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Watch how the Thunder must defend the Warriors to have a chance to win Western Conference Finals

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What does the Thunder defense have to do to slow down Golden State? Quite a bit.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest concern facing any team going up against the Golden State Warriors is how to approach them on the defensive end. The Warriors were the only team this regular season more efficient on the offensive end than the Thunder. When they get on an offensive run, defending them is like trying to stop a tsunami with bags of sand: hopeless. But there are some keys to defending them that can make things more difficult for them, and ultimately, that's the goal of the defense.


First of all, I want to just do a brief synopsis of each Warrior starter (we'll leave the bench analysis for another time) and their offensive skills. Granted, I haven't studied the Warriors as much as I have the Thunder, but this is what I've noticed from when I have seen them play.

1. Stephen Curry:

  • Strengths: There is a reason Curry was the first unanimous MVP ever, and it wasn't because of his defense (though for the limitations imposed by his frame, he's surprisingly good on that end). Curry is the best shooter of all time, and I don't think that's up for reasonable debate. This season, he averaged 30 points on 50-45-91 splits, and hit 402 three point shots, beating his record from last season by over 100. Additionally, Curry is a dribbling phenom, with a pregame dribbling routine complex enough to draw spectators. Curry makes good decisions with the ball and had an assist to turnover ratio over 2 this season. He's just the total package on offense.
  • Weaknesses: I'm grasping at straws here, but he isn't a good offensive rebounder. Pretty typical for a smaller point guard, but that's about all I've got.

2. Klay Thompson:

  • Strengths: I'm personally of the opinion that Klay has the prettiest shot in the NBA. While his shooting percentages weren't as good as Curry's, I think some of that is because he takes a lot of tough shots. He comes off of screens low and fast, and he is able to get his shot up so quickly that it's tough to defend. He finishes at the rim at an above average rate, though only 24% of his shots come there.
  • Weaknesses: He doesn't seem to be a great passer, which could partially be an inability to break down the defense. He has a deadzone in his shooting as well, from about 10 feet to 14 feet. This is ideally where you make him shoot. Like Curry, don't expect him to grab any offensive rebounds. He spends too much time on the perimeter for that.

3. Harrison Barnes:

  • Strengths: From looking at his shot chart this season, Barnes is especially efficient from the wings. He was a decent 3pt shooter as well. He seems to make smart choices when passing though, and doesn't really turn the ball over.
  • Weaknesses: His shooting has fallen off a cliff in the playoffs. His shooting splits so far are 36-25-81, and his shot chart is a lot of ugly red. He also isn't a good offensive rebounder.

4. Draymond Green:

  • Strengths: Green has a unique skillset on the offensive end of the floor. He's a very good three-point shooter and is an average finisher inside. He was Golden State's leading assist man, though some of that stems from having Curry and Klay to pass to. He is capable of being a point forward or mucking it up inside. He is a decent, but not great, offensive rebounder.
  • Weaknesses: Green has no midrange game. If he isn't at the rim of behind the arc, you don't have to worry about him shooting the ball, much less making it. This could be a key to defending him.

5. Andrew Bogut:

  • Strengths: Bogut is extremely efficient at the rim. This probably is in part due to the gravity of Curry and Klay. He is able to get either open layups/dunks, or is able to establish great position before his defender arrives. Bogut is also quite good at passing for a big man. He rebounds about 10% of their misses, so you have to box him out. He sets excellent (moving) screens.
  • Weaknesses: He cannot shoot at all. Outside of about 7 feet, you don't have to guard him. He is also a terrible free throw shooter, currently at 37% in the playoffs.

5 Keys to Defending the Warriors

1. Get the ball out of Curry's hands

I realize that this is easier said than done, but if OKC can force Curry to pass to someone else, the defense has a much better chance at success. Here's how I recommend doing that: pick Curry up at halfcourt, ICE or trap all screens, stay on Curry's hip to the basket, and have bigs help at about the 7 foot range. Curry, like Klay, is worst in the 10-14 foot range and doesn't seem to like shooting from there. If you have the help inside of that distance, he will make a dump-off pass, and you just have to have help defense to pick up the recipient.

In the Boston - Golden State game on April 1st, Boston was able to force 22 turnovers and hold GSW to an ORtg of 103.2, well below their season average. In this play, we see Isaiah Thomas defend Curry this way. He presses onto him at the 3pt line, and while he gets beaten a little bit, he stays on that inside hip of Curry. When the help from Sullinger comes, he has to either pass or shoot a fadeaway baseline shot. Because his drive was stopped with just two defenders, the other three guys could float in passing lanes and disrupt the kickout. Curry won't always turn it over here, but this allows the defense to recover rather than completely break down.

This is about the worst spacing you'll ever see from Golden State. Both Bogut and Green crash at the same time, allowing one defender to cover them while the other helps on Curry. Thomas does a good job of fighting over the screen and staying on Curry's inside hip. Once the help comes, Curry runs out of choices and gets blocked.

2. Force Klay Thompson off 3pt line, meeting him at about 14 feet

I mentioned Klay's dead zone above, and that area is the key to defending him successfully. In a previous article, I mentioned defenders stopping the drive by absorbing contact at the FT line, and that's what you need to do with Klay. Don't allow him to shoot the 3pt shot, let him start driving, but do not let him drive past 10 feet. This requires a lot of effort, especially in getting around off-ball screens.

When Klay is on, he can absolutely hit this shot. But this is how he has to be defended. He shoots this while moving both from left to right, and fading. Marcus Smart made it difficult for him to get to the ball and crowded his airspace on the shot.

This is the exact defense I mention above. Smart picks up Klay at the logo and doesn't give him any space to shoot a 3. He lets Klay get a step or two, but there is a lateral component to his drive. Once he tries to turn to the basket, Smart is there to absorb his momentum, forcing him into a contested 13 footer. We can live with this shot every possession.

This time, the initial defense isn't sufficient as Smart gets caught on a Draymond block screen. However, help defense plays this perfectly. Sullinger meets Klay at about 12 feet, and Klay misses another contested shot.

I think Dion has the perfect defensive approach for Klay. The way Dion absorbs contact and stops the drive is ideal for getting Klay to shoot low-efficiency shots. We saw him use this defense against Kawhi Leonard several times, and I'm sure we'll see it against Klay as well.

3. Make the "others" make plays

I realize that Golden State has plenty of capable playmakers outside of Curry and Klay. Green, Livingston, Iguodala, and Barbosa are all capable of breaking down a defense. However, if they are the sole source of initiating offense, OKC will win this series. The first and second goal of this defense should be ball denial and ball pressure on Klay and Curry.

Here, Boston does a good job of preventing Bogut from getting rid of the ball. If GSW has to rely on Bogut to score for them, the defense has succeeded. Once the ball is passed to one of the "others", we need to play denial on Curry and Klay. Notice how Green cuts and Sullinger shades just long enough to make Bogut hold the ball. Those subtle moments of help can make or break the defense.

Curry actually breaks down the defense here, but Boston sells out to stopping him. Once he gives up the ball (via a gorgeous behind the back pass), a defender remains on Curry while another returns to Livingston. Livingston tries to kick out to a shooter, but the number of bodies in the way makes him sail it way too high.

Here, Barnes defender floats off to prevent a backdoor pass to Klay, when Barnes gets the ball, every other Warrior is defended. He is forced to drive for a midrange shot that he misses. Boston did a fantastic job of defending actions with two players. Klay's cut is the main action, but when that's cut off, every other defender is still in good position.

4. Get back in transition

Golden State loves to run out in transition, and they aren't afraid to make risky passes. One of our guards (likely Roberson) will have to play defensive back at times. It's imperative that someone disrupt the easy looks until the rest of the defense gets back. Transition defense is all about slowing people down until you can set up an actual defense.

This is actually the second time in the first 3 minutes of this game Golden State tried this pass. The first was overthrown and was a turnover. This pass, Isaiah Thomas is back and contests the catch just enough to make Klay miss it. But if you notice, all 5 defenders are across half-court when the pass is thrown. OKC has to be careful not to get too eager on the offensive boards and forget transition defense.

Here, Jerebko pressures Draymond on the 4 on 3 break while the other defenders sit in passing lanes. This play partially succeeds because of sloppy ball handling, but the effort to slow the play down allows all of the open lanes to get filled. Boston does get away with one here, as the last defender is very late. If someone doesn't tip this pass, it's points for Golden State. But this is the effort and approach needed from the first guys back.

5. Stop momentum swings and runs

Golden State can kill you with 10 point runs in 4 possessions. Coach Donovan needs to be ready to break these up before the damage is irreparable. Whether that means hacking Bogut, Ezeli, or Iguodala, or just calling timeout, the reaction needs to be quick in order to quell these momentum swings. It's also important to not get caught in Golden State's pace. If the game starts getting out of control, I trust OKC to slow things down more than to get caught in a running match. Our defense is always exponentially better when in the half court than in transition.

All told, OKC has a huge task ahead of them and will likely go through stretches of defensive failure. However, they proved against the Spurs that if they keep their heads in the game and keep working, they can find ways to tip the scales in their favor on defense.