If you are a Golden State Warriors fan, chances are that you are feeling pretty good about your team this year. The magical regular season, the tangible team chemistry, the way that this team just seems to have so much fun. This just feels like your year, doesn’t it?
The only thing standing in the way to a berth in the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance since the 1974-75 season (coincidentally, the last time the Warriors won an NBA championship) is the Houston Rockets.
The same Houston Rockets that the Warriors swept during the regular season (beating them by an average margin of 12.75 points), smothering the Rockets up-tempo offense to a pedestrian-like shooting percentage of 40.3 percent from the field and 30.3 percent from beyond the arc.
Make no mistake, however. The Rockets that outlasted the Clippers in the Western Conference Semis are not the same Rockets from the regular season. This team is better, more dangerous, and the change is due to the player with the broadest shoulders in the gym— Dwight Howard.
The Warriors gameplan should have a big, bold, capitalized line at the top of the sheet: CONTAIN DWIGHT HOWARD. Dwight has been a monster in the playoffs so far, averaging 17.2 points and 13.8 rebounds a game, on 58.8 percent shooting from the field. Dwight has been playing elite level defense in the playoffs as well– deterring drives, cleaning up his teammates mistakes, and chipping in 2.5 blocks and 1.3 steals per game for good measure.
During the regular season, Dwight played only in two of the four matchups against the Warriors, and when he did play it was clear that he wasn’t 100 percent. He hardly looked 100 percent all season! His moves didn’t look as smooth or as powerful, he moved just a step slower and with less grace than in the past, and his dunks looked more Clark Kent than Superman.
Despite his hobbled state, Dwight still managed to impose his will on the Warriors’ big men. As good as Bogut and Green are defensively, they do not have the strength, size or athleticism to keep up with Howard. Notice on this post up, Dwight is able to take two dribbles to the middle and simply rise up over Bogut for the layup.
When Draymond guards Dwight on the occasional switch, there is a height difference of four inches and Dwight can use his superior athleticism to get to the rim. When the double comes or the defense collapses in, Dwight is skilled enough to find the open shooter, and it is on the rest of the Rockets to provide clear passing lanes for Dwight’s kickout. Below Steph realizes that Dwight has the smaller Green posted on the right block, and lingers a second too long, leaving Beverley open for the three.
Those are looks that the Warriors will give up. A 30-40 percent look from three is more desirable than a short jump hook from Dwight over a smaller defender. The Warriors will continue to bring double teams to Howard, but their defense on him will begin far before Dwight gets a touch on the block.
Bogut will pick up Dwight as he comes across the three-point line, not letting Howard run in and establish himself on the post. Bogut’s job is to bang with Howard and prevent him from gaining a deep post position. The Warriors also play a hyperactive help defense, with the weakside defender having almost as much responsibility as the main defender – the weakside defender is responsible for sniffing out misleading weakside actions while providing help over the top to the post defender.
In relation to Howard post ups, the defense will work just as hard to prevent and limit his touches to the actual defense of the post up itself. That means that if Howard has a smaller man switched on to them and the defender is fronting, the weak side help will come over to prevent the High Low action from happening.
When not doubling down on Howard from the weakest shooter on the court (it is no coincidence why Trevor Ariza and Josh Smith have the second and fourth most three-point shots attempted respectively for the Rockets this post season—as they say, you are open for a reason) the Warriors plan to force him to his left, towards Howard’s weaker finishing hand. The Warriors are adept at forcing bigs middle, where there is almost always an extra defender, and the preferred post defense for the Warriors is for Howard to catch the ball outside of the paint on the left side with less than eight seconds on the clock. The defending big will be responsible for giving up middle and baiting Howard into taking a tough running left-handed floater over multiple outstretched arms.
The second area of focus in the gameplan for the Rockets involves the 2-through-5 pick and roll between Harden and Howard. The Warriors like the big to sink deep in that action and prevent the dribble drive, while the guard fights over the top of the screen to prevent the three and rather electing to live with a mid-range jump shot.
The clip below displays all the defensive principles the Warriors will employ on Harden. Barnes fights over the top of the Howard screen, while Bogut sinks into the paint to prevent penetration. Notice that all five players wearing white have their eyes on the ball, ready to help at any time.
Barnes can’t recover in time, and Harden recognizes that he has an open foul line jumper. Unfortunately for him, Steph realizes this as well and is already on his way to help contest the jump shot. This is Golden State’s defense in a nutshell—not only do they have the size to switch on many actions both in the paint and on the perimeter, but they understand the important team principle of helping-the-helper. The Warriors play a true team defense, with all five men accepting responsibility of stopping the opposing team from scoring.
In this final clip, one might see how Speights sees the floppy action coming for Harden and how he is ready to help by jumping the passing lane. Take a look closer and you see that it all begins with David Lee. Lee is the last line of defense and is responsible for communicating switches, doubles, and helps. He sees that Holiday is a step too late maneuvering the Smith screen, and yells to Speights to jump out and contain Harden until Holiday can recover. Lee then steps to Motiejunas to prevent the pocket pass/post up, and Steph sinks down, ready to split the difference between Smith and Terry.
It is no accident why the Warriors have the best defensive efficiency in the league. They have great size along the perimeter, a defensive chameleon in Draymond Green– who has the ability to guard every position on the court– and a seven-foot behemoth who (when healthy) is in the annual competition for Defensive Player of the Year.
Harden will make tough shots, and that’s just what great players do. Kerr will undoubtedly be imploring his team to play Harden straight up and force him into jumpers without fouling, and to crash the glass as a team and make sure to put multiple bodies on Howard on the offensive end. Few things are as deflating as playing 23 seconds of great defense and giving up an offensive rebound, and winning the rebounding game will be a point of focus for the Warriors.
Contain Harden and Howard, and dare the role players to beat you. If you are a fan of the Golden State Warriors, you’ve got to be feeling pretty good about your chances this year. Houston, they are ready for lift off.