In the up-and-down intensity of Game 5, with his team trying to win a championship against the most efficient offense in postseason history, Golden State coach Steve Kerr looked out on the floor and marveled at what he was watching.
"The game has changed so much in terms of the spacing and the shooting," Kerr said afterward, "and you're looking out there and you're like, how are we going to stop anybody?"
The skill level of NBA players is the best it's ever been. The combination of rules changes and increased spacing has enhanced the talent like never before. There are power forwards and centers shoot 3-pointers. The Finals featured a matchup of Kevin Durant and LeBron James, maybe the two most unique combinations of size and skill the league has ever seen. Late in the first quarter of Game 5, the Cleveland Cavaliers used a lineup where 6-foot-7 Kyle Korver was the biggest player.
With improved skill, better spacing, rules that favor offense and increased emphasis on more efficient shots, the NBA has evolved over the last several years to the point where league-wide efficiency reached 106.2 points per 100 possessions in the 2016-17 regular season, the highest mark since the league started charting turnovers in 1977-78.
For the fourth time in the last five seasons, a team set a new record for the highest effective field goal percentage in NBA history. For the second straight season, it was the Warriors, a team with enough talent to win more than 50 games on offense alone. If the Warriors had just an average defense, they still would have had the league's second best point differential per 100 possessions (plus-7.0).
But they didn't. This team was built on a defensive foundation under former coach Mark Jackson, and that foundation hasn't cracked one bit. After ranking third defensively in Jackson's final season, the Warriors have ranked first, fourth and second in their three campaigns under Kerr.
With the increasing emphasis on the 3-point shot, the Warriors are one of only three teams that have ranked in the top 10 in opponent 3-point percentage - a stat that can be subject to randomness -- each of the last four years. The Warriors and the Boston Celtics are the only two teams that have ranked in the top five each of the last four years.
"Everyone is getting better at shooting 3s," Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams said during The Finals. "That means that we, as the Golden State Warriors, have to get better at defending them, without fouling, because that can be a dicey proposition now, too. You try to drill techniques and encourage your guys in certain ways, fundamentally, that they can keep pace and be effective in that regard."
Protecting the basket still has to be priority No. 1. On a points per attempt basis, layups (shot at a 60-percent success rate) are still more valuable than 3s (at 35 percent). But every year, defending shots from the perimeter becomes more important. And it requires a combination of team principles, individual fundamentals and effort.
"It's not to say that we do everything right," assistant Jarron Collins added. "But I think that if you look at our shot challenges, there's a reason why teams shoot such a low percentage against us from the 3-point line. It's the athletes that we have, it's the technique that they're using, and it's the emphasis that we put on defending the 3-point line by challenging shots."
It's one thing to run a shell drill or something similar, where players practice defensive rotations. It's another to run a shell drill with emphasis on the proper way to challenge a shot. Collins says that no team that he's been involved with has stressed defensive technique and fundamentals like these Warriors.
It shows in the results. League-wide efficiency was even higher in the playoffs (108.5 points scored per 100 possessions) than it was in the regular season. But in the first round, the Warriors held the Portland Trail Blazers to just 96.3 points per 100 possessions, 11.5 fewer than the Blazers scored in the regular season. In the conference semifinals, they held the Utah Jazz to 97.6, 9.8 fewer than the Jazz scored in the regular season. Of the 15 series in this postseason, those were the two best defensive performances relative to how good the opponent was offensively in the regular season.
He's always in the conversation. When you have someone like that who's quarterbacking on the defensive end and brings that kind of intensity, guys have to fall in line, because he demands it."
Offensive efficiency increased with each round in this postseason and The Finals was the fourth most efficient playoff series of the last 21 years (315 series total), with the Warriors and Cavs combining to score 114.6 points per 100 possessions over the five games. Cleveland scored a postseason-high 136 points per 100 possessions in Game 4 and shot better than 50 percent (both from 2-point range and 3-point range) over Games 4 and 5. The finale was an incredible offensive display.
Warriors & Cavs combined to score 114.6 pp100p, 4th highest combined OffRtg in playoff series in last 21 years. '17 Cavs w/ 3 of top 10. pic.twitter.com/8p3E1wkgi8— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) June 13, 2017
But it was the Warriors' defense that earned them a 2-0 lead that Cleveland never overcame. After the Cavs scored an incredible 121 points per 100 possessions through the first three rounds, Golden State shackled them with their two worst offensive games of the postseason. Game 3 was their fourth-worst offensive game of the 18 they played in these playoffs and Game 5 was ultimately determined by a 21-2 Golden State run in which the Cavs scored just once in a stretch of 11 possessions in the second quarter.
For the series, even though they broke out in Games 4 and 5, the Cavs shot 38 percent from 3-point range, a mark above the league average, but also below the 43 percent they shot through the first three rounds. And the lack of volume may have been just as critical. They took just 29 3s in Game 2 and 24 in Game 5, dropping them to 10-13 for the season when they attempted fewer than 30.
With multiple defenders who can switch onto and stay in front of the Cavs' best players, the Warriors were, for the most part, able to stay close to home on Cleveland's shooters. After attempting 12.9 3s per 36 minutes through the first three rounds, Kevin Love attempted only 6.9 per 36 in The Finals. Kyle Korver's drop-off (from 8.3 to 5.9) wasn't as big, but still important given how good a shooter he is.
The Warriors had some issues when the Cavs put their traditional bigs in pick-and-rolls, but the rest of their roster switched comfortably and, except for Game 4, did so without much miscommunication. The Cavs were able to take advantage sometimes, but not enough.
In fact, on the Cavs' first possession of the series, they got Klay Thompson switched onto Love in the post. But Thompson got into Love's jersey and forced an ugly miss from the left wing.
"Klay did a fantastic job," Collins said, "and that's something for every high school player to watch, his footwork on that, his taking up the space. Kevin is stronger than him, but Klay has a really good base and does a really good job of taking up space."
Thompson is just one of several Golden State defenders with the required length, athleticism and intelligence to be a high-level defender in today's NBA. The versatility of the Warriors' roster is critical and so is the collective I.Q.
"You're making decisions as much defensively as you are offensively," Warriors GM Bob Myers told NBA.com last year. "The ideal thing is to have five guys out on the floor where you trust their decision-making on both sides of the ball."
Draymond Green -- the Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year runner-up each of the last two seasons and a finalist this year -- is the anchor: Smart, versatile and with an internal fire that always stays lit. In the playoffs, the Warriors allowed 98.6 points per 100 possessions with Green on the floor compared to 114.3 with him on the bench.
"Draymond, to me, is the key to our defense," Steve Kerr told NBA.com in his first season with the Warriors. "He's the key figure, because as the power forward, he's frequently involved in screen-and-rolls. And because he's quick enough and active enough to switch out onto a point guard, we're able to stifle a lot of the first options out of the opponent's attacks. And when that happens and the shot clock starts to wind down, we're able to stay in front of people and force a tough shot."
"He probably should have been the Defensive Player of the Year two years ago," Collins said last week, "and he probably should be the Defensive Player of the Year this year. He's always in the conversation. When you have someone like that who's quarterbacking on the defensive end and brings that kind of intensity, guys have to fall in line, because he demands it."
It's not clear that anyone was demanding it from the Cavs for most of the season. They blamed injuries for their post-All-Star malaise, but their poor defense was more about the players who were playing than those that were missing (Love for a month, J.R. Smith for almost three). They had bad habits (in regard to transition defense) and bad communication, both of which were exposed in The Finals.
Maybe the Warriors were unstoppable, but when the Cavs won the championship last year, they had ranked 10th in defensive efficiency in the regular season. In the two years they lost to Golden State, they ranked 20th and 22nd.
"Any really good coach in this league understands that you're not going to win much without a really solid defense," Adams said. "I think that will never change. The challenge is keeping up with the offensive game and trying to come to grips with the schemes that are needed, the fundamentals that are needed, and the emphasis on the fundamentals that you're practicing."
Playing high-level defense has never been more difficult, but the Warriors put in the work. Their success on that end of the floor should be acknowledged as much as their offensive firepower and after a historically good offensive season and a Finals matchup of two historically good offenses, the idea that defense wins championships still rings true.
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