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Who’s Soft Now? The Warriors Are Winning In The Paint.

For years, even as they established a dynasty and ruled the league, the Golden State Warriors carried a reputation as a soft, jump-shooting team that could be beaten on the interior. (Probably because Charles Barkley kept saying it over and over on “Inside the NBA,” but that’s neither here nor there.) The characterization was so pervasive that Draymond Green even referenced it during the team’s second-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies.

“They’re the most physical team, right? We’ve historically been viewed as a pretty soft jump-shooting team, right,” Green said. “I didn’t just make that up.”

Despite that narrative — and despite the Grizzlies’ well-earned reputation as a physical team that could dominate the interior — the Warriors stole the painted area away from Memphis in their 4-2 series win. The Grizzlies led the NBA in both points in the paint and second-chance points during the regular season, while the Warriors ranked just 25th in the former and 18th in the latter. As the two teams squared off, though, Golden State flipped the script.

The Warriors got the upper hand in the paint

Points in the paint and second-chance points per game during the 2021-22 NBA regular season vs. Round 2 of the playoffs for the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors

Points in paint 2nd-chance points
Team Reg. season Round 2 Reg. season Round 2
Memphis 57.6 45.3 18.7 15.2
Golden State 44.7 48.7 12.6 16.0
Difference +12.9 -3.4 +6.1 -0.8

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

There are, of course, explanations for why Memphis did not produce quite as well in the paint as it had during the regular season. Notably, Ja Morant, who averaged a league-best 16.6 paint points per game during the regular season, missed the final three games of the series with a knee injury. But the Grizzlies actually averaged more points in the paint with Morant on the sideline for Games 4 through 6 (47.3) than they did in Games 1 through 3 (43.3). Meanwhile, Steven Adams sat out the first two games of the series in health and safety protocols and played only five minutes and 37 seconds in Game 3. His return to the fold seemed to make up for almost the entire difference in both paint and second-chance points per game (13.3 in Games 1 through 3, 17.0 in Games 4 through 6), but the Grizz still fell far short of their regular-season totals.

So something other than player absences had to be a part of Memphis’s paint struggles. The Warriors, as is their wont, kept the Grizzlies away from the rim — even when they made it into the paint.

Just 50.1 percent of Golden State’s opponent paint shots during the regular season came inside the restricted area, according to Second Spectrum. That was the seventh-lowest share in the NBA. Memphis, even while being such a dominant paint-scoring team, actually had the lowest share of its paint shot attempts come from inside the restricted area (43.5 percent), with a greater share coming from the back half of the paint (56.5 percent). Against the Warriors, that ratio diverged even further, and the Grizzlies saw their paint scoring suffer as a result: Memphis’s effective field-goal percentage inside the paint dropped by more than 5 percentage points.

The paint wasn’t kind to the Grizzlies in Round 2

Expected and actual effective field-goal percentage and location for shots in the paint taken by the Memphis Grizzlies during the 2021-22 regular season and during the second round of the playoffs against Golden State

eFG % Share of shots in …
Expected Actual Restricted area Back half
Regular season 52.4% 54.9% 43.5% 56.5%
Playoffs Round 2 51.1 49.8 35.2 64.8
Change -1.3 -5.1 -8.3 +8.3

Source: Second Spectrum

In the Western Conference finals, the Warriors will square off against a team on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Dallas Mavericks rarely get to the basket: They ranked 29th in the NBA in points in the paint per game during the regular season. Only 49.1 percent of Dallas’s paint shots came from inside the restricted area, according to Second Spectrum, and during their playoff series victories against the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns, that share was even lower: 41.1 percent.1 (They were effective shooting the ball from the back of the paint, largely thanks to the proficiency of Luka Dončić and Jalen Brunson.) The Mavericks also ranked 23rd in offensive rebound rate during the regular season and 29th in second-chance points per game.

Golden State’s efforts to keep Dallas from getting to the rim seem likely to center on how well their defenders who are targeted by Dončić can prevent him from bulldozing his way to the basket. But the more interesting dynamic might actually play out on the opposite end of the floor.

Dallas has already faced two somewhat rim-averse teams during these playoffs. The Jazz and Suns each ranked in the top half of the league in points in the paint per game during the regular season, but they were both inside the bottom seven in the share of all shots that came from inside the restricted area. Instead, their shots came more from the back half of the lane — they were both in the top eight from that location. In other words, the Jazz and Suns were more likely to score from floater (or short jumper) range than with dunks or layups. Golden State was the opposite, ranking inside the top four in the share of shots from inside the restricted area while still ranking near the bottom in the share of total attempts inside the paint.

But the Warriors are stylistically similar to the Jazz in the way they prioritize creating shots from beyond the 3-point line. Utah was the only team in the regular season that took a greater share of its shots from 3-point range  (46.8 percent) than Golden State (45.6 percent). The Mavericks, though, found a way to limit Utah’s threes. Only 37.8 percent of the Jazz’s shots in Round 1 came from outside the arc — a 9 percentage-point drop off their league-leading regular-season average. Impressively, the Mavs took away the three while denying Utah access to the rim: Only 19.4 percent of Jazz shot attempts during the first round came from within 3 feet of the basket.

The Mavericks don’t have many elite individual defenders. Dorian Finney-Smith, Reggie Bullock and Maxi Kleber are all somewhere between above-average and excellent, but Dallas might not even have any more plus defenders in its rotation aside from them.2 What the Mavs do have is a scheme that prioritizes protecting the paint, and a group of players who trust each other to make the next rotation after they slide over to plug a leak or discourage an opponent from venturing into the lane.

The Warriors test such schemes not just through a staunch commitment to ball and player movement, but also by shooting the ball from outside often enough (and well enough) to make up for the fact that they don’t get to the basket very often. That long-range shooting also opens up higher-quality looks at the rim: The Warriors had the league’s third-highest expected conversion rate on restricted-area shots during the regular season, according to Second Spectrum, as well as its third-highest actual conversion rate. 

Despite their reputational aversion to the painted area, the Warriors have proven they can win that part of the floor in a variety of ways. They excel at keeping their opponents away from the basket. They have multiple defenders who can make things difficult on those opponents when they do get there. And they can convert their own chances at a high rate on the other end. If those traits hold true against the Mavericks, it will go a long way toward getting the Warriors back to the NBA Finals after a two-year absence. 

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. That number is skewed a bit lower by the Utah series. It was 37.2 percent against the Jazz and 44.2 percent against the Suns.

  2. Using Frank Ntilikina ahead of Josh Green off the bench during the latter portion of the Phoenix series helped on that front, though, and Ntilikina could prove similarly useful against Stephen Curry and/or Jordan Poole in the conference finals.

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

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