On their quest to return to the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors ran up against a singular ball handler hell-bent on personally stretching their defense to the breaking point.
That virtuoso put the Warriors into 60 high ball screens per 100 possessions in an attempt to attack the vulnerabilities of the scheme and pick on individual defenders he deemed targets, like Stephen Curry. Sixty is a lot, a basketball game’s version of a pop song chorus that will plant itself in your consciousness and never leave. But that’s the thing about most dominant NBA stars — once they find a formula that works, they’ll exploit it to monotonous effect.
That was the scene in May 2018 when the Warriors encountered James Harden and the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals. Harden, the NBA’s best off-speed pitcher, bludgeoned opponents with his deliberate pick-and-roll game in Mike D’Antoni’s spread offense. Against the Warriors’ switch-heavy defensive scheme, Harden would order his preferred defensive matchup off the menu by calling for a high screen from that defender’s man, then go to work.
So it’s no coincidence that as the Warriors’ brain trust examines its current trials against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks, it evokes memories of their 2018 meeting against Harden and Houston. Doncic saw Harden’s 60 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions against Golden State and raised him to 62. The Warriors knew this was coming — and adjusted accordingly.
“You’ve got one guy who has the ball a lot, and he makes plays for everybody and he is incredible at doing it,” Draymond Green said. “You’ve got a bunch of guys who can shoot the lights out of the ball, and that guy is good enough to find them no matter where he is on the floor, what position he’s in, how many people are around him.”
The one sizable difference is Doncic’s brutal efficiency. He’s generating 121.4 points per chance against the Warriors on that high pick-and-roll, according to Second Spectrum, putting Harden (91.6 points per chance during those conference finals) to shame. Harden negotiated each possession so that it was played on his terms. With Doncic, there’s no negotiation. His size — 6-foot-7 — and vision give him an implicit advantage over any defender.
Against Doncic, the Warriors deploy largely the same defensive schemes based on the same overriding principles they threw at Harden. Andrew Wiggins plays the role of Kevin Durant, who typically picked up Harden at the outset of a possession, before Dallas ignites its pick-and-roll carousel to draw an alternative defender into the mix. The Warriors prefer to switch pick-and-rolls — they popularized the practice — because it assures that a body stays in front of a Harden or Doncic and limits the uncanny ability of those guys to draw crafty fouls when defenders fight to blow up a screen.
Yet it’s impossible to derive benefits without surrendering costs, even if you’re the Warriors, and a defense as programmatic as theirs allows the offense to dictate matchups. Early in the series, Doncic chose center Kevon Looney as a dance partner, only Looney thrived. Doncic then targeted Curry and Jordan Poole, the Warriors’ smallest perimeter defenders.
But Golden State has mastered the art of protecting Curry in half-court schemes, and against Doncic over the past week, it would have turbo-charged a coverage scheme it used in spots against Harden in 2018 — the “attack show.” Rather than switching directly onto Doncic, Curry (and Poole) hedge hard with the goal of making Doncic pause or retreat-dribble. That hesitation allows the primary defender — usually Wiggins — to get back in front of Doncic.
With his creativity and efficiency, Doncic and Dallas demand more of defenses than Harden’s Rockets ever did, which is why the Warriors aren’t leaving it with that. They’re sending earlier help from the high weak side when Doncic is at his most aggressive. They’re throwing all kinds of junk defenses — a 3-2 zone, a box-and-one — to keep things novel with variety, and to tread water with smaller lineups. Little of it has stopped or even slowed Doncic — who is averaging 31.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists on a true shooting percentage of 58.8. But the Warriors have been able to keep their preferred defenders on Doncic in most high-leverage situations.
When the Warriors reviewed film during the heat of the 2018 conference finals, they were viscerally grossed out at what they were watching from Harden. Though it’s a quality some in the league find overly precious, the Warriors see the struggle between a team predicated on heavy movement and creative execution and one that plays mismatch basketball on an endless loop as a battle for the soul of the game. For Kerr and Green in particular, this abiding faith in aesthetics is a mark of identity. Asked about the team’s approach before the 2020 season, Kerr said with self-assurance, and a dash of snark, “We’re not gonna turn into the Rockets and change our offense and have one guy go high pick-and-roll 70 times a game.”
Not unlike Man City and its manager Pep Guardiola, Kerr and the Warriors don’t want to just win — they want to win in style.
But it’s hard to imagine Kerr and the Warriors equating a film session featuring Doncic and the Mavericks as a horror show. As much as the Warriors root their identity in basketball ballet, they also see playing with joy as an imperative, and few players in recent memory compete with as much joy as Doncic. Harden’s constant pounding at the top of the floor seemed cynical and inert — one-on-one basketball disguised as a 10-person sport. Doncic still plays a high pick-and-roll game, but he looks to empower and is ever the stylist. The Warriors had a grudging respect for Harden, but even as differently as Doncic approaches the game, the Warriors recognize a kindred spirit when they see one.