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The Warriors Are Leaning Into The Death Lineup — And It’s Not Working

For a long time now, the Golden State Warriors have owned the NBA’s ace in the hole: the Death Lineup. First deployed at the suggestion of assistant coach Nick U’Ren during the 2015 NBA Finals, the lineup quickly became the most dangerous in the league. And it got even scarier when the Warriors swapped out the weakest member of the first iteration of the Death Lineup — Harrison Barnes — for Kevin Durant before the 2016-17 season.

Since Durant signed with Golden State, the lineup of him, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green has played 529 minutes during their regular-season run, outscoring opponents by a total of 268 points — and 20.5 points per 100 possessions. Prior to their series-evening Game 4 loss against the Houston Rockets, the group had shared the floor for 317 playoff minutes, outscoring opponents by 121 total points and 16.7 points per 100 possessions.

In this year’s playoffs, though, the NBA’s most feared lineup has begun to show signs of vulnerability — and the Houston Rockets have taken advantage. In Game 4, Houston outscored that unit by 11 points across 22 minutes — and that figure includes the 14-8 run with which the Warriors closed the game over the final 5:45. Such a performance for the Death Lineup is — to put it mildly — highly unusual.

That unit has now seen the floor together in 32 of the 48 playoff games that encompass the Durant era,1 and it has been outscored in just seven of those 32 games. When the lineup has shared the floor for at least five minutes, it has been outscored just four out of 23 times. And when that group has played 10-plus minutes together, they’ve been outscored only twice in 13 games.

Take a look at the list of seven playoff games in which the Death Lineup has been outscored, though, and see if you notice anything.

The Death Lineup is killing the wrong team

Since acquiring Kevin Durant, the playoff games in which Golden State’s “Death Lineup” has been outscored, 2017-2019

Game Opponent Minutes +/- Win
2018: conference finals, Game 2 Rockets 22 -18
2019: Round 2, Game 4 Rockets 22 -11
2019: Round 1, Game 5 Clippers 9 -8
2017: Round 2, Game 4 Jazz 2 -8
2017: Round 1, Game 1 Trail Blazers 6 -7
2019: Round 1, Game 3 Clippers 2 -5
2019: Round 1, Game 2 Clippers 4 -4

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

First, and most obviously, the two worst games that group has played have come against the Rockets. Last year, they were blasted by 18 points in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, and Monday night, they were outscored by 11. But you might also notice that of the seven games, four of them are from this year’s playoff run, which right now is only 10 games old.2

Part of this may be a product of Steve Kerr and the Warriors leaning too much on the Death Lineup. Before this series, the Death Lineup had never been used for more than 22 minutes in a single playoff game. It has now played 22 or more in all four games against the Rockets, including an all-time playoff high of 34 in Game 3, and the Warriors still managed to lose two of those four games. Those losses dropped their playoff record when the group shares the floor for 20-plus minutes to just 2-3, with all of those games coming against the Rockets.3

That the Warriors have had to use their best lineup more often against Houston than anybody else is perhaps not surprising. The Rockets were fairly open last season about having constructed their team specifically to defeat the Warriors — so open that general manager Daryl Morey declared prior to the start of last season that the organization was “obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’”

They nearly pulled it off during last year’s Western Conference finals, falling in seven games after taking a 3-2 lead but seeing Chris Paul get injured in the final moments of Game 5. Houston was criticized in some circles for its offseason maneuvers, namely letting Trevor Ariza walk for a deal with the Phoenix Suns. The crowing got even louder when Houston started the season poorly,4 but here they are again in position to send the Warriors home early. The Rockets don’t have home-court advantage this time around, but perhaps they have another advantage: their bench.

Houston’s in-season pickups of Austin Rivers and Iman Shumpert fleshed out their wing depth, and that duo has provided strong minutes during this series. Rivers missed Game 1 with an illness, but the Rockets are plus-17 in his 85 minutes over the past three games. Similarly, they’re plus-15 in 65 minutes with Shumpert on the floor during the series. Nene has been used only sparingly as the Rockets have leaned into small-ball lineups with P.J. Tucker at center when Clint Capela rests, but Houston is nevertheless plus-18 with Nene in the game.

The Warriors’ bench, meanwhile, has been a disaster. All five players who have come off the bench for at least 10 minutes during these four games have seen the Warriors get outscored during their time on the floor. It’s getting to the point where Kerr seemingly cannot trust any of them — including previously reliable role players like Shaun Livingston.

Playoff games in which Golden State has used the bench for 50 or fewer minutes, 2017-2019

Game OPPONENT Bench Min.
2019: Round 2, Game 3 Rockets 39
2019: Round 2, Game 1 Rockets 44
2019: Round 2, Game 4 Rockets 47
2018: conference finals, Game 4 Rockets 48
2019: Round 2, Game 2 Rockets 50

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Kerr gave his bench guys only 47 combined minutes in Game 4, the third-fewest minutes he has ever given them in 48 playoff games since the team signed Durant. Only five times has he given out 50 bench minutes or fewer, and four of them have come during this series, which is only four games old.

With his bench foundering and the Death Lineup no longer delivering its standard kill shot, Kerr is going to have to hope things take a different turn as the series returns to Oracle Arena for Game 5. Maybe that’s Curry busting out of his series-long shooting slump in an even bigger way than he did on Monday night or Klay Thompson finally exploding for the first time in what seems like forever. Maybe it’s figuring out a way to force James Harden into a subpar performance. Maybe it’s something else. But something has to change for them, or else they’re going to be heading home for the summer unexpectedly early.



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Footnotes

  1. Curry and Iguodala have each missed several playoff games with injuries.

  2. The Death Lineup was also played to a draw by the Rockets across 34 minutes in Game 3. It’s the only time in 32 playoff appearances that it has played to an exact tie.

  3. Meanwhile, Golden State is 8-0 when the Death Lineup plays between 10 and 19 minutes. That’s an odd quirk.

  4. The Rockets were 11-14 and in 14th place in the Western Conference on Dec. 8 before finishing the season on a 42-15 sprint, with only the Milwaukee Bucks posting a better record after that date.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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