Golden State In The Driver’s Seat

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Things were so different a week ago.

Way back then, both series were just a game old. I wrote about how all four remaining teams had reasons for optimism. Turns out, I was spot on with my Golden State analysis and dead wrong about Dallas. The Mavs are now down 0-3 in the conference finals and no longer have much hope of advancing. Golden State is likely to cruise to a long rest period in one or two more games, and it’s thanks to their rediscovered driving ability.

Golden State’s offense is unique amongst NBA teams. It eschews the tenets of much of modern-day basketball. Golden State doesn’t typically run pick-and-roll ad nauseam, like the Suns’ offense, or rely upon one star player to batter their way into the paint, like the Mavericks and Luka Doncic.

Instead, coach Steve Kerr preaches controlled chaos: off-ball movement, off-ball screens, incisive passing, and decisive cutting. When everything’s working (which is most of the time), it’s Mozart in motion:

Gorgeous!

When things don’t go quite as smoothly, you have the Twitter couch coaches demanding that coach Steve Kerr run more Steph Curry pick-and-rolls and revert to mainstream ideas of offensive efficiency.

Kerr has, to his credit, largely ignored the constant outcry for more conventional offense, and his track record speaks for itself. However, that doesn’t mean he’s not open to tweaking his operating principles and taking easy points.

Dallas’s defense has been eviscerated by an unexpected development: Golden State’s dedication to setting picks to get the switch they want (hey there, Luka Doncic!) before letting their ballhandlers (mostly Chef Curry) cook:

It’s rarely a traditional pick-and-roll. It’s usually more of a pick-and-get-out-of-the-way to dare Dallas’s weakest defenders to keep up with some of history’s greatest shooters.

This Dallas defense faced varied and complex pick-and-rolls against Phoenix just last round, but their airtight defensive rotations and the ineffectiveness/injuries of Phoenix’s two stars allowed Dallas to contain that attack.

However, Curry, Klay, and Jordan Poole, an up-and-coming playmaker who’s become Steph-lite, have exposed cracks in the previously-unblemished Dallas defense. GS has some excellent wrinkles, but Dallas’ defense has also been uncharacteristically discombobulated, like on the Klay-Poole guard-guard pick-and-pop that so befuddles the defenders here:

Golden State is averaging more drives per minute than in the regular season, most starting with a pick of some kind. The shift is disproportionately reflected in the Warriors’ leading scorers: Curry, Poole, Thompson, and Andrew Wiggins (stats from NBA.com).

This effect holds true even if we adjust for the increased minutes played by Curry, Thompson, and Wiggins (and decreased minutes played by Poole):

Interestingly, these drives aren’t resulting in more shots at the rim or kickouts to open three-point bombers. Instead, the Warriors’ share of mid-range shots has jumped from 27.5% in the regular season to 39.2% in these last three games, and we’ve seen an almost 10% decline in the share of three-point attempts from the regular season to this series. That sounds like a good thing for Dallas on paper!

But in actuality, you’re letting some of the best shooters who’ve ever played basketball take a bunch of practice shots:

Golden State is shooting an outrageous 52.5% from midrange against Dallas, more than 4% above Phoenix’s regular-season-leading average, and more than 10% above Golden State’s own mark from back then. Nothing in that 52.5% has felt particularly unsustainable, and Dallas’ defense hasn’t been able to figure out how to keep the Warriors from getting into the paint and generating open looks.

What can Dallas do? Hope that people miss shots? Curry and Co. are torching the same unit that decimated Phoenix in the latter half of the last series. Devin Booker and especially Chris Paul were unable to successfully drive as much as the Warriors have done partially due to slower first steps. Dallas’ perimeter defenders (Dorian Finney-Smith, Reggie Bullock, Jalen Brunson, etc.) are strong but not lightning-quick, and this is a worse matchup for them physically.

The shoot-off-the-dribble threat from Golden State almost necessitates a defense switch, which means poor Luka Doncic is getting heavily attacked just like in the last series. Only this time, he’s not been up to the task, and he’s getting blown by time after time. Dallas’ other, stronger defenders haven’t fared much better.

Dallas is giving up the shots on the floor that most teams would want to allow, but a lack of strong contests means that Golden State is getting clean looks at the basket. It would likely be suicide to tighten up the paint coverage at the expense of giving Golden State better looks from three. Dallas has been aggressive in trapping and could maybe dial that back a bit, but schematically I’m not sure what else they should be doing that would work better. They’re just outclassed.

The Warriors look likely to finish off an easy series tonight or Thursday. They’ll then rest and await the banged-up winner of the Eastern Conference Finals. Both Miami and Boston would be tough matchups if healthy, but the bumps and bruises continue to pile up as the two sides take turns sledgehammering each other into submission like Ali and Fraizer.

Both teams, however, rely upon physicality and intelligence more than quickness on the perimeter, which means we could see some similar problems emerge for whoever staggers into the ring against Golden State. The Warriors’ newfound dribble-drive game has put them squarely in the driver’s seat for the championship.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.

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