Warriors' defense remains a 'work in progress'

Draymond Green and Stephen Curry know there's a lot of room for improvement

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Draymond Green, to borrow an old basketball coach’s saying, had done his work early. So early, in fact, that he felt he could sniff out the Milwaukee Bucks’ late-game offensive options as they inbounded from the side, trailing by two points with just 8.5 seconds left.

“Once Giannis [Antetokounmpo] was down at the block, I already knew what they were running,” the Golden State Warriors’ versatile forward said Saturday night, explaining his tactics in defending the longer, lankier Bucks player from behind. “I wanted to make it tough and make Tony Snell think about it. I knew once he thought about it he would throw a lob pass. And I just went up and got it.”

And so it went: Green nudging and poking his arms around Antetokounmpo, Snell putting too much air under his entry pass and Green batting it free. Teammate Klay Thompson wound up with the ball, got fouled and hit two free throws to ice the Warriors’ 124-121 victory and 3-0 start to the four-game trip that concludes Monday night at Indiana.

As much as Green believed he knew what was coming, as eager as he was to thwart it, he took it a wee personally as well. This, after all, is a guy who openly covets the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. So the Bucks, in their play diagramming, essentially were challenging that.

“Definitely. I think that’s disrespectful to me,” Green said. “I take that as disrespect. Don’t go at me for game.

“Of course I say that and next game I’ll get gamed or something. But whatever.”

The Warriors have had a little too much “whatever” in their defensive play so far this season. But it hasn’t reached crisis proportions – they are, after all, 11-2, tied for fewest defeats with the Clippers (12-2) and the Cavaliers (10-2) – and as non-fatal flaws go, theirs is on its way out. As the principals see it, anyway.

“A work in progress and something that we understand is not anywhere that we need it to be for a championship run,” is how MVP guard Steph Curry described Golden State’s defense Saturday.

Milwaukee hung a 37-point first quarter on the Warriors, the 19th time in 52 quarters an opponent has reached 30 or more and the 24th time they’ve been outscored in a period. The Bucks also became the third team thus far to outshoot them (52 percent to 44) in a game, though the first to do that and lose.

“We’ve shown bright spots,” Curry said. “Our pace is pretty crazy, so the numbers might be inflated a little bit. But it doesn’t pass the eye test right now from our standpoint. We understand that. It’s not a lack of effort. It’s just Xs and Os and focus on each possession, in not letting a team get comfortable.”

The Warriors are averaging 116.8 points, seven more than the second-best Lakers. The gap between their offensive rating (113.7) and the No. 2 Clippers’ (110.4) is greater than the gap between the Clippers’ and the Lakers (107.4) at No. 9.

But Golden State ranks No. 20 in defensive rating (105.6), down there with Boston (105.3), Minnesota (105.7) and Houston (105.9). That’s a step in the wrong direction, too, from last season’s 100.9. As a result, the Warriors’ net rating has dropped by more than 30 percent (8.1 this season vs. 11.6 in 2015-16) with the changes to their roster and resulting adaptations in style.

To some, this might seem like fretting about miles-per-gallon when you own the fastest ride on the block. Knowing they can outscore the other guys on most nights – for instance, with both Paul George and C.J. Miles missing from the Pacers’ lineup Monday night – can lead to a few bad habits. Or at least some bad numbers.

“Not worried about it,” Green said. “When you watch these games, you see our defense getting better. […] I think I judge pretty hard. The [Toronto and Boston games last week], not this one, our defense was pretty good. And it will continue to get better.

“I don’t think our defense is gonna be numbers-wise incredible anyway because we play so fast. So teams are gonna get more shots than they’re used to getting, because we get up and down so fast. We may shoot the ball five times in a row in the first six seconds of the shot clock. And that causes situations on the defensive end.”

If the addition of Kevin Durant has turbocharged an already potent offense, the subtraction of players such as Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Mo Speights, Harrison Barnes and a couple others has altered Golden State’s texture and inner workings a bit as well. With the bigs especially – Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee lack some of what their predecessors provided and, on sheer newness alone, it’s still early.

Veteran Andre Iguodala, the Warriors’ ultimate role player, said the team’s transition from its 2014-15 championship season to last year was “smooth motion,” based on the number of players who returned in familiar roles. This time around, Iguodala said, is more like the start of that first year under coach Steve Kerr, when their contender personality was being defined.

“When you have a lot of new guys, it’s back to Year 1,” Iguodala said “But we understand the process. So I think we’re doing a better job of letting it happen organically and not forcing it. Build each day. Because Year 1, we tried to get it all at one time. That can come back to bite you. But we’ve come back a little more mature.”

That 2014-15 team also lost twice in its first 13 games – and then not again until after it had won 21. It finished 67-15 and ranked No. 2 in offensive rating (109.7) and No. 1 defensively (98.2).

Having four of the top 15 players in the league, based on last spring’s all-NBA selections (and perhaps a tighter grouping of elites this season), it might follow that having enough worker bees to do the grunt work – including defense – might be a challenge.

Kerr, though, hasn’t seen any big-leaguing or prima donna dereliction of defensive duty.

“Some of it just happens naturally. As they play more and more together, guys get comfortable,” the Golden State coach said. “More familiar with each other’s tendencies. Some of it is us as a staff trying to mix and match, find combinations that work better. But I think these things generally happen on their own. Players learn to play together, and I think our guys have grown quite a bit in the month or so already this season.”

When the Warriors react as a unit the way Green did in Milwaukee – taking it personally when the opponents targeted him defensively – then they will be postseason ready. The numbers by then probably will have followed.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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