Golden State Warriors, NBA, Utah Jazz

The Long Two: A dominant Warriors lineup and Jazz issues on defense

After battling injuries all regular season, the Warriors are finally healthy and firing on all cylinders. Plus — a worrying trend for the Utah Jazz.

Until the start of the playoffs, the promise of the Golden State Warriors was mostly theoretical. Here was a potential juggernaut kept under wraps all year by injury, unable to get a clear look at itself before the postseason. Prior to Saturday night, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green had played all of 11 minutes together this season, and even fewer with Jordan Poole, Andre Iguodala or Andrew Wiggins alongside them.

Through two games, despite Curry coming off the bench and playing limited minutes, Golden State looks every bit the part of a title contender, proving to both themselves and the rest of the NBA that their window hasn’t closed yet. The Warriors have outscored the Nuggets by a combined 36 points over the first two games of their first-round series, and much of that lopsided margin has come with the Warriors’ revelatory small-ball lineup on the floor. The combination of Curry, Thompson, Green, Poole and Wiggins has run up a 48-17 score in just 11 minutes this series and, just as importantly, recaptured the stylistic identity that typified Golden State’s dominance from 2015 to 2019.

The Warriors are winning with small ball again

It’s not just that group’s statistical dominance that stands out, but the speed and precision with which it plays. All five players move in synchronicity with one another, sharing the ball and weaving around the court at a pace the Nuggets have been unable to match.

Despite playing fewer than 130 minutes together in the regular season, Curry, Thompson and Poole already work seamlessly off of one another in the backcourt, improvising collaborative motion that forces the defense to instantaneously choose between almost equally potent threats. All three must be guarded out to 28 feet and almost always attract multiple defenders off ball screens or dribble-handoffs, which generates swaths of open space for teammates to attack and a symbiotic fit between everyone on the floor.

Poole’s ability to create with the ball allows Curry to work more often without it, and playing Thomspon with three ball-handlers slides him into a more natural off-ball role in which he doesn’t have to hunt shots off the dribble. Thompson, in turn, keeps the floor open for Curry and Poole by keeping his defender glued to him at all times. Green masterfully leverages that extra defensive attention into opportunities elsewhere on the floor, while Wiggins finds room to slash and spot up around the rest of the action.

“I think the best part of that lineup is we all do things so uniquely different,” Thompson told NBC Sports Bay Area. “Steph, obviously, in the pick-and-roll is incredible, coming off the catch, incredible. Jordan is like a baby Steph Curry with his ability to stop and pop with the ball in his hands. I’m the catch-and-shoot guy. Wiggs is so great around the rim, he’s so good at attacking the rim, and his catch-and-shoot has also been great this year. And then Draymond kind of glues us all together with his ability to playmake, navigate the defense. That’s just a deadly lineup, and I think we’ll have to unleash that if we want to go where we want to go.”

Indeed, Steve Kerr leaned heavily on that unit to put the last two games — and potentially the series — out of reach. Golden State poured on 47-25 and 70-36 runs in Games 1 and 2, respectively, and Denver had no answer for the Warriors’ movement, pace, passing and shooting. Pulling Kevon Looney off the floor in favor of quicker, more skilled players gave the slow-footed Nikola Jokić nowhere to hide on defense, and targeted pick-and-rolls not only compromised the Nuggets’ point-of-attack defense but put them into rotation and forced them to choose between helping at the rim and conceding open 3s to lethal shooters:

“I think in their mind, it’s like, ‘We gotta take the 3 out of the game’ and their entire defense was pressed up,” Green said on his podcast after Game 2. “They’re pressed up, they’re above the 3-point line, they’re essentially trying to force you to drive. Well, Steph Curry took those drives, and then it opened the floor up and it opened the 3-point shot up.”

In fairness to the Nuggets, there are no good answers against a lineup with three elite movement shooters, an athletic slasher who shoots 41 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s and one of the best playmaking big men the game has ever seen. Curry and Poole walk into easy triples against conventional pick-and-roll coverage, but putting two on the ball only gives Green four-on-three advantages to exploit.

Help on a drive, and you’re leaving a knockdown shooter wide open. Sell out on a shooter coming off a screen, and the screener will slip into an uncontested layup. One can see how this might cause headaches for a defense, particularly one functionally unable to switch on- or off-ball screens. Golden State’s tempo has only exacerbated those issues, often fatally compromising Denver’s defense before it can even find its bearings:

Poole’s emergence as a go-to scorer was critical for the Warriors during Curry’s 12-game absence in the regular season, and he now serves as a dynamic and audacious secondary creator next to Curry. He has become the Warriors’ best downhill driver and most diverse one-on-one attacker, and blending his smooth individual scoring game into a read-and-react motion offense has only amplified his shooting and driving ability.

He’s developed excellent chemistry in two-man actions with Green, and Poole’s combination of on- and off-ball scoring prowess poses similar challenges to defenses that Curry does. “When I’m out there playing with Jordan Poole,” Green said, “the same little ‘life hacks’, if you will, that I use when I’m playing with Steph Curry to get him open, I’ve realized are the same little life hacks I can use to get Jordan open.”

Adding a second primary scorer to the lineup exponentially increases the strain Golden State puts on opposing defenses, which only makes life easier for Thompson and Wiggins, whose simplified roles allow them to find easier opportunities within the offensive flow. Thompson is forcing fewer tough jumpers, while Wiggins has quietly delivered two solid outings against Denver on both ends of the floor.

“Wiggins has been locked in like I’ve never seen Wiggins locked in before,” Green said. “Gameplan discipline, in the fray, rebounding — it’s been beautiful to see.” Kerr can also slot Andre Iguodala or Otto Porter Jr. in Wiggins’ place to get more passing and size on the floor, and both players can capably defend and make plays out of actions with Curry and Poole:

The new Death Lineup doesn’t have quite the defensive versatility the Warriors had at their dynastic apex, but this iteration is smart and active away from the ball, and Green may still be the best all-around defender in basketball. That said, Denver is a relatively friendly matchup for a team without much perimeter defense in its rotation. Green has capably held Jokić down (often literally) in one-on-one matchups, and the Nuggets don’t have the guard play to take advantage of relatively poor point-of-attack defense in the backcourt.

Teams like Memphis and Phoenix could expose some of the drawbacks of playing three limited defensive guards, which may be the greatest obstacle between Golden State and another NBA Finals appearance. Yet if the Warriors can score at the rate they have against Denver, there may not be a team in the West (or the NBA) that can both slow them down and punish their perimeter defense. Later rounds of the playoffs will provide more definitive answers, but for now, Golden State seems to have rediscovered the groove it’s been searching for all season, unlocked by a collection of players who know exactly who they are and where they fit in.

Utah’s inability to contain the ball costs them Game 2

The Utah Jazz may very well stave off the short-handed Mavericks in their first-round series, but that the matter remains in question is a telling indictment of Utah’s championship viability. Credit Dallas, who played with Game-7 urgency in their narrow Game 2 victory, for targeting and exploiting the weakest parts of the Jazz’s defense, but the fact that a team missing its best offensive creator could so successfully dismantle a top-10 defense raises concerns that will persist as long as the Jazz remain in the playoffs.

Fashionable though it may be to pin Utah’s defensive playoff failures on the team’s best defensive player, Rudy Gobert sits in an exceedingly difficult spot as Utah’s last line of defense. By downsizing and playing Maxi Kleber at center to close Game 2, Dallas spread Utah’s defense out and gashed them with jumpers, icing the game with six 3s in the fourth quarter — all from Kleber, Reggie Bullock and Dorian Finney-Smith. Four of those six shots came from Gobert’s man — either Kleber or Finney-Smith — but they were all products of Utah’s inability to contain the ball on the perimeter. The Jazz resorted to a 2-3 zone at one point, but Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie had no problems beating their defenders off the dribble and finding open teammates:

One of Dallas’ fourth-quarter triples — a Bullock laser from the left corner against the zone — was the result of Gobert failing to close out when he should have. Perhaps he could have challenged one or two other shots more aggressively, but that’s hardly the root of the issue.

Save for Danuel House (sometimes), no player in Quin Snyder’s rotation has proven capable of staying in front of the ball or getting over a screen well enough to avoid compromising the team’s defense. As was the case last year against the Clippers, that leaves Utah incredibly vulnerable against teams that can spread the floor with five shooters, attack off the dribble and create drive-and-kick jumpers.

Through two games, Dallas has taken almost 46 percent of its shots from beyond the arc and generated 77 points off of catch-and-shoot looks — both the highest marks of any playoff team. The Jazz have limited the Mavericks’ attempts at the rim, but stationing Gobert in the paint to clean up blow-by drives often just gives Dallas more avenues to generate open 3s.

Monday’s collapse spawned more finger-pointing and outward shows of frustration from the Jazz — not great signs considering their problems will only become worse once Luka Dončić returns — and it’s unclear what the strategic panacea is for poor perimeter defense. Could Gobert play a step closer to the perimeter and still stay in position to challenge shots while Utah’s guards contest from behind? Maybe, though trying to take away both options often results in addressing neither.

The Jazz will occasionally just outscore even a hot-shooting Dallas attack and might be able to carve out enough of an advantage in the minutes the Mavs don’t play five-out that they can withstand another crunch-time onslaught. But so long as the Jazz have this much trouble containing the Maverick ball-handlers, they may have no better recourse than hoping their opponent goes cold.

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