OAKLAND — Defending the Golden State Warriors, whether Steph Curry is on the floor or not, is a massive challenge that requires unparalleled self-restraint, telepathic communication, and fathomless length.
The New Orleans Pelicans possessed none of those qualities in Game 1, surrendered 76 points in the first half, and lost by 22. Yes, they attempted 21 fewer free throws, turned the ball over 12 times, and missed 17 threes, but half-court defense did more damage to their cause than anything else.
Forget about transition—which is when the bottom of Golden State’s boot ceremoniously introduces itself to an opponent’s neck—and look at how torturous it was for New Orleans to stifle a flowing offense that ended the regular season with the NBA’s most efficient half-court attack despite shooting more long twos and taking fewer shots at the rim.
“We hang our hats on defense and what happened in the second quarter is inexcusable,” Rajon Rondo said, minutes after the blowout loss. “It’s a lack of communication and not being disciplined, so I think if we can clean that up we’ll be fine.”
This is true, but Anthony Davis's diagnosis of the problem was even more specific: “We were getting back cut. They were cutting us on the split action and we can’t allow ourselves to give them easy plays like that, because that’s how they get going.”
This is what the Warriors do. According to Synergy Sports, for the second year in a row no team relied more heavily on cuts than Golden State during the regular season, and only two teams were more efficient than they were.
A playoff-high 11.5 percent of Golden State’s possessions have been born from just that, either off a split action, punishing a gambling defender back door, or wedding lethal three-point shooting with a screen to wreak havoc all over the court. The Pelicans aren’t lost, but they may need to slightly alter their game-plan if they want to defend Golden State's most complicated and reliable activity.
What this boils down to is a need for flawless recognition, anticipation, and execution. The Pelicans have to know what’s going to happen, how they want to guard it, and then do just that as quickly and effectively as possible. They can’t afford to think. Delay is death. And to be more specific, their approach to switching was, at times, atrocious.
Here’s an example. Klay Thompson is chased around a stagger screen by E'Twaun Moore, who does a pretty good job staying attached. Once Thompson starts to curl off Andre Iguodala’s screen, Moore stays high and doesn’t go under, only switching after Iguodala cuts to the rim.
The “easy” solution? Anthony Davis switches up to Thompson and lets Moore drop in-between Iguodala and the rim. The Pelicans would then keep everybody in front of them and force Golden State to makeshift a decent shot with only eight seconds on the clock.
This wasn’t poor execution by the Pelicans. They wanted Moore to switch onto Iguodala, but not until he made sure Thompson’s threat was neutralized. But that technique either gives up a layup or forces Rondo to help from the weak side, which would then create a wide-open three for Nick Young.
A couple minutes later, Nikola Mirotic let Kevin Durant drop under him as Thompson ostensibly raced along the baseline for a wide pin-down. Draymond Green slid a perfect pass into Durant as he creeped towards the rim, and the Warriors were rewarded another uncontested layup.
After the play began with Rondo and Moore switching on the weak side, the Pelicans had to do whatever they could to keep the Warriors in front of them. So much of this is easier said than done—if Mirotic jumps up to take Thompson, he allows one of the greatest shooters who ever lived to respond by fading into the corner for an open three, plus having Rondo guard Durant ten feet from the rim is not ideal—but precise, aggressive switching is still their best bet.
But sometimes it's not about the game-plan. In preparation for this series, the Pelicans' coaching staff preached that whenever Golden States enters the ball into the high post, the Warriors will immediately make something happen off the ball. Being solid here becomes paramount.
Moore is on red alert, but anticipates incorrectly. He thinks Thompson will scurry up to Durant and is caught off guard when the exact opposite happens. Again, some of this is less about tactics and more about physicality. Moore should be inside Thompson’s jersey, dictating his every move, grabbing and pulling, forcing a referee to blow their whistle. Without that force, stopping the Warriors can feel like trying to explain the plot of a book you've never read. Their actions will be a pure, beautiful form of deviation that renders New Orleans hopeless, praying for a miss.
Some of what they do is truly unstoppable (like Durant isolating at the mid post) and when that happens it's onto the next possession. Mental breakdowns, on the other hand, are inexcusable. The Pelicans routinely panicked in Game 1, sending two to the ball in situations where they had to switch. It's a great way to gift-wrap layups and dunks for a team that doesn't need them.
This is a byproduct of either poor communication, bad execution, or a worn strategy that needs to change. The latter could be seen elsewhere throughout the game, but that's what adjustments are for. This play seen below sums it up best.
The ball is entered to David West and, again, as with Thompson's basket cut earlier in the game, the Pelicans are on the lookout for sudden off-ball movement. Green obliges by setting a screen on Darius Miller. Green's man, Solomon Hill, then switches onto Thompson AKA Miller's man. Here's where the adjustment needs to happen.
The Pelicans didn't switch this until Thompson went above the screen. His man (Miller) stayed in pursuit instead of dropping below to put himself between Green and the rim. The result? Green slipped down the lane for a dunk.
The Pelicans switched most ball screens in Game 1, and not all of their defensive approach should be thrown out the window. But even if they tinker with this coverage and have success interrupting Golden State's motion, all that will amount to is a baby step in the right direction. The Warriors are one of the greatest teams of all time for a reason. They can always run more pick-and-roll or let Durant pig out on mismatches. They weren't at their best and effectively still won Game 1 in the first two quarters.
But if New Orleans lets Golden State dictate terms as they did and don't commit to earlier switches through the rest of the series, it'll be over before it began.