Throughout the series, the Golden State Warriors’ basic defensive game plan has been to deny LaMarcus Aldridge easy looks in the paint. As Aldridge was by far the San Antonio Spurs’ best offensive player throughout the year, limiting him kept the Spurs’ offense from operating at even its average level. The Warriors were willing to give the Spurs’ shooters open looks in exchange for more defensive pressure inside the arc, and in games 1 through 3, the Spurs failed to punish them for that.
Game 4 saw the Warriors use much of that same strategy, with the Warriors limiting Aldridge to 10 points on 3-9 shooting in the first half. The difference, however, was the Spurs were hitting their outside shots, converting on 15 of their 28 attempts. For the Spurs, who averaged only 8.5 3-point makes a game during the regular season, this surge in scoring helped lead them to a game 4 victory, bringing the game count to 3-1.
The difference was the Spurs converted the wide-open 3 point attempts that the Warriors gave them. In games 1 through 3, the Warriors allowed 14.7 wide-open 3 point attempts per game. The Spurs only made 3 of those shots per game. In other words, the Spurs shot 20.5% on wide open 3’s in the first three games of the series. During the regular season, the Spurs made 38% of their wide open 3’s. It is true that the Spurs have lacked consistent shooting this season, and the Warriors were allowing those 3’s in an attempt to keep the ball out of Aldridge’s hands, but there was a combination of bad luck and fatigue (physical and emotional) that resulted in the Spurs cutting their percentage on 3-point attempts with virtually no defenders in half to start the series.
If the Spurs would have shot their season average on wide-open shots behind the arc in game 3, they would have had 15 more points. They lost that game by 13. Game 4, however, saw a regression to the mean. The Spurs shot fairly average on 3-point attempts with a defender within 6 feet, going 5-12 for the game. But their wide open attempts were much more accurate, converting 10 of their 16 attempts.
The Spurs extending this series hurts the Warriors. The Spurs are still in a pretty big deficit and all this loss probably does for the Warriors is give their next round opponent, the New Orleans Pelicans, more time to rest than they will get, but they will probably stick to the same defensive strategy. They can dare the Spurs to shoot 53.6% from 3-point range again while continuing to double Aldridge in the post. Unless the Spurs have another superb shooting night, that may be enough in game 5.
The Warriors did have a key advantage over the Spurs, though – rebounding. The Warriors grabbed 47.1% of their own misses, a form of psuedo-defense, as extending their offensive possessions kept the Spurs from starting their own. Offensive rebounding can be a weakness for the Warriors, but they attacked the glass from the start in game 4. The Warriors were undeniably fighting for rebounds more aggressively than in past games, but many of those rebounds didn’t seem to come from a huge shift in style. With the Spurs going small more often, Golden State felt safer parking a big near the rim and having that player fighting for offensive rebounds rather than running out in transition, and many times, the ball would bounce right to them or they would tip it out to one of their teammates. A lot of these looked like fifty-fifty balls that were just going the Warriors way more often in game 4.
Game 5 will probably see a regulation in both stats. The Spurs will probably shoot closer to their season average and the Warriors won’t rebound almost half of their misses. As such, Golden State’s defensive principles won’t change much. If the Spurs want to steal game 5, they’ll have to do it the same way they stole game 4, hitting their wide open 3’s.
All stats from nba.com/stats.