In the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors often turned to longtime friend Nemanja Bellica on the bench against the Boston Celtics. Bjelica will play crucial minutes for the Warriors on their way to the tournament. Incredibly, the Warriors were delighted to turn Bellica into the Celtics’ top players, including Eastern Conference Finals winner MVP Jayson Tatum.
Bellica was very abusive for his defense with the Sacramento kings, and is often seen as the weakest link in a chain made entirely of weak links. Sure, Bjelica is the roast chicken in these matches, isn’t she?
Interestingly, no! Believe it or not, Peleka caught himself, and the clip above wasn’t an isolated incident either.
Tatum guarding Peleka:
– StatMuse (statmuse) 11 June 2022
How? How could it be that Peleka, who has been routinely eviscerated as the cause of the kings stench, could give the team important minutes in a race to the Holy Grail?
The answer, of course, lies in how the warriors defend K Full. Basketball is played five against five, and the best indicators of success in defense are communication, effort, game plan and execution with which the five defend.
Mike Brown was the mastermind behind the Warriors’ defense, who has now taken command of the Kings. While we won’t be able to see the other elements of the collective defense until the team actually takes the floor, here are some schematic tweaks that Brown could bring in to salvage a team defense that was weak at the bottom of the league essentially sixteen years ago.
God of the gaps
Since the beginning of the classes, warriors have been playing “gap” defense, which means sending an auxiliary defender into the driving gap in the middle of the floor. The idea is to place the objects between the slasher and the edge, making it think twice about driving in the middle of the paint, and if you do, sealing off the sloping wall to prevent the paint from coming into contact completely.
Here’s how it works in real time:
Curry is turned to Tatum on the wing, but Wiggins dangles too far from his leg in the driving gap to stay in Tatum’s line of sight. Tatum decides to walk away from help but meets Kevin Looney at the edge.
Gaps defenses are a huge help for switched defenders, especially clever defenders who can point their finger to help. Watch Bjelica’s clip again above and see how Tatum passes away from the middle of the floor, while Draymond Green stays in Tatum’s line of sight from the wing, ready to help if Tatum goes in that direction.
Gap defenses don’t just help with switching. Here, Wiggins stays tuned against Jaylen Brown, with the gap at the top of the key assisted.
Clay is the gap defender here, and note that he doesn’t move out of place as his leg floats more in the three-point area; Thompson’s arms are out, focused on the ball carrier, ready to bridge the gap if necessary. Brown decides not to drive in the middle, goes to the baseline, and goes off limits for a spin.
Now let’s take a look at the defensive possession from the Kings last year, as they didn’t play a defensive hole.
Brown bullies Justin Holiday all the way to the edge with no resistance… well, anywhere. The key is Davion Mitchell, who is all the way at the top of the arch. The slasher doesn’t even know he’s there as he squirts in paint. In the gap defense, Mitchell will be much lower near the free-throw line, showing his hands to the slasher to deter the drive in the middle of the paint. This has the effect of both specific paint touches as well as protecting the rear line of defense from constantly having to assist with drives.
Gap defense is the main defensive “innovation” for the Warriors this year. I say “innovation” in the quotes because it really split straight from the way defense was played in the early 2000s once the zone defense rules were relaxed. Here’s the Pistons playing in the gap defense against Kobe Bryant in the 2004 Finals. Watch Rip Hamilton around the free-throw line show helping stop Kobe from over the edge. He left his leg open to three people but the defense would live perfectly with that.
The gap’s defense of fashion fell into disuse in the late 2000s when the three-point boom began. You can still hear coaches agonizing about “helping one die” because it has become defensively essential to staying relevant to shooters over the past decade as well. But it is time to abolish this rule. Letting shooters protect paint is once again in vogue. How did this happen? Because…
Time is a flat circle.
Vulnerability defense is a great convergence of scheme, group communication, and individual intelligence in defense. I’m excited to see her come to Sacramento.
Go brother, shoot him
Scheme Warriors was happy to leave low-volume shooters open, even if they had fixed three-point ratios. This would allow Draymond Green to play safe free to help paint while essentially ignoring the other team’s worst shooter, in the Mavericks series, was Josh Green, who shot 36% of three during the regular season, but at a very low volume.
The Warriors essentially chased Green off the field, who wouldn’t see any minutes after the fourth game. Against the Celtics, the Warriors repeatedly left Al Horford open, a career 36% from three-point shooting.
Notice how the green in both shots of the paint goes around, adding another layer of defense at the edge.
Here’s how defense reaps the benefits in action. Green abandons his man completely again, and lets Bjelica tackle both Robert Williams in paint and wide open Grant Williams in the corner. Note that Williams shot 37% of three in the regular season. Green is capable of smearing paint and assisting with Brown’s drive on the rim, resulting in a tough try that wasn’t even close.
The absolute priority is paint protection. And, as it turns out, leaving the shooters open to close the paint is a massive athletic win for the defense. In Game 2 between the Warriors and the Mavericks, the Mavericks broke nets perfectly out of three: 21/45, for a mark of 46%. They outperformed the Warriors by 21 points from the three-point streak. And they lost 9 points. How?
Because they got Literally none in paint:
Paint protection is king. The three-point line does not matter. The ’90s are back, baby. How did we get here? second…
Time is a flat circle.
Expect the Kings to put their power up front (most likely Keegan Murray or Trey Lyles) on the opponent’s worst shot, essentially letting them play free safely dangling in the paint. The key will be the player’s intelligence and instincts to find the balance between spinning in paint and extra help without the need.
Another thing recently revived from the dead: the zone defenses. Warriors will often go into their territory as a change of pace or to blast out plays out of time. The bread and butter method was a 1-2-2 formation:
But the most interesting feature about Warriors is that it transformations. Players do not stay in one “area” of the entire possession floor. Watch here as the Warriors zone changes from 1-2-2 to 3-2, with Wiggins taking a new position at the “nail” on the free-throw line as his man heads into the weak corner.
The 3-2 formation locks up Luka Doncic on the baseline as he tries to lead, with assistants ready to spin on pitchers and paint.
The shift zone also helped neutralize the Mavericks’ “5-out” spacing. “5-out” means the attack is running five shooters into the field, distributing a weak defense and opening driving lanes for cutting. The Mavericks’ 5-team lineups, featuring Maxi Clipper at the center, stunned both the Jazz and Suns, who relied on their traditional edge guard positions (Rudy Gobert and Dender Eaton, respectively) to solidify their defense. But Zone Warriors, with its flex parts and movement bases, helped match Mavericks shooters while also protecting the paint.
Watch Kevin Looney and Maxi Clipper in this clip. Warriors start possession in the 1-2-2 zone with looney occupying the right side of the base. Kleber has killed both Gobert and Ayton by using his cannons’ natural tendency to sink into paint against them; While the edge guard goes into the paint, the clipper will find space on the perimeter to release triples. He’s trying to do it here, putting himself on the left wing. But Looney sees this, and you can see him pointing out Clipper’s movement to his teammates. Then the district does a really great job: it Spins. Looney moves to the area base on the left side, Green moves up to cover Kleber, and on the other side Klay Thompson dives to the base where Looney was before. Clipper gets the ball but doesn’t have a shot so he passes it back. There is no defensive confusion, everyone is covered, color is in his favorite spot near the paint, possession ends with three contested. It’s very subtle and easy to miss, but the defense is all about adding in the little details over the course of the game.
You’ll also see the Warriors run Box-and-1, which is a variation of the area where one player stays with his leg and the other four defenders form a “box” around the paint. Warriors threw this against Doncic quite often, as in this passage:
Here you see Wiggins denying Doncic getting in the middle of the paint, and once the ball is out of Doncic’s hands, he basically saves possession by hanging out on the wing. The other four Mavericks struggle to smash the Warriors’ “box” and the acquisition stalls.
Even more impressive is how warriors hide their territories, seamlessly transitioning between zone and man defenses.
In this play, the warriors begin in a standard man-to-man scheme. In the end, little Jordan Bull was turned into Tatum. Tatum decided to take Paul to mid-position, and in response, the Warriors seamlessly shifted their coverage.
Man to man is now 1-2-2 zone! Tatum sees a wall of defenders between him and the ledge and burps from a contested mid-range jacket. This is a win for the defense.
Capture Production Schemes
As mentioned earlier, a defensive scheme is only one part of a successful defense. No amount of X and O magic can cover players who don’t put in the effort, who don’t communicate on defense, and who constantly make mistakes in executing the scheme. The team has to buy what Mike Brown is selling. But if they do, I’m incredibly curious to see how Brown’s schemes translate from warriors to royalty. Kings certainly don’t have the same level of defensive talent, and there are some real challenges trying to get people to work. But if there’s anyone who can tell about this thing, it’s Mike Brown.