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NBA playoffs: How the Warriors have thrived defensively

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OAKLAND – The highlight reels endlessly featured Stephen Curry’s expletive-laced chant following a drive to the basket. It also showcased Curry’s shimmy dance after making a 3-pointer over Rockets guard James Harden.
In their film session, the Warriors had more substantial clips to study in their Game 3 victory over the Rockets on Sunday to set a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference Finals. Warriors forward Draymond Green often boxed out Rockets center Clint Capela. Warriors guard Klay Thompson defended both Harden and Chris Paul, which contributed to a combined 12-of-34 mark from the field. Warriors forward Kevon Looney made blocks on consecutive plays that fueled a 9-0 run to close out the first quarter.
All of those plays highlighted the message Warriors coach Steve Kerr preached to open training camp, throughout the 2017-18 season and entering Game 4 on Tuesday at Oracle Arena.
“That will determine how far we go – our defensive intensity and our edge,” Kerr said.
Just because Kerr often preached that message, that does not mean the Warriors listened.
“We didn’t have it for half the season,” Kerr admitted. “It’s understandable, given the run we’ve been on the last few years with the wear and tear.”
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The Warriors accumulated that wear and tear after winning two NBA championships out of three Finals appearances against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Yet, the Warriors played until June for the last three years because they ranked among the NBA’s best in defense.
Consider the Warriors’ defensive rating in 2014-15 (first), 2015-16 (fourth) and 2016-17 (second). Then consider where the Warriors ranked in the 2017-18 season (eighth). The Warriors fared 17th out of 30 NBA teams in total points allowed (107.3), 17th in rebounds (43.7) and last in fast-break points conceded (19.5). And Green was left out of the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year conversation a year after winning the award.
“We had some stretches throughout the regular season where we weren’t at our best. I think that’s just part of the game,” Warriors forward Kevin Durant said. “It’s hard to do that every game of the season because they come around so fast.”
It also became hard for the Warriors to do that every game for two other reasons. They missed a combined 161 games because of injuries, most notably to their four All-Stars in Curry (31 games), Durant (14), Thompson (eight) and Green (11). Though the Warriors finished second in the Western Conference with a 58-24 record, they conceded they could have performed better had they actually tried defending better.
In the postseason, those variables disappeared. Ever since Curry returned for Game 2 in the Western Conference semifinals against New Orleans, the Warriors have fielded four healthy All-Stars. Since mid April, the Warriors have played games that actually have meant something.
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“We don’t sit back and let the offense dictate what they want to do anymore,” Thompson said. “Since the postseason came, we did a great job making them adjust to that side of the ball.”
As a result, the Warriors rank first among NBA playoff teams in defensive rating (100.5), third in opponent field-goal percentage (43.9), second in defensive rebounds (37.3) and fourth in steals (8.2). Team accounts have also cited improvement in their effort, communication and defensive rotations.
Then there are the individual developments. Kerr likened Green’s box-out skills to former Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman. Thompson gushed about his ability to defend at multiple positions, saying, “you try to be a pest to everybody.” And even if Harden has often gone one-on-one against Curry at his own expense, Kerr observed, “when they pick on him every time, it fires him up.”
Therefore, it might be surprising that Thompson said that the Warriors enjoy studying defense during film sessions so much that “it’s not really homework; it’s pleasure.” It sounds like the Warriors have finally listened to Kerr’s message.
“When we lock in on every possession, it doesn’t matter who we play,” Durant said. “We come out there and are too relaxed and too satisfied, that’s when teams creep back in. That happened too much for us as a team. It doesn’t matter who we play. We just have to be on every possession.”
Follow Bay Area News Group Warriors beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter , Facebook and Instagram .

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