In case you needed one more indication that this isn’t your grandfather’s NBA, consider this: Going into Tuesday night, the man leading the NBA in blocked shots was a small forward.
Granted that small forward — Kevin Durant1 — is basically 7 feet tall with Go Go Gadget arms the length of a school bus. But he’s officially a small forward nonetheless, a reality that perfectly suits the mutant Golden State defense, which could break the NBA record for blocks in a season.
With 8.68 blocks per night, the Warriors trail only the 1985-86 Washington Bullets (8.73) for the highest mark in league history, according to Basketball-Reference.com. But the club has taken the shot blocking to another level in the past week, since superstar Stephen Curry hurt his ankle, prompting Steve Kerr to play bigger, more versatile lineups. Golden State averaged 12.0 blocks per 48 minutes in its last three contests, which Curry missed, up from the 8.3 blocks per 48 minutes the team logged with the two-time MVP on the court during the season.
The reason this matters beyond fueling highlight reels and fantasy stats: The Warriors are incredible at weaponizing their blocks and turning them into points, a welcome trait given that they become mere mortals again on offense when they’re playing without Curry, whose perimeter shooting can part defenses like the Red Sea.
In terms of length, Golden State rolls out an even more uniform, daunting lineup in Curry’s absence — featuring a higher dosage of 6-foot-6 Andre Iguodala, 6-foot-7 Shaun Livingston or both — one that can switch assignments far more easily than when the 6-foot-3 superstar is on the court. Beyond that, the Warriors are better able to disrupt shots with these players on the court. Of the five Golden State games with the highest number of blocks, two — including a 15-rejection victory over Detroit — have come since Curry’s injury.
This plays right into the Warriors’ favorite strategy: to secure the ball, streak down the court in transition against a confused defense, and score — and then start the whole process over again. Watch Durant’s sequence here, starting with a block on one end and finishing with a lob on the other.
A look at the numbers explains just how dominant Golden State is at this. The Warriors average a league-best 22 points per game on fast breaks; the next-closest team logs fewer than 16. According to Inpredictable, after grabbing a defensive rebound, the Dubs take, on average, 9.5 seconds to shoot — by far the NBA’s quickest trigger — while posting the league’s second-best efficiency on such shots.
Part of what sets the Warriors apart here is where they manage to block their opponents’ shots. While the league’s premier shot blockers have traditionally been 7-footers who make their living as rim protectors, Golden State is changing that perception with Durant and reigning defensive player of the year Draymond Green, both of whom can not only make stops at the basket with their length, but are also just as capable of tracking down jump-shooters 25 feet from the hoop.
The Warriors have blocked 41 jumpers from midrange and beyond the 3-point line, more than twice as many as the next closest defense, according to data from NBA Savant. (Green, who leads the NBA with 10 blocked midrange and 3-point jumpers, has rejected more such shots than six NBA teams so far.) Turning back shots that far down the court often gives Golden State a head start going the other way if a Warrior secures the ball, much like this explosive play from rookie forward Jordan Bell.
This ability is even more impressive considering that teams shoot a relatively low number of long jump shots against Golden State, giving the team fewer chances to make such blocks. Durant in particular can make the most of his opportunities using his long arms and range to recover quickly even when he’s momentarily out of position. (It helps that Durant admitted to me a couple of years ago that he’s much closer to 7 feet tall than his almost laughable 6-foot-9 listing would suggest.)
The stout nature of the Warriors’ defense, which is among the best at forcing teams to use the last four seconds of the shot clock (where efficiency goes to die), prompts their opponents to use an array of misdirections to try to find an open shot.2 When the clock winds down, in particular, there’s almost nothing a shooter can do to avoid getting blocked.
That may just be the reality of how good the Warriors are right now. Even without their maestro on offense, they’re finding new ways to score by turning up the heat on the defensive side of the ball.
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