The Golden State Warriors have few, if any, weaknesses. They possess four all-stars, two of which are considered the best players in the league today. They are about to add a fifth all-star to their lineup in a matter of months. When they are focused, they are near impossible to defeat.
Over the past few years, there have been two consistent weaknesses shown by the Warriors. The first is their tendency to lose focus and be nonchalant in their approach to games. More often than not, the Warriors’ firepower and overall talent is enough to overcome their carelessness. But there have been instances where it has shot them in the foot.
Their second weakness is length. The Warriors depend on creating space and movement to score. A variety of off-ball screens and cuts are the catalysts through which Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson get their shots off. Kevin Durant also thrives in getting jumpers off curls. In addition, he often gets mismatches on much smaller defenders, uses his full 7-foot frame to impose his size, and gets uncontested jumpers that might as well be practice jumpers against schoolchildren. Going up against a team filled with lengthy guards and/or wings makes it difficult for the Warriors to move off the ball. Passing lanes that are seemingly wide open are suddenly cut off and closed in an instant. Mismatches aren’t as advantageous, as it seems like almost everyone on the opposing team has the size to provide a better fight on defense.
On Thursday night, the Warriors ran head-first against a Milwaukee Bucks team filled with plenty of length. Couple that with a lack of focus and a nonchalant approach to taking care of the ball, and the Warriors were hit with a double whammy — a recipe for a blowout loss on their home court.
A much improved Bucks team
Under Mike Budenholzer’s new leadership, the Bucks have shot to the top as legitimate NBA title contenders. His offense — predicated on a ton of three-point shooting out of a 5-out motion offense — is ranked 5th in efficiency (114.1), per NBA.com. Khris Middleton is having a stellar season, averaging 19.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 4.1 assists, on a shooting split of .443/.481/.892. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ rising superstar and a legitimate MVP candidate, is averaging 25.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 5.9 assists, and is shooting 54.4 percent from the field.
On top of their improved offensive rating, the Bucks have also been a defensive revelation. Having an average height of approximately 6-feet-8-inches, the Bucks are the second tallest team in the NBA. They are currently ranked 3rd in defensive rating (102.1), per NBA.com.
The height and length that are present across the board in their roster allows the Bucks to close gaps quickly, suffocating shooters and giving little room for drives inside. Even an elite scorer such as Durant has a difficult time, especially when his path to the basket is surrounded by giant redwoods.
One of the “Curry rules” in terms of defending the two-time MVP is not letting him get any space to get off his shot. With Curry, it is often better to make him into a slasher — although he is an elite finisher, teams would rather take their chances with him at the rim than beyond the arc. A possession wherein they run Curry off the three-point line and make him settle for mid-range jumpers is already considered a well-defended possession; him missing a mid-range jumper is quite simply the cherry on top.
From the start of the game, the Bucks were intent on not letting Curry have any space to shoot whatsoever. Whether it be having an absolute hound of a defender being posted on him in the form of Eric Bledsoe — or having a lengthy wing such as Middleton or Antetokounmpo limiting his breathing room for jumpers — Curry was forced out of his shooting rhythm early on, and had to settle for passes to teammates that normally would not be big offensive threats, such as Damian Jones. Jones makes the jumper here, but it is an anomaly — this is not a shot the Warriors would normally take, and in the long run, it is not sustainable.
Normally, defending excellent mid-range jumpers such as Curry and Durant in the pick-and-roll using drop coverage — wherein the roll man’s defender will “drop” toward the paint to protect the basket — is a recipe for disaster. But having a defender with the length and massive wingspan (7-feet-4-inches) of John Henson will make it difficult for anyone to go up for a jumper, let alone drive to the basket. Durant normally makes shots like these, but Henson does a great job of contesting.
When Durant does decide to go straight to the rim and challenge Henson, he comes up on the losing end. Normally, Durant is unstoppable once he gets a full head of steam. He gets a back screen from Kevon Looney, which allows him to go straight at Henson. However, Henson’s length allows him to rise up and spike Durant’s shot — an extremely rare sight.
Again, the Bucks decide to use drop coverage to defend Durant’s jumper off of a screen. With Lopez dropping back and Middleton following close behind, Durant goes up for the mid-range jumper that is usually automatic — but a good contest from Lopez and the threat of Middleton blocking Durant from behind are enough to make the shot miss.
The Bucks’ ability to cut off passing lanes using their length is displayed in the following sequence. Durant makes an ill-advised pass to the weak side corner, which is deflected by Malcolm Brogdon.
Again, the Bucks make an effort to make Curry’s life difficult on the perimeter. When Curry does get some space to shoot the three, Brook Lopez contests the shot well. In other possessions, Brogdon immediately picks him up and closes the gap immediately, which forces Curry to pass to other “less-threatening” teammates; the Bucks will live with the Warriors’ role players making some and missing some. Curry finally does hit a shot courtesy of his ball-handling wizardry, but Brogdon makes him work for it.
The following sequence is an excellent example of the Bucks playing great defense on both Curry and Durant. With Brook Lopez manning the paint — and patrolling the passing lanes — a simple deflection from him manages to throw off the Warriors’ offense. Additionally, he gets a good contest on Durant’s three-point attempt, and when the Warriors get the offensive board, Bledsoe immediately closes out on Curry, forcing him to drive inside. When his path to the rim gets shuts down, he is forced to pass the ball to Alfonzo McKinnie, who misses the three.
When defending Durant, the Bucks clearly adopted the mantra of “fight fire with fire” — or in this case, fight length with length. In addition to Durant getting difficult looks due to good contests from the Bucks’ lengthy defenders, Durant also has difficulty in putting the ball down and using his handle to create space. Being defended by the long arms of Antetokounmpo makes Durant’s normally unreachable hold on the ball suddenly all the more reachable.
And of course, the normally unreachable shot of Durant — often defended by shorter, smaller, or less athletic players — becomes extremely reachable by the freakishly long arms of the Greek Freak.
The Bucks’ defensive game plan paid off; Durant was held to 17 points on 6-of-15 shooting (40 percent), while Curry — who had to leave the game in the middle of the third quarter due to a groin injury — was held to 10 points on 5-of-14 shooting (35.7 percent) and an 0-for-4 clip from beyond the arc.
With the severity of Curry’s injury uncertain, the Warriors’ bad night on the floor quickly turned into a nightmare. Should there be an extended period of time where Curry misses games, the Warriors will face the difficult task of generating an efficient offense, as evidenced by this graphic from last season:
In light of @StephenCurry30‘s injury last night, here’s a look at how his presence on the court impacts his teammate’s individual effective FG% and offensive ratings.
Ex: Klay’s eFG% is nearly 14% worse when Curry if off the floor so far this season. pic.twitter.com/w9uvEvzhXV
— The Basketball Economist (@bballeconomist) March 24, 2018
Whatever the case, the Warriors will have no choice but to recover quickly and move on from this crushing defeat. Having had an up-close and personal look at the Bucks, the onus is now on the Warriors to make the proper adjustments for their next meeting with the rising beasts from the East.
Full credit must be given to Coach Budenholzer and his team. The Warriors were made to look like a deer in headlights.
Twelve down, 70 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.