Stephen Curry's third quarter explosion may have gotten all the attention after Game 3, but it was the defense that got the Warriors rolling.
If you only looked at Golden State's roster and every boxscore from their playoff run, you would think offensive firepower is what makes them tick. In reality, it's the manner in which they create offensive opportunities.
And it starts with their defensive pressure and versatility.
In fact, it's pretty simple: In the Warriors' 10 playoff wins this year, they have held opponents to just 96 points per 100 possessions — a defensive rating better than Boston's in the East. In their three losses, however, that swells to 116.1 points allowed per 100 possessions. When they lose, they drop the ball defensively in a huge way. It's night and day compared to when they're focused.
The Warriors held the Rockets to an offensive rating of just 87.9 in Game 3, and it wasn't with James Harden and Chris Paul sitting out in a lot of garbage time. They each played over 32 minutes and shot a combined 12-of-32 (37.5 percent) from the field. The Warriors rattled them all night, forcing Houston into 19 turnovers, a giveaway on 18.7 percent of its possessions. Keep in mind, this was a Rockets squad that only had a turnover percentage of 13.8 during the regular season, as the isolation-heavy offense limited the amount of errant passes and mistakes.
Steve Kerr started the Hamptons Five lineup again, and it was engaged defensively from the opening tip. Although Curry continued to get targeted by Houston's cat-and-mouse game, the Warriors showed exemplary help coverage after he got beat off the dribble. Keep an eye on the weak side rotations by Iguodala and Thompson, specifically the way they “zone up” the wing and corner once Harden gets into the paint:
The defensive trust shown above is really only something you can master by years of practice. Iguodala, Thompson, Green, and Curry have been playing together since 2013. While direct communication is apparent (and required) for most teams, it becomes less important when you are able to rely on teammates to be in the right spots at the right times.
Sticking out as the most glaring benefit of Golden State's defense in Game 3 was their help rotations on Harden and Paul's drives. While Curry is a fundamentally solid team defender, it's obvious he's going to be blown past or overpowered in most “switch” scenarios.
By having the personnel to step up and protect the paint once the driver (or roller) enters the lane, the Warriors were able to take away a lot of Houston's bread and butter. You can specifically point to Kevon Looney, who has held his own defensively in a series that tests his limits.
Looney is a plus-16 in this series when he's on the floor, serving as both a perimeter wall to shoot over and a help rotator to challenge shots. Here, it's very clear how well he works with the starting group, while Iguodala rests:
Iguodala banged knees with Harden in the fourth quarter on Sunday, which led to knee soreness the next morning. Kerr has listed him as doubtful for Game 4, meaning the Rockets will probably see a lot more of Curry-Thompson-Durant-Green-Looney.
So far in this series, that lineup has played 21 minutes and outscored Houston by 13 total points. It has been more effective defensively against the Rockets' style, notably because it gives the Warriors someone to mitigate Clint Capela, at least to some degree.
Looney starting in Game 4 should continue to make life difficult for Harden and company. In the 30 minutes Looney has shared the court with Harden, the Rockets have shot a combined 19-of-58 (32.8 percent) from the field, with the team having 11 assists to 10 turnovers (1.1 ratio). In the 71 minutes Harden has played without Looney on the floor, the Rockets have shot 67-of-122 (54.9 percent), with 38 assists to only 23 turnovers (1.65 ratio). The offense has flowed better for Houston when Kerr has his small-ball units in the game.
It was also important for Golden State to extend the lead when Curry rested in Game 3, which they did because of their extremely switchy defense. Without Curry on the floor, it was basically impossible for Harden and the Rockets to get any mismatch they felt good about.
The Warriors had Thompson on Tucker and Iguodala on Harden. If Houston wanted to run their same actions, a switch would just get them Thompson — a tremendous isolation defender — on Harden. In that second quarter, Golden State was able to crack the code:
Jordan Bell, who does an exquisite job of containing the drive above, earned his first non-garbage time minutes in this series. The team was a casual plus-13 in his 10 minutes of action, without him attempting a shot or getting any lobs. He strictly defended multiple positions, making it hard on Houston's dribble-drives.
The concern about Bell heading into the playoffs was whether or not the rookie could stay on the floor without fouling a ton or making too many defensive mistakes. He's insanely athletic, but often lacked the discipline to stay down on pump-fakes, or keeping his hands out of the ball-handler's space (not reaching). While he did get caught a couple times by Harden in Game 3, his performance should solidify that he comes off the bench before David West for the time being.
Another issue the Rockets may have run into is how much better the Warriors are than most teams at denying switches. In the first two games, Golden State showed some resistance to switching Curry on to Harden or Paul, but couldn't quite execute it on the fly.
Sunday, they were able to take advantage of his concept a lot more. Here, on separate possessions, Thompson and Iguodala nail it by immediately fighting over the initial screen, and forcing Harden away from it:
This allows Curry to hang back a bit, sticking with his primary assignment and not giving Houston what it wants.
Notice what happens when Harden and Ariza realize the Warriors are trying to deny the switch, yet continue to try it a second time:
They have wasted most of the possession just hunting for the switch, and Harden doesn't get it until there's five seconds left to shoot. At that point, the help side defender (Green) is able to step right in the way and contest the layup. With only one second left on the clock, the threat to Capela's lob is gone — there's no time.
This, above all else, is what the main criticism of Houston's offense should be. Not that it's isolation-based. Not that it doesn't include as many passes as the Warriors' offense. But instead, how long it takes them in certain games to get into their favorable stuff. At the same time, all credit goes to Iguodala and the rest of Golden State's perimeter defender for making the adjustment to help deny, or delay, these switches.
With the cherry on top, what more can be said about Green's defensive skillset? He's not a traditional big, but can limit anyone in the paint if he's able to stick on them without helping others. He's not a perimeter player, either, but is able to move his feet with the best shot-creators in the league.
His defensive coordinating on the floor is mind-blowing at times:
“There's just nobody like him, honestly” Kerr said. “I don't know another player who is like Draymond in this league. His ability to impact a game in so many ways defensively, getting out on to Harden and Paul, switching, and then rebounding, staying attached to Capela's legs, trying to knock the ball away on lobs and protect the rim without fouling. I thought his performance (in Game 3) was unreal.”
Altogether, the Rockets couldn't shake the defensive pressure for anything longer than a couple minutes at a time. They only managed to create 39 uncontested field goal attempts, compared to the 50 uncontested shots in Game 1 and 53 in Game 2.
On the shots Golden State contested, the Rockets were only able to convert 13-of-41 (31.7 percent) of those looks. It was a severe problem, and one that D'Antoni claimed was “correctable” after the game.
After seeing the way the Warriors were possessed defensively, not too much of Game 3 seemed to point to the Rockets underperforming, or screwing up the gameplan. It just felt like one team using its championship tools to take everything away from the other.
With their 16th straight home playoff win, the Warriors broke the 1990-91 Chicago Bulls' record that lasted almost 30 years. They haven't lost at Oracle Arena in the postseason since Game 7 of the 2016 Finals.
Houston, with its back against the wall, has all the pressure on them in Game 4. They can't win this series without breaking that historic streak. Counters to the defensive powerhouse they witnessed on Sunday must come quickly.
*All stats via NBA.com.*