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The Warriors’ Defense Might Send Them Back To The NBA Finals

One thing that’s often lost amid the spectacle of the Golden State Warriors’ record-setting regular season is that this squad’s style is quite different from the one that went on a dominant championship run a year ago. The 2014-15 Warriors were astonishingly balanced; they had the NBA’s second-best offense and led the league in defensive efficiency. This season’s version, however, was first in offensive rating by a healthy margin but sixth-best on defense — good, but not great. The resulting team was ever-so-slightly better, but less symmetrical.

In the playoffs, though, the Warriors’ defense has helped the team battle through Stephen Curry’s absence and reclaim the mantle of NBA title favorite. Here’s the offensive and defensive efficiency of this season’s playoff teams relative to average, accounting for the regular-season performance of a team’s opponents:1

TEAM RECORD OFFENSE DEFENSE TOTAL
1 Cleveland Cavaliers 9-0 +18.4 +2.7 +21.1
2 Golden State Warriors 9-3 +5.5 +4.8 +10.3
3 Oklahoma City Thunder 9-4 +6.1 +1.6 +7.7
4 San Antonio Spurs 6-4 +0.9 +4.9 +5.8
5 Portland Trail Blazers 5-6 +3.9 -1.7 +2.2
6 Indiana Pacers 3-4 -2.3 +4.1 +1.8
7 Miami Heat 7-7 -2.2 +2.7 +0.5
8 Toronto Raptors 8-7 +0.9 -0.7 +0.2
9 Atlanta Hawks 4-6 -1.3 -0.0 -1.3
10 Los Angeles Clippers 2-4 -3.2 +1.2 -2.1
11 Boston Celtics 2-4 -10.4 +2.1 -8.3
12 Detroit Pistons 0-4 +2.3 -10.8 -8.4
13 Houston Rockets 1-4 -12.5 +0.7 -11.8
14 Dallas Mavericks 1-4 -5.6 -10.0 -15.7
15 Charlotte Hornets 3-4 -11.5 -4.5 -16.0
16 Memphis Grizzlies 0-4 -12.9 -5.2 -18.1
Best team performances of the 2016 NBA playoffs

Team efficiencies adjusted for strength of schedule using opponents‘ regular-season stats.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

The Cavs have blown away their playoff peers so far, but Golden State deserves credit as well for posting the best defensive performance of any remaining team. Indeed, the Warriors’ ratings look a lot like the balanced attack that drove their championship last season — even though Curry has suited up for just six of the team’s 12 games.

When the Warriors require outbursts of unadulterated offensive brilliance — like, say, 12 points in 82 seconds or 17 points in an overtime period — Curry has been happy to oblige. But Golden State has also held the mighty Oklahoma City Thunder offense to an efficiency rate 10 points per 100 possessions below their regular-season standard through two games of the Western Conference finals. Even on nights when the Warrior offense isn’t operating at peak productivity, such as Game 1 against OKC, the defense can keep the game competitive into its final minutes.

With Draymond Green leading the way, Golden State’s D in this series has already forced the Thunder into two of their 19 worst games of the season according to quantified shot quality, a player tracking-based measure that accounts for the location and conditions under which every shot is taken. In games 1 and 2, Kevin Durant’s shot quality has been his sixth- and 21st-worst of the year, and Russell Westbrook has been limited to his 31st and 24th-worst games. If it’s seemed like Russ and KD have been swimming upstream for long stretches in the series so far, this is why. The duo’s effective field goal percentage in the series is just 43 percent, far below their combined regular-season mark of 53 percent.

There’s still plenty of time for the Thunder to wrest control of the series back from Golden State. But to do it, Oklahoma City will have to go through the Warrior defense, a unit that’s back to being as sturdy as it was during the team’s title run last season.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. These numbers also factor in home-court advantage (roughly 2.8 points per 100 possessions) and the championship leverage of every game.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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