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Are the Rockets the Biggest Potential Threat to the Warriors’ Dynasty?

Apr 28, 2019 2:00 PM EDT
Credit:

Photo credit: USAToday Sports. Pictured: James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant

  • After dropping two home games in the first round to the Clippers, a fair question emerges: Are the Warriors vulnerable?
  • And if so, are the Rockets the most likely team to beat them? Or is there a better team suited to knocking off the defending champs?

As difficult as it is to predict when a great team will turn into a dynasty, it’s just as difficult to predict that dynasty’s demise, assuming the cast of characters remains.

So it is with the Golden State Warriors, winners of the last two NBA titles and three of the last four overall. Were it not for a Game 7, miraculous 3-pointer from Kyrie Irving, there would be kids entering kindergarten who have never seen a non-Warriors championship.

That sort of team — a true dynasty — deserves the benefit of the doubt. When they were down 3-2 to the Rockets last year, they were still about even money to win the title. They, of course, rallied and took home another trophy.

Last season, the Warriors finished ‘only’ ninth in defensive efficiency after being first, fourth, and second in the previous three seasons. But most analysts gave them the benefit of the doubt entering the playoffs, and they were rewarded: Golden State posted the best defense in last year’s postseason.

This season, with a core now entering or already in their 30s, it’s tempting to give the benefit of the doubt yet again.

The Warriors ranked ninth in defensive efficiency in the regular season, but the team will start trying in the playoffs and become one of the best units, right?

At least through five games of their first-round series against the LA Clippers — an admittedly small sample — that hasn’t been the case.

In non-garbage time this postseason, the Warriors are allowing 113.0 points per 100 possessions — 11th out of the 16 teams. They’re 11th in effective field goal percentage allowed and dead last in free throw rate allowed.

Warriors’ Defensive Rank by Shot Area, Regular Season vs. Playoffs

In the Clippers’ two wins, here’s how they shot against the Warriors at the rim:

  • Game 2: 18-of-19 (94.7%)
  • Game 5: 15-of-15 (100.0%)

Last season, the Warriors were about average in rim protection metrics and finished that way in the playoffs. This season, they ranked 24th in the regular season in field goal percentage allowed at the rim; in the playoffs, they’ve ranked 14th. Lou Williams has gotten into the lane whenever he wants, and Montrezl Harrell has dominated the Warriors bigs inside.

There have still been moments where Draymond Green, easily the Warriors’ best rim protector, has risen to the occasion and provided that lift:

Other times, like in Game 5, the help defense has been nonexistent:

Klay Thompson gives a half-hearted swipe at the ball, and Kevin Durant and Green don’t even take a step from the weakside.

Here, Stephen Curry goes for a lazy, bail-out swipe in the lane and then is too late to help down after Kevon Looney moves over to pick up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That’s about as easy as it gets.

Some of the issues, as you seen in the videos, are about effort. That can be fixed. But that analysis also ignores a key fact about this team, which is that it has become so reliant on the genius of Green to create an elite defense nearly by himself.

Green is still brilliant and has risen to the occasion even in this series. But as an undersized big approaching 30, when does he lose a step — and how important is that step to the Warriors defense and title chances? You could make the argument watching this Clippers series that it’s perhaps the most important factor in the Dubs winning again.

Further, the Warriors have been terrible at boxing out and hitting the defensive glass, leading to a multitude of Clippers tip-ins and second-chance opportunities at the rim. They are fundamentally getting beat inside — even against an No. 8 seed that wasn’t elite there all year.

It remains to be seen whether the defense — specifically the rim protection and defensive rebounding — is going to be their Achilles’ heel, their fatal flaw. But, if it is, what does that mean for the rest of the playoffs?


The Warriors’ Biggest Potential Threat Isn’t the Rockets