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How to beat the Warriors: Five teams offer blueprints

Only five teams have beaten the Warriors this season. How did they do it? SI.com looks at the anatomy of a Golden State loss. 

Entering a March contest against the Celtics last season, Steve Kerr had only experimented with the Golden State Warriors’ vaunted “Lineup of Death” a mere 76 minutes. “I saw it on film and thought, man if they go to this, that’ll be tough,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

Facing as large as a 26-point deficit that Sunday afternoon, Kerr turned to the revolutionary unit—Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green—and watched them eat away at Boston's lead, posting an absurd 146.7 offensive rating and stifling 58.6 defensive rating. Golden State managed to claw back and escape with a 106–101 victory. After allowing 38 Boston points in the first quarter, the Warriors held the Celtics to just 36 points in the entire second half.

Golden State returned to the TD Garden this past December, riding a 23-game winning streak. Stevens’s upstart Celtics entered the contest 13–9, having barely uncovered their own potential with a small–ball unit featuring Jae Crowder at the four. Golden State needed two overtimes to remain undefeated. Curry finished with 38 points, but on his lowest efficiency (9-of-27 from the field) of the season. Boston also held the Warriors collectively to just 39.3% from the field.

Joy ride: On the road with the Warriors

The Celtics delivered the final crack to the Warriors’ undefeated facade. Golden State faltered in its first loss of the season the following evening. The Warriors have only dropped five games since, running out to a numbing 55–6 record.

The five teams they've lost to entering Sunday—Portland, Detroit, Denver, Dallas and Milwaukee—are a combined 14 games under .500. On the other hand, Golden State is a perfect 10–0 against San Antonio, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, the Clippers and Toronto.

So, how exactly have those five teams actually beaten these Warriors?

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Lineup of limbs

December 12 in Milwaukee: Bucks win 108–95

The Warriors checked into their Milwaukee hotel around 3 a.m., just 12 hours before pregame activities began at the Bradley Center for their game against the Bucks. Golden State’s double-overtime thriller in Boston the evening prior delayed the team’s travel itinerary by more than two hours.

The Warriors entered the arena in a sleepless fog. The Bucks’ official fan squad, the Cream City Clash, boasted T-shirts with “24–1” emblazoned across the chest. Milwaukee owner Wes Edens hatched the idea a week before the game. Ironically, Warriors center Andrew Bogut originally created the Bucks fan group back in 2009, before being shipped to Golden State for Monta Ellis and the legend of Steph Curry truly unfolding.

The Bucks fed off their zany crowd, jumping on the Warriors from the onset. Milwaukee rolled out a lineup of limbs to combat Golden State’s dizzying ball movement and backbreaking shooting. Jason Kidd’s opening unit of O.J. Mayo, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Greg Monroe presented a formidable challenge to the Warriors.

From the tip, Mayo draped his entire 6’4” frame and 6’6” wingspan over Curry, face-guarding the reigning MVP the second he crossed halfcourt. Just look at how Mayo glued himself to Curry on the game’s opening possession.

“As many times as I could go without him catching the ball in a possession, it would help our team and make somebody on their team have to make a play other than him,” Mayo told SI.com.

When Mayo sat, Kidd replaced him with the even longer Michael Carter-Williams. The Bucks used their unparalleled length to frequently double Curry, force the ball out of his hands and sprint over to weakside shooters shifting to open spaces against the Bucks’ rotating defense.

Golden State runs endless weakside motion countering Curry pick-and-rolls, sometimes using Klay Thompson off double-screens leading towards the opposite corner. An uber-aggressive closeout is a defense’s only chance at even trying to disrupt Thompson’s shooting motion in those scenarios.

“If you don’t do that with the Warriors, you’re going to be in trouble,” Kidd said. “For us, we have to use our length. We’re a young team that’s trying to understand how to use your length and how to use your speed and the skillset that we have.”

Late in the second quarter, the Warriors doubled Curry in the right corner out of a side pick-and-roll with Andrew Bogut. Simultaneously, Draymond Green surprised Middleton with a back-screen for Thompson on the far side of the floor. Fortunately for the Bucks, Middleton was long enough to overcome the 12 feet of hardwood that separated him from Thompson while Curry’s crosscourt pass zipped into his Splash Brother’s shooting pocket. Middleton’s pressure ultimately forced Thompson into a travel.

Offensively, the Bucks executed Jason Kidd’s game plan to perfection. Kidd and his staff believed Milwaukee could punish the Warriors’ smaller lineups on the interior and encouraged Monroe to go to work on the block. Monroe finished with a then-season-high 28 points. The Bucks as a whole finished with 60 points in the paint—10 more than their league-leading 50 per game—while repeatedly finding weak side cutters. “If you use the pass instead of the dribble, everybody is touching it, everybody feels empowered and when we do that, we tend to win those games,” Kidd said.

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No Curry, no space, no win

December 30 at Dallas: Mavericks win 114–91

The war of attrition had invaded Golden State as the calendar crept toward the New Year. The Warriors entered Dallas with Curry sidelined for his first game of the season, struggling with a lower left leg injury. Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Leandro Barbosa sat out that evening, as well.

Golden State never managed to recreate Curry’s dynamism within Kerr’s free-flowing scheme. Without much threat of the Warriors’ remaining ball handlers pulling up from deep, Dallas managed to play traditional man-to-man defense and fought through the majority of Golden State’s screens. Dallas limited the Warriors’ suddenly one-dimensional offense to just 40.7% shooting from the field, reducing Golden State’s snipers to just a slightly-above-league-average 36.8% from three.

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Then-interim head coach Luke Walton predicted those struggles during his pregame media availability. “We have spacing and we have role players that complement each other nicely,” he said. “Obviously without [Curry] out there, the spacing won't be as good, the drags that we like doing so much aren't as effective.”

Meanwhile, Dallas created a near carbon copy of Golden State’s typical offense, with J.J. Barea performing his best Curry impression. Barea poured in 23 points on 5-of-7 shooting from deep, mimicking Curry’s array of pull-up triples off of high pick-and-rolls. Barea also slithered his way into the paint and took advantage of the midrange looks Golden State’s vaunted defense prefers to allow.

Dallas further attacked Golden State’s smaller lineups by initiating many possessions from the post. Wes Matthews had his way with several Warriors wings and guards, bullying them into turnaround jumpers. Dirk Nowitzki turned in a vintage performance, using multiple post ups and baseline moves to exploit Warriors defenders.

Outside of the Mavericks’ interior presence, Dallas kept the Warriors' defense honest with a consistent dose of three-point shooting. The Mavericks connected on 14-of-27 tries from deep, with seven players connecting from distance.

“I thought that our guys did a very good job of staying focused even though they didn’t have Curry,” Rick Carlisle told reporters postgame. “We didn’t want to have an emotional letdown, knowing the building was going to be full. They got some great players and we wanted to make it hard on their best players and attack them with our depth.”

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Exploiting mismatches

January 13 at Denver: Nuggets win 112–110

Draymond Green had played in all 38 of the Warriors’ games entering Golden State’s matchup in Denver. Luke Walton opted to rest Green against the 15–23 Nuggets, despite Golden State needing his monster 29-point, 17-rebound, 14-assist night to withstand an overtime affair vs. Denver at home earlier in the year.

With Green in street clothes, his replacement, Jason Thompson (who has since been released and joined the Raptors), was unable to fill the void. Thompson isn't equipped to penetrate a defense from the top of the key, leading the Warriors to initiate their on-ball action through side pick-and-rolls, which should have opened shooters off curls at the top of the key.

The Nuggets wings were sufficient at stalling those actions, however, staying lockstep with Golden State’s premier shooters as best as possible and holding the Warriors to 38.6% from deep.