rolling to the basket. At that point what you don't want to do is have the help-side commit to hard to the big because that opens up a 3-on-2 behind and they are looking to find the shooters. You want to stop short and make Draymond or Bogut beat you with the pull-up jumper or take the ball all the rim.

In Game 2, Bogut was 2-5 from the field and Draymond was 4-12. The more FGA's the Warriors big men have, the better your chances are. Draymond in particular missed a bunch of floaters at the rim that could have gone in but those are the shots you want to live with. He is only 6'6 so he can have trouble finishing in traffic against longer players. If Draymond Green is going to score 20-25+  then you are going to lose but you want to see if he can do that consistently. There's a fine line you have to draw because you don't want to sell out completely on the Splash Brothers and give everyone else wide open looks either - I wouldn't double Steph 28+ feet from the basket like the Clips were doing in last year's playoffs. A lot of this comes down to personnel and having a ton of length and athleticism to shrink the floor against the Warriors, which might be the biggest plus the Pels have in this series.

4) You have to be able to score 1-on-1 on their big men

Easier said than done but I think it's a must for any team that wants to pull off the upset. The Warriors are just too good on defense and they have too many athletes who are trying to turn you over for swinging the ball around the court and playing a lot of motion offense to beat them. Maybe the Spurs can do it but most teams are going to end up turning the ball over against Golden State if there are too many moving parts on offense. For one thing, the number of long athletes they have at the 3 and 4 positions allows them to switch just about every pick-and-roll if they want too. The Warriors are built around the elite 1-on-1 defensive skills of Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green - if you can beat those two guys at the front of the rim, it collapses the defense, opens up everything else and forces them to change up their game-plan.

Here's an analogy. When Karl Rove was George W. Bush's campaign manager, his favorite tactic was going after someone's strength. Most political campaigns were structured around finding the weakspot in the opponent's image and attacking it - Rove went out of his way to attack their strong points. What was Al Gore's biggest selling point in 2000? Bill Clinton. So Rove brought up the Clinton scandals, forced Gore to dissociate from the President and robbed the Dems of their biggest talking point. In 2004, Rove attacked John Kerry's war record because without that what was Kerry really? If John Kerry wasn't a war hero, what the hell was he then? That's also what he did in 2000 against John McCain. Take away the foundation of their identity as a candidate and they had nothing left.

--> Scoring against Draymond

It's easy to fall into the trap of let's post up the 6'6 PF but the Warriors know that is coming and it's surprisingly difficult to leverage a height mismatch in the post. Draymond is super strong, he has really long arms and he has a really low center of gravity so it's almost impossible to wedge him off his spot. And since he's so small, the refs are going to give him a lot of leeway to basically maul the opposing big men and try to steal the ball on the entry pass. If you are trying to post up Draymond Green he's going to do the equivalent of beating you over the head with a 2x4.

That's why I love what Anthony Davis has been starting to do in this series. Leverage that length advantage by facing him up, being strong with the ball and using the threat of the jumper to create driving lanes to the rim. It's much harder for the defense to play physical when the big man is facing them up because all the action is happening right on the ball. Davis needs to hit Draymond with that Carmelo Anthony game - face-up, knee-to-knee, pump fake and look for the jumper, if he overplays that then go right at him off the bounce. You need a 6'9-6'10+ guy with handles, a jumper and a lot of core strength to pull that off. Easier said than done but guys like that do exist in the NBA.

--> Scoring against Bogut

This is where I think New Orleans has the best chance to make this is a series. Asik did a good job on the boards last night but he has no real purpose on offense against Golden State and he's too slow to get out and defend on the perimeter either. This might be the biggest hole in the Warriors armor - you can downsize against Bogut without really worrying too much about it.

The most important dynamic in most series is the front-court match-ups. How can you structure your team to attack the other guy's 4 and 5 positions and vice versa. For a long time I've been thinking the key is to have enough size at the 4 position to go at Draymond but maybe the best bet is to go small against at the 5 position against Bogut and flip the dynamic on its head. The Warriors want to beat a bigger team with speed and shooting - it's kind of like how the best way to defeat a pressing team is to press them right back.

- A healthy OKC would have been a great series because they could put Serge at the 5, KD at the 4 and give Golden State a taste of their own medicine in terms of spreading the floor.

- New Orleans can put AD at the 5 but they don't have a great option at the 4 against Golden State. Green is really tough on stretch 4's like Ryan Anderson who can't put the ball on the floor. They might just need to go Davis - Dante Cunningham and hope for the best.

- Memphis would be an archetypal style match-up. I love Z-Bo and Gasol but the tough part about a series like that is Golden State comes in with such an edge efficiency wise. It's hard to beat a team pick-and-rolling into 3's when you are posting up. Their best bet would probably be to turn it into a brawl, ugly up the game as much as possible and hope to take out the Splash Brothers legs by the end of the series. Memphis is like an initiation all great teams have to go through. They have beaten the Spurs, the Clippers and the Thunder in the playoffs and they have lost to all three of these teams too. The audience wants blood.

- It's hard to say whose going to come out of the other side of the West bracket at this point. If it's the Rockets, you would have Bogut vs. Howard and that's really why you have him on the team, in case you run into a guy like Dwight in a 7-game series. He has enough size to where Dwight shouldn't be able to take over. The guy to watch with the Rockets is Terrence Jones, who could be a real break-out star in these playoffs. He has the ability to put up a lot of numbers and he should get a lot more touches due to the absence of Beverley and Motiejunas.

- If it's the Clippers, DeAndre and Bogut would cancel each other out and it would come down to Blake Griffin vs. Draymond. Chris Paul's numbers are pretty much baked into the cake at this point and if we are going to be realistic it certainly looks like he's not going to be the guy pushing you over the top. I'm thinking the Clippers are going to need Blake Griffin to take over and dominate series. If Blake is going to be a guy who wins a Finals MVP in his career, he has to be able to dominate a smaller guy like Draymond in a 7-game series.

- If it's the Spurs, they could do all kinds of crazy stuff. You wouldn't see a lot of Tiago Splitter - they would move him to the back-up 5 and start Diaw like they did against Miami. They could even go small and put Kawhi at the 4 and that would be a fascinating match-up.

In terms of teams going super small against them, they might not see that until the NBA Finals. Cleveland could go small with Thompson at the 5, LeBron at the 4 and Atlanta has Al Horford at the 5 who can take Bogut away from the basket. If things get really wacky, it's Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson vs. Draymond. It's hard to know how any of those match-ups would play out for sure because we haven't seen them before.

This is what Charles Barkley was talking about last night in terms of not being scared of Golden State. When you play at the power forward and center positions, you generally feel like you will win the game if you have the edge upfront. Shaq and Barkley were never too worried about the other team's guards. They figured that it didn't matter what these little guys were doing if they could dominate the action at the front of the rim. Usually, the higher ranked team comes into the match-up with the edge upfront and the lower-seeded team has to hope they get enough D from their big men to survive. You have Shaq on the Lakers and the other team is thinking we have to find some way to slow down this guy.

The Warriors have the big men to shut down other elite big men but they don't have the ability to control the game the other way. People think that center play is over in the NBA but offense from the 5 position has still been a critical part of the last few champions. Tim Duncan gives you that in San Antonio so did Chris Bosh in Miami. The only team that didn't get offense from the 5 position in the last three NBA Finals was Oklahoma City and look what happened to them in that series. Miami downsized and put Shane Battier at the 5 because they knew Kendrick Perkins couldn't do anything against them.

This is where I think they have some similarities with the '07 Mavs. It was the same thing with Dallas - they had Erick Dampier/DeSagana Diop at the 5. Those guys were really important in a potential series against Tim Duncan but they weren't offensive threats the other way. So when they are playing the other team as a favorite, the We Believe Warriors can slide down whoever they want to the 5 position and it doesn't matter. They even went small on Dirk with impunity.

To this day, as a Mavs fan, I still think that '07 team would have won a championship if they had avoided Golden State. They had beaten the Spurs the year before on the road and they probably could have beaten them again at home - Dirk kind of figured out Bruce Bowen's defense in that 2006 WCF. Those Warriors just had a unique set of match-ups that exploited the glass jaw that Mavs team had. We'll see if anyone can pull off the same type of upset against Golden State.