MEMPHIS, Tenn.—Left hanging in the balance of every basketball game is a certain quantity of open shots. Often these are looks that highly skilled professionals should make: mid-range jumpers for those suited to take them and clear three-pointers for those who have specialized in the trade. Yet by cruel probabilities, some of those shots will be missed.
Those shots inevitably come to mind in the wake of a game like Saturday at FedEx Forum, in which the Grizzlies built a sizable lead and outlasted the Warriors, 99–89 to take a 2-1 series lead. Golden State was never at its best. The smooth-sailing offense anchored by floor-spacing shooters went 12 of 31 on uncontested looks, per SportVU, giving some of the principals involved fair cause for optimism.
"I still found a good amount [of open looks], which I'm pretty encouraged by," Stephen Curry said. "Just to keep with the sets. I know shots will fall ... We'll look at the film tomorrow and see what else can come, but [if] I make a couple of more shots tonight, I don't think we're talking about [the Grizzlies' physical defense]."
There's a certain truth in Curry's claim. The characterization of NBA games are widely framed first by the result and second by the process involved. Were that the case with this particular game, however, it would come at an incredible disservice to the way it was played and won. That the Warriors missed open shots is, in some sense, a cold turn for a team of otherwise proficient shooters. It's also high praise for a Grizzlies team that chased and held and nudged and crowded their opponent to the point that even their best looks came out of a broken rhythm.
[daily_cut.NBA]"I thought we got a little flustered because the shots weren’t going in and we got away from the movement, the spacing, and the flow that we need," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
"It’s not really about speeding up the pace and generating extra possessions. It’s about the flow within the game, within that pace. There’s flow in the half-court just like there is in transition. I though in the first quarter we did a really good job building some flow. But turn it over, give up easy hoops, fall behind on the road ... well now it’s a question of how you respond."
That Golden State—the NBA's best team by a mile in the regular season—is forced to respond at all is a credit to Memphis. It takes hard work and high talent to knock an opponent this good off balance. The Grizzlies managed to do so with a defense equal in activity to the Warriors' offense.
"We just tried to harass them as much as possible," Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said.
Every dribble hand-off was met with expectant defenders. Every pick-and-roll was stretched and strained first by the Grizzlies' bigs (who hedged out to apply pressure and deny angles to Curry, in particular) and then by the scrappy, recovering guards. Stopping a team as prolific as the Warriors would be impossible. Profound disruption, however, was a goal within reach.
"I think we are doing a great job of everyone realizing where the action is," Marc Gasol said. "Everybody on the weak side is also putting in the stunt [to help against the roll man]. The second stunt guy is doing a great job also of pulling in early and being a help and then pulling out."
Curry, Klay Thompson, or Draymond Green may eventually find an opening to shoot, but only after running active, full-speed offense for a full possession. They aren't stepping into space. They're being forced to carve it out for themselves, inch by inch, as Tony Allen, Mike Conley, and Courtney Lee attempt to claw it shut.
"Mike [Conley] started off on Curry, and he was just trying to match his quickness and stay in front of him," Lee said. "And then when I switch off on him, I'm just trying to be into him as much as possible and make it difficult on him. Tony [Allen]'s been doing a great job on Klay [Thompson] with staying into his body, taking away the three-point shots that come from the [looks] that he gets, usually. I think we've got to just switch different bodies on them and stand into them."
With that, the Grizzlies have proven to be exactly the kind of defense that can obstruct and drag out what the Warriors do best. Golden State is still running its beautiful base offense. It's merely been distorted to the point that it's essentially unrecognizable—its smooth connections replaced by jagged edges. On several occasions we saw Curry, chased out of a pick-and-roll by ball pressure, whip a pass straight into the hands of a Grizzlies defender.
The passes themselves came at angles we've seen countless times this season from Curry. His spatial memory is uncanny; even after turning away from a play in progress, he can typically thread a ball through multiple defenders to a teammate on the move. But on Saturday, the beats and positions of those familiar plays were twisted into turnovers. At every stage of execution, Memphis was there to bother.
"We are doing a great job of doing multiple efforts on each possession and trying to finish possessions, normally with a rebound," Gasol said. "Of course there is a lot of responsibility on the guards being on the ball. They cannot give them space. Once they have space, [the Warriors' guards] are just too talented. They can go either way. They know how to play and the floor is so stretched that it's not easy ... but the guards are doing a great job of being on the ball."
It almost wasn't enough. With 1:45 remaining in the game, Golden State (once at a 19-point disadvantage) trailed by just four—a margin worth but a few of those missed open shots. It would be disingenuous, though, to pretend that Memphis had nothing at all to do with why those shots were missed.
The Warriors struggled throughout the night to get the shots they wanted in the patterns they're accustomed to. Once their best scorers were finally able to race through pressure and duck into open space, they found themselves chased, still, by the Grizzlies: Rushed on release, fresh off a previous miss, and sapped by the hard work of springing free.