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The Warriors’ playoff chances may rest on their defense — and a rookie

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS guard Chris Paul called it the best defensive play he had seen in his 19-year career.

With 1:30 left in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks on April 2 and the Warriors holding a 98-92 lead, Mavericks guard Luka Doncic feigned a dribble penetration from the top of the 3-point line before dishing the ball to guard Kyrie Irving. As Warriors forward Draymond Green roamed the paint, Irving sidestepped the defending Andrew Wiggins, took two steps toward Green and then passed to center Daniel Gafford near the baseline.

Just as quickly, Green changed his positioning and met Gafford at the rim for a spectacular two-handed block. Green ripped the rebound away from Irving, firing up the Chase Center crowd, with the Warriors then holding on for a 104-100 win.

“We’re starting to understand that defense is going to be what we have to hang our hat on,” Paul said after the game. “Then on offense, we of course have amazing shooters and scorers. But when we defend, it opens everything else up.”

The team has fought through several on-court issues this season, including Green’s suspensions and late-game struggles, Stephen Curry‘s drop in offensive production since the All-Star break and Thompson finishing the regular season with his lowest scoring average since 2013-14.

But the victory against Dallas was part of a six-game win streak fueled by an improved defense led by Green and the emergence of rookie center Trayce Jackson-Davis.

Golden State enters Tuesday’s play-in tournament game against the Sacramento Kings with nine wins in its past 11 games. The Warriors also boast the league’s seventh-best defense since the All-Star break and are fifth in defensive efficiency since Jackson-Davis entered the starting lineup March 27.

The Warriors’ road back to the playoffs remains tough. They’ll need to win back-to-back road games just to secure a first-round series against the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder.

But it was only three weeks ago when the Warriors were in danger of falling out of the postseason picture completely. On March 24, the Warriors started a crucial five-game road trip by losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves, which left them only a game over the Houston Rockets in the battle for 10th place.

However, the Warriors responded by winning their next four games — all on the road — before the home win against the Mavericks. During that streak, the Warriors held their opponents to 99.0 points per game, the franchise’s fewest over a five-game span since January 2022.

“We’ve seen teams in this league for years that made the mistake of thinking they can just put a great offense out there and their defense sucks and think they’re going to win,” Green said after the Mavericks game. “As you run up against [a] team that is … just competent on the offensive end but they play defense, you’re going to lose.”

Any postseason success will require Jackson-Davis, along with Green and veteran center Kevon Looney, to go up against a play-in field that includes All-Star big men such as the Kings’ Domantas Sabonis or the Los Angeles LakersAnthony Davis.

“Those assignments, I mean, it’s all against some of the best players,” Jackson-Davis told ESPN. “I know I’ll have to lean on my veterans — Draymond, Kevon. Those guys are really going to help me. And I know the preparation will be different, there will be a lot more of it. But I feel like I’m ready to tackle that challenge.”


AFTER THE LOSS to the Timberwolves on March 24, Green had a harsh assessment of his team’s defense.

“We have too many breakdowns,” Green said. “You just can’t win having breakdowns. When you have breakdowns, it changes momentum. And momentum in this league is not easy to get back.”

The Warriors led the Wolves by as much as 12 points in the first half. They were up 70-65 with just over four minutes left in the third quarter when the Wolves then picked apart Golden State on a run that included six 3-pointers, including three by guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker. With Curry on the bench during that stretch and not returning until the 6:54 mark in the fourth, the Wolves went on a 32-19 run that then led to a 114-110 win.

“We’re a very quiet team. So, you have issues on defense when you have bad communication,” Green added. The Warriors’ fourth-quarter defense — which ranked 29th in defensive efficiency at the time — had been a season-long issue. Defending the rim was one particular sore spot; Golden State was third worst in the league in field goal percentage allowed on layups and dunks in the fourth quarter.

Two days after the Wolves game, the Warriors bounced back with a 113-92 road win over the Miami Heat. With Jonathan Kuminga sitting out the following day’s game in Orlando, Florida, because of knee tendonitis, Warriors coach Steve Kerr placed Jackson-Davis in the starting five. The rookie responded with eight points and 14 rebounds in the 101-93 win. Green was ejected four minutes into the game, but the duo quickly found a rhythm in the frontcourt over their next matchups.

In an April 4 win against the Rockets, Jackson-Davis spent time in the first half defending Houston guard Amen Thompson, while Green roamed as a paint defender. But in the second half, when Thompson began running more downhill and in transition, the Warriors’ duo switched assignments.

“If I’m the 5, I’m the last line of defense,” Green said after the game. “So the things that I do off of instinct or reading the game on the fly, it’s harder to do. If I just go run over here to cover up something I see needs to be covered, that’s leaving the rim unprotected … but if I know the rim is protected by Trayce, I can just go do it.”

Giving Green the ability to roam has helped Jackson-Davis hold opponents to 48% shooting in the paint as the contesting defender, which ranks ninth among players to contest more than 500 shots this season, per Second Spectrum tracking.

“Being able to tic-tac and interchange with him is great,” Jackson-Davis said. “The things he teaches me, positioning and stuff of that nature, it’s helped my game a lot.”

Jackson-Davis and Green, who started 10 games together, finished the season with a 99.2 defensive efficiency as a duo, which ranks in the top 10 among all two-man lineups to play more than 225 minutes this season, according to ESPN Statistics & Information research.

“Trayce is wise beyond his years,” Kerr told ESPN. “He is not a typical rookie these days, with four years of college experience and a lot of games played under his belt. He’s gotten great experience the last couple of months.”


AFTER SUNDAY’S WIN win against the Utah Jazz to wrap up the regular season, all eyes turned to Tuesday’s matchup: the play-in game between the 9-seed and 10-seed in Sacramento. The Kings provide an interesting defensive task for Golden State.

Led by their All-Star duo in Sabonis and guard De’Aaron Fox, rim protection and paint defense will be key for the Warriors.

“Everything starts with the head of the snake — Sabonis and Fox — and then everyone else gets their [offense] off of those two guys,” Green said after the Jazz win. “We know [the Kings] well, they know us well, so there won’t be any surprises.”

The two teams met in the first round of the playoffs last season, with the Warriors eliminating the Kings in seven games. This season, three of their four meetings have been decided by one point, including Sacramento’s 134-133 win in late January that saw the Kings hit 22 3-pointers on 48 attempts.

During the playoffs last season, Looney was primarily tasked with defending Sabonis. He was during this regular season, as well. According to Second Spectrum, Looney has defended Sabonis for 658 half-court matchups for their careers, including regular season and playoffs. That is the most by any player against Sabonis.

Even with Jackson-Davis taking over the majority of Looney’s minutes in the rotation, the challenge remains the same in stopping Sacramento’s star big man.

“At the center spot, you’ve got to be super talkative, real disruptive,” Looney told ESPN. “Those matchups are super key, trying to stop two guys who are All-NBA. I think Trayce, Draymond, myself, we have the talent to do that.”

Slowing down Sabonis and Fox will be no easy task, specifically on dribble handoffs. The pair ran 285 total handoffs together this season (fifth most in the NBA among all duos), but the Warriors are ranked sixth at defending them (0.97 points per direct play).

“Sabonis does all his damage pretty much within 10 to 15 feet … and Trayce can affect some of those shots,” Green said. “It starts with positioning, and Sabonis is great at creating angles. Trayce has got to use what he has and his strengths, which is his athleticism and his length.”

And should the Warriors advance, it gives Kerr that flexibility to either rely on the rookie big man or a front-court veteran in what is a win-or-go-home setting.

“I have a lot of confidence in having Loon, knowing that for a rookie it’s a lot to ask him to go into a playoff game and play against great players, which is going to be the case,” Kerr said. “It’s a good situation to be in.”

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