MEMPHIS—While the basketball world waited for Golden State's vaunted offense to right itself, its defense—the best in the league during the regular season—went about its own quiet renovation. The Warriors had budged something loose in the final quarter of their Game 3 loss to the Grizzlies; going small had sparked a defensive fury that brought multiple bodies to the ball on every post-up and forced an opponent uncomfortable at range to wade out to the perimeter.
From that came a stylistic bridge that dictated the terms of Game 4. By empowering their bigger lineups with the same spatial principles that made their small-ball run successful, the Warriors claimed complete control over the game's process. They won the first quarter, took a double-digit lead into halftime, and sealed the night with a 101-84 victory that shifted all strategic cues to the Grizzlies.
"We had to get more creative defensively," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
The crux of their creativity was the choice to let Tony Allen go untended. Memphis' infamous shooting guard is, as he'll tell you, one of the game's great perimeter defenders. He's also so profoundly irrelevant on the other side of the ball that opponents can get away with disregarding him entirely. Some teams take this as an opportunity to hide their weaker defenders or rest their weary stars. Golden State had opted to do the latter at times with Curry, in theory resting him on defense so that he might be able to better separate for shots and passes when he again had the ball in his hands.
The Warriors technically took the opposite approach in Game 4 by assigning Andrew Bogut (and later Draymond Green) to match up with Allen and thus spend his every defensive possession in active, constant help. Bogut wasn't hidden. He was parked in the middle of the floor as a constant reminder that any interior scoring attempt would need to go through two inescapable layers of defense.
"Defensively we did a great job on them," Bogut said. "[Zach Randolph] and [Marc] Gasol are All-Stars for a reason. They’re very tough down there … Coach put in some adjustments to start the game that threw them off a little bit with our matchups. We kept them out of sync for the rest of the game."
Such a move was only possible, though, because Harrison Barnes was fit to serve as Randolph's primary defender. Golden State matched up against Memphis' starters as if it were playing small, with Barnes battling Randolph and Green keeping with Gasol. Yet rather than bring help from a doubling guard or wing, Kerr mobilized the Warriors' best defenders to deter post-ups and blanket drivers.
Bogut and Green were, as expected, terrific in that capacity. The Grizzlies made just 22 of their 56 attempts (39.3%) in the paint, many wild flings over the top of crowding limbs. Randolph, who was pushed and denied by Barnes and challenged by quick help, contributed just six points in the paint.
[daily_cut.nba]"Obviously, when I’m on [Randolph], my job is to activate," Barnes said. "Get him moving, get him to put the ball on the ground. My teammates have done a great job of providing help. Bogut and Draymond are always there any time he gets to the basket and on offensive rebounds and things like that. We executed well tonight."
Barnes played with a strength and poise the Warriors badly needed. At no point did he seem outmatched in handling Randolph, a wrecking ball power forward who typically swings his way through much bulkier post defenders. In doing so he helped force the Grizzlies out of their comfortable rhythms from the games previous and into the awaiting hands of Allen. The Warriors dared Allen to shoot as often as he'd like. He obliged, to the discomfort of the FedEx Forum crowd, time and time again.
By night's end he had made just two of his nine shots from the field. He would have missed more had Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger not pulled the plug on his minutes entirely. Allen played 38, 37, and 33 minutes, respectively, in the first three games of this series. In Game 4 he was used for a mere 16, and useful for fewer still. Joerger had no choice but to withdraw his top perimeter defender in an ultimately futile effort to rescue his team's withering offense.
"[Our coverage] takes Tony out of the game," Barnes said. "They have to put in a guy like Jeff Green and we don’t have him hawking Steph[en Curry], hawking Klay [Thompson] all the time on offense. It allows us to get into our rhythm and get into our flow."
Curry, running the floor off of misses rather than makes, had his best game of the series. Thompson wasn't at the top of his game but was able to move about the floor more freely than he would ever be allowed in Allen's coverage. Gone was the bandit who stalked passing lanes for steals and held high-scoring opponents under wraps. With his absence, the Warriors offense found room to breathe for the first time in a week.
“We’ve got to do a better job of playing defense with our offense,” Gasol said. “We could see tonight that they tried doing something a little different than we have seen in the past. But we have still got to execute and run our plays and just slow down and try to just take four or five seconds to figure out what is in front of us … We have just got to stay poised and do what we do.”
Monday's blowout felt like a Warriors game. Possessions bled into one another: Made shots made for feverish defensive stands which turned to runouts in transition that fueled the next stop. Once Memphis was dragged into that destructive cadence, it was all over. The full ascent of the Warriors' defense was so potent that it shook the Grizzlies' playing rotation, and in doing so provided a way forward for its own offense.
"I think we’ve done a great job of scheming," Barnes said. "And, obviously, they’ll have an adjustment for that next game."
The Grizzlies surely will. Yet strategic adjustment alone can only do so much to account for the fact that Allen is an offensive drag, just as it can only do so much to address the limitations of Zach Randolph (mobility), Jeff Green (decision-making), or a variety of other core players. Effectively, Memphis fell on Monday to the most critical adjustment of all in this series to date: The better team finally tapping into what makes that the case.