A Defensive Perspective: Spurs and Warriors

The matchup most NBA fans have been anticipating is set to take place Monday evening, as the top-seeded Golden State Warriors (40-4) will face the team right on their tail, the San Antonio Spurs (38-6), in the first matchup this season between the two powerhouses. On both sides of the court, both teams are elite, as Golden State holds the top-ranked offense, while San Antonio possesses the top-ranked defense.

Focusing on the defense, the Spurs are holding opponents to a league lowest 93.5 points per 100 possessions, but just behind them in that category, is Golden State, who hold opponents to 99.0 points per 100 possessions, which ranks second lowest in the league. We’ll take a look at what the numbers say and what some observations indicate about each team’s defense.

Transition Defense

In basketball, there are three ways to give up transition defensive points: A) Your offense turns the ball over and the other team goes down and scores. B) Your team misses a shot, the other team grabs the defensive rebound and scores quickly on the other ends. C) Your team scores, but when the other team inbounds the ball, they do so at a faster pace than your defense, which allows the opponent to score quickly.

In terms of just fast break points, the Spurs allow opponents to score just 11.0 fast break points per game (ranked 6th lowest), while the Warriors allow teams to score 14.6 fast break points per game (ranked 25th lowest). If there’s one element on the defensive end of the court Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich really keeps an eye on, it’s the teams transition defense. There have been many instances where a Spurs player might allow a transition basket and Popovich may quickly call for a timeout or a substitution to redirect that player. Looking at the turnovers, the Spurs cough up the ball 10.9 times per game (ranked 1st lowest), while the Warriors, with their more frenetic pace on offense, turn the ball over 13.3 times per game (12th lowest). On the Spurs’ 10.9 turnovers per game, their opponents are scoring on the other end 13.6 points per game (lowest in the NBA). When the Warriors turn the ball over, on average, opponents are scoring 17.3 points per game off their 13.3 turnovers a night (ranked 22nd lowest).

Shots allowed by each defense

On the surface, the Spurs and Warriors are both ranked Top-3 in opponent field goal percentage, as the Spurs force opponents to shoot 42.6% from the floor (2nd) and the Warriors 42.8% (3rd). However, the areas where opponents take their shots from differ against both defenses when you zoom into their shot charts and shooting numbers on defense.

Below is the Spurs (top) and Warriors’ (bottom) opponent shot charts.

Spurs D shot chart 44 games

Dubs D shot chart 44 games

Now, we’ll zoom into each area on the floor in detail, to see where and how opponents are shooting against the Spurs and Warriors. Starting closest to the basket, the Restricted Area is the first area to examine. The table below displays how many attempts each team allows in the restricted area, and what the opponent shoots when in there.

Restricted Area OPP Shot Attempts Rank (Lowest) OPP FG% Rank (Lowest)
Spurs 25.2 6th 55.7% 1st
Warriors 28.2 22nd 58.1% 10th

Next, we’ll see how each team fairs when adding the other part of the paint area, the non-restricted area.

Non-Restricted Area OPP Shot Attempts Rank (Lowest) OPP FG% Rank (Lowest)
Spurs 14.2 28th 39.3% 13th
Warriors 16.9 30th 39.2% 11th

When you then look at the overall points in the paint, you’ll notice the Warriors give up a lot more points in the paint than San Antonio. Golden State allows the second most points in the paint by opponents, surrendering 46.1 points in the paint per game. On the flipside, San Antonio only allows opponents to score 39.2 points in the paint per game, ranked 5th lowest in the league. Recently, when I mentioned on Twitter how many points in the paint the Warriors give up per game, I was asked whether it was a part of their defensive scheme? In a way, yes and no.

I went back and watched several Warriors games focusing on why teams were scoring in the paint, and I noted a few observations.

The faster tempo: The Warriors play at the second fastest pace in the league from shot clock to shot clock, as they’re averaging 101.75 possessions per 48 minutes. With the faster frenetic pace, the Warriors will sometimes give up layups, alley-oops or dunks by opponents, as they’re roping them into playing the Warriors’ run-and-gun fast paced game. When Golden State allows a quick made basket by the opponent, the Warriors will try to quickly inbound the ball and push the break to try to get a score on the other end. While teams may try to play at a faster tempo with the Warriors initially, most teams just don’t have the firepower on offense to keep up with Golden State, as a Warriors double-digit lead eventually begins to build even though they’re allowing points in the paint.

The switching: When the Warriors play their smaller lineups with Draymond Green at the center, they usually switch on pick-and-rolls by the opposing team, and even if a Warriors defender is caught in a mismatch (say Klay Thompson guarding LeBron James), the Warriors will usually live with that mismatch if it’s in an isolation 1-on-1 situation, where the ball handler may attack the defender and get a layup. One of the key times the Warriors will send help is when the opposing player has a mismatch and he is in the paint trying to post the Warriors defender. Kind of like the points in the paint allowed on fast breaks, if a Warriors defender gets beat for a layup in a 1-on-1 half court situation, the Warriors will quickly inbound and push the tempo once more.

Offensive rebounds: Because the Warriors do play some smaller lineups, they are bound to give up offensive rebounds when opponents miss shots. The Warriors’ defense gives up the second most offensive rebounds per game, as they’re allowing opponents to collect 12.0 offensive boards. With offensive rebounds, opponents are allowed extra possessions, which results in opponents scoring 13.6 second chance points per game against the Warriors’ defense (21st most).

In the month of January, the Spurs’ offense is scoring 52.8 points in the paint per game, ranks first during that time span. As San Antonio is getting more comfortable in the post-up or working the high-low with their four big men (LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, David West), they should be expected to collect their usual points in the paint against the Warriors’ defense. The key element to watch is how San Antonio spaces the floor when posting the Warriors defenders, and how well San Antonio maintains their pace and tempo, so they don’t fall in Golden State’s style of a run-and-gun frenzy.

After the paint, the next area on the floor the Spurs and Warriors allow teams to take shots from most frequently is the mid-range area.

Mid-Range Area OPP Shot Attempts Rank (Lowest) OPP FG% Rank (Lowest)
Spurs 23.5 29th 39.3% 12th
Warriors 22.8 27th 38.2% 6th

The two areas on the floor defenses primarily want to take away are layups and 3-pointers, so, the best defenses make opponents take a high number of mid-range looks. Both the Spurs and Warriors do this at a Top-5 level. When the Spurs play a pick-and-roll, Duncan, West and Diaw usually drop back and will usually give up the mid-range jumper either to the ball handler or pick-and-pop screen setter. For the Warriors, Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli will also usually drop back on pick-and-rolls and dare the ball handler to shoot while the primary Warriors defender tries to get around the screen and contest the shot. For San Antonio, Aldridge will usually hedge out on the pick toward the ball handler, or even make a full switch, due to his ability to be able to guard a ball handler for limited possessions. Draymond too will mostly switch as well, as he’s noted for the foot speed laterally to defend guards in the half court.

While the Warriors want teams to shoot mid-range jumpers, the Spurs are actually one of the teams that is comfortable with that shot if it’s given. This season, 21.4% of the Spurs’ points come from mid-range jumpers, which ranks 2nd most in the NBA. The Warriors on the other hand don’t want those mid-range looks, as only 12.5% of their points come from that area, ranking 28th overall.

Lastly, the Spurs and Warriors are also both elite in taking away and bringing down opponent 3-point shooting.

Above-the-break 3PT Area OPP Shot Attempts Rank (Lowest) OPP FG% Rank (Lowest)
Spurs 13.5 1st 32.4% 5th
Warriors 18.2 20th 30.9% 1st
Corner 3PT Area OPP Shot Attempts Rank (Lowest) OPPFG% Rank (Lowest)
Spurs 5.1 7th 30.5% 1st
Warriors 4.0 1st 31.6% 2nd

Overall, the Spurs only allow opponents to shoot 18.7 threes per game (ranked the lowest in the league) and teams are only knocking down 31.7% of their threes (ranked 2nd lowest) against the Spurs’ defense. The Spurs’ 3-point defense will be tested Monday though, as they’re facing the best 3-point shooting team in the league when you consider percentage (42.4%), attempts (30.2 3PA) and makes (12.8 3PM). Six Warriors players shoot over 2.4 threes per game and the worst shooting of that group, Andre Iguodala, is still making 38.7% of his threes. Harrison Barnes, Iguodala and Brandon Rush mainly get their 3-pointers out of spot-up action, as a teammate will usually kick out to them either off a drive, out of the post, or on swing action.

Draymond is a little bit different, as he usually takes his 3-pointers from the top of the arc, in the motion action. Most NBA teams run offensive sets with motion action, where the point guard will kick to a wing player on either wing area, then that wing player will pass to trailing big man at the top of the arc. While most trailing bigs will catch the ball and either pass or start a new action, Draymond is unique in that if he finds himself open and in a shooting rhythm, he’ll take the top of the arc three, and overall, he’s making 3-pointers at 40.9% accuracy. When thinking about the Spurs’ defense, it’ll be interesting to see how much room Duncan/Aldridge/Diaw/West give Draymond when he catches the ball at the top of the arc on motion sets.

The second 3-point option for the Warriors is Klay Thompson, who takes 7.5 threes per game and makes 42.5% of them. Thompson is constantly in motion either working off screen action to get open, shooting out of the spot-up, or he even has the ability to shoot a 3-pointer in transition. Lastly, the Warriors’ main 3-point shooting option is Curry, who can make a defense change their entire scheme because of the number of threes he takes (10.8 per game) and accuracy from all over the place from the outside (45.1% three point percentage). Curry has the ability to shoot either off a screen like it was a casual mid-range jumper, he can shoot from the spot-up, running full speed off screen action, out of a crossover, on the break in transition, and even four to five from behind the 3-point line. Simply, there is no other shooter like Curry in the league. When Draymond or Bogut set picks for Curry, it’ll be interesting to see how the Spurs’ big men defend it, because they’re accustomed to dropping back most of the time, but in this case, that likely isn’t an option because of Curry’s lethal ability to shoot 3s off screens.

One option both the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls used defensively on the Draymond/Curry pick-and-rolls was to have a wing (Marcus Morris for Detroit/Jimmy Butler for Chicago) guard Draymond, while another wing defended Curry. Draymond is the main screen setter for Curry because of his ability to either roll and score, roll and kick out to a corner shooter, roll and feed the open big man an alley-oop, or, Draymond can pop out and hit the open three. With a wing switching on Curry/Draymond screens, a wing defender was constantly on either player when a screen was set.

From a defensive perspective, one should be watching to see what type of strategy Popovich chooses to use to defend the Curry/Draymond pick and roll. Does he use his usual big men, or does he put different matchups on the floor on either player, like Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, or even Jonathon Simmons. While the Spurs take about 12 less threes than the Warriors per game, San Antonio does knock them down at the second best accuracy behind the Warriors, as the Spurs make 38.5% of their attempted threes.

While most basketball fans are ready for the first match of the season between these two goliaths, the outcome will still be a win or loss for one team in an 82-game season, with 37 games remaining for each side. Though both teams will be coming off two days of rest, there’s still the possibility, since it’s a regular season game, some core players or a core player could be held out, though that option doesn’t seem as likely. But, you never know.

Come Tuesday morning, after you’ve seen the matchup between these two teams, you shouldn’t focus on the scoreboard, but instead, from a defensive perspective, what did each team allow and take away from the other? That is where you can get a real implication of what could happen down the road if these two teams were to meet when it matters – the playoffs.

Paul Garcia

About Paul Garcia

Paul is a San Antonio Spurs credentialed media member for Project Spurs. He covered the 2013 NBA All-Star Game in Houston, TX, and the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals. Paul has been featured on WOAI, Fox 29, and numerous nationwide radio shows.