How to beat the Warriors: Five teams offer blueprints
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.“
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“I think our guards had great discipline that game in guarding Curry and guarding Thompson,” Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said. Thompson managed just five three-point attempts, three below his season average.
Denver’s wings found a balance in pressuring the ball and preventing the Warriors’ shooters from attacking closeouts. Gary Harris and Will Barton were especially effective trying to slow the Splash Brothers.
“It’s hard to shut down a guy like Klay Thompson who shoots the ball as good as he does and they run so much for him,” Barton told SI.com. “I just tried to stay attached to him, limit his open looks and his open touches, and just contest every shot. Just trying to make it tough on him. And then when he does catch it, just be all over him so we can make his looks kinda tough.”
Early on this season, the Nuggets found success inserting rookie center Nikola Jokic into the starting lineup. The big man's childhood of playing point guard developed ball skills most veteran big men don’t have tin their skill set. With Jokic, the Nuggets have grown accustomed to initiating a large quantity of offensive sets out of the post.
Denver ran plenty of post ups against the Warriors, taking advantage of mismatches on the block to either score in isolation or collapse the Golden State's defense to open up secondary actions. “They play a lot of small ball,” Malone said. “So the areas that they have, especially when Draymond doesn’t play, where you can hurt them, are in the paint and on the glass.”
Danilo Gallinari was especially effective rolling off high ball screens and steamrolling the smaller Warriors perimeter players that switched onto him. Gallinari had his way with Golden State’s wings on the perimeter as well, often juking defenders with shot fakes and getting all the way to the rim. The swingman attempted a barely fathomable19 free throws en route to his team-high 28 points.
“The league is all about matchups,” Malone said. Gallinari’s playmaking, coupled with his enormous size, certainly proved to be a matchup problem for the Warriors. One could dare say it was a Kevin Durant-lite performance.
Neutralizing Draymond Green
January 16 at Detroit: Pistons win 113–95
Exactly 10 years after Ben Wallace’s last season with the Pistons, Detroit immortalized his No. 3 jersey in the Palace of Auburn Hills rafters in a halftime ceremony. The nostalgic event plus a visit from the defending champions sparked a raucous energy in the arena that fueled the Pistons evening.
Before the festivities, Michigan native Draymond Green wrote an open letter in the Detroit Free Press saying, “Thank you, Mr. Wallace, for showing me that it is possible to make it to the NBA and wreak havoc while being undersized!” Similar to how Denver capitalized on Green’s absence three days earlier, Detroit did it’s best to eliminate Green from deciding the game’s outcome, rather than focus on limiting Curry. “I was more worried about putting Draymond Green in situations where they were 4-on-3 with him making plays,” head coach Stan Van Gundy told SI.com.
The Pistons either fought through Golden State’s high ball screen or switched it entirely. “We didn’t even try to trap [Curry] or put two guys on the ball,” Van Gundy said. Detroit’s strategy proved successful, matching up Green with either Marcus Morris, who could switch onto Curry and provide a valiant effort sealing off the paint, or Ersan Ilyasova, who could stick with Green in isolation.
Ilyasova’s combination of length and quickness helped neutralize Green as a scorer, even if he still created for teammates. “He still had nine assists in our game, but he wasn’t running free making plays and that was our main focus, was to try to stay one-on-one with them as much as we can,” Van Gundy said. “I thought it helped us limit Draymond and limit some of their other guys who get a lot of open threes when two guys come to the ball and we didn’t give those things up.”
The Pistons have since traded Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings to the Orlando Magic, but Ilyasova defended Green as well as any player has this season. “Our game plan was to just be on him, don’t leave Draymond Green’s pick and pop, we can’t try to switch and force them into tough shots,” Ilyasova said.
Detroit’s strategy paid off, holding Golden State to season lows in assists (18) and field–goal percentage (32%), delivering the franchise’s first win over the Warriors since 2010.
Run, run, run
February 19 at Portland: Blazers win 137—105
Returning from the All-Star break, the Blazers had two full days to scheme for the Warriors’ second trip to the Moda Center this season. After going through hours of Golden State tape, the Portland coaching staff designed a 48-hour preparation of practices simulating Golden State’s offense. Sadly, this is not one of those stories where a bench player grabbed a blue No. 30 jersey and mimicked Steph Curry for the day. The Blazers simply focused on shutting down the Warriors’ offensive philosophies.
"Just the way they play,” C.J. McCollum told SI.com. “They don’t really run plays. They run like a freestyle motion offense, they play out of the pinch post a little bit, run some splits.”
Portland particularly readied for the Warriors’ aggressive shot selection. “You know, they pull up from deep, run off screens,” Allen Crabbe told SI.com. “We just tried to simulate it as best we can and we were able to defend it well in practice and it carried over to the game.”
Rather than play at their accustomed tempo, which is around league average, Portland matched Golden State’s relentless cadence. The Blazers’ pace paid dividends for the team’s offensive production. Head coach Terry Stotts urged his players to keep running all game, frantically waving his arms on the sideline like a third base coach signaling his players to race home.
“It wasn’t necessarily trying to outscore Golden State, per se. I think every team, at least my philosophy, is that you try and get easy baskets when you can. And if you can’t, then you play against halfcourt,” Stotts said. “I have a lot of respect for their halfcourt defense and whether their big guys are on the court or Draymond Green’s at the five and they’re doing a lot of switching, it’s just easier when you don’t have to play against that.”
Portland combated Golden State’s dominant small–ball lineup with a compact unit of its own, surrounding Damian Lillard at the 5:43 mark of the third quarter with Crabbe, Gerald Henderson, Al-Farouq Aminu and tasking Noah Vonleh with Green.
“Coach felt I could be out there because I can cover multiple guys and switch different positions,” Vonleh told SI.com. “We said in our pregame talks we were gonna get into them, get into the ball, make it tougher to see passing lanes and that’s what we tried to do.”
The group ripped off a 14–2 burst over the next four minutes, forcing eight Golden State turnovers and building a 102–75 lead. “When we go to a small lineup, we get deflections and we get steals and it allows us to get out on the break,” Crabbe said.
Lillard provided the highlight of that stretch, diving for steals on back-to-back possessions that erased seemingly sure-fire Golden State transition opportunities.
“You can’t give them easy buckets,” Lillard said. “Steph is gonna make threes, Klay is gonna make threes, you know the other guys are gonna do what they do, but you can’t give them too many easy opportunities.”
Lillard, of course, made the most of his own scoring opportunities, hanging a career-high 51 points on the Warriors’ top-five defense. He played with a churning fire, which Lillard denied was fueled by his All-Star snub, shooting 9-of-12 from deep. “I just got in the flow,” Lillard said. “You see the ball go in enough times early, you’re able to get to spots. And once you get in a rhythm, a lot of guys in this league can tell you that, [no matter] how good the defense is, what spot on the floor you’re in, it kind of goes out the window. There’s pretty much nothing they can do.”
Portland as a team shot a blistering 17-of-30 from deep. Even Vonleh drained his fifth triple of the season. The Blazers’ defensive effort clearly set the table for their offensive burst, though. Portland forced 13 Golden State turnovers—just two shy of their season average per game—in the third quarter alone.
“The wheels came off,” Curry admitted to reporters post game.
Clearly, defeating the Warriors has not been an easy task. In the five instances opponents have been successful, only two of those victories came against Golden State at full strength. And of those two occasions, Portland and Detroit required incredibly difficult blends of defensive versatility and incredible shot making.
So, what does it take to beat Golden State? Prevent Draymond Green’s playmaking ability as best you can, limit the Warriors' shooters to league-average conversion from deep while also protecting the rim, strike a season-high scoring efficiency and somehow coax Golden State into north of 15 turnovers (while cashing in on those fastbreak opportunities).