On Thursday night, one of the most exciting basketball games of the young season finished with the Golden State Warriors securing their best win of 13-14 by beating the Oklahoma City Thunder by a final score of 116-115. While the energy and excitement of the game inspired plenty of justifiable positive feelings in fans and media alike, the final few minutes provided a window into the biggest flaw of the team: tactical coaching.
This is my fifth season covering the Warriors and the NBA at large, and the last five minutes of Warriors/Thunder was the worst-coached stretch of any game I have ever covered.
Before going through the reasons things went so wrong, I wrote a quick walkthrough of the offensive possessions following Golden State’s timeout with 5:28 remaining.
Possession 1- David Lee shoots from 9 feet off a post up, blocked by Serge Ibaka
Possession 2- David Lee shoots from 5 feet off a post up on Westbrook, blocked by Serge Ibaka as a help defender
Possession 3- Lee misses a layup off a cut and pass from Andrew Bogut, Bogut misses a tip in, Klay Thompson rebounds that. Third chance ends with Steph missing a step back 24-footer. David Lee rebounds that and after another Lee post-up, Ibaka fouls Curry on a drive.
Possession 4- Curry misses a three fading away coming off a double team.
Possession 5- Iguodala misses a two driving the lane guarded by Reggie Jackson
Possession 6- Klay makes a big and-one layup in transition, assisted by Curry
Possession 7- Lee misses off a cut, offensive rebound, Lee misses again on a post up guard by Durant
Possession 8- Klay makes a mid-range two over Westbrook
Possession 9- Iguodala hits the game winner
These failures can be attributed to a few different but related decisions:
Changing up the offense: Over the course of the game, Golden State moved the ball beautifully and generated quality looks against a strong defensive opponent. Even including the rough final five minutes, the Warriors shot 47.9 percent from the field, better than Oklahoma City’s season average which includes the stretch of games missed by Russell Westbrook. All of the passing ability was negated during these half-court sets. By my count, exactly one of Golden State’s eleven half-court possessions (higher due to offensive rebounds) in the last five and a half minutes had more than two passes from initiation to shot and that was because of a give and go. That constitutes a comprehensive failure on offense for a team with unselfish, skilled players at every position.
Running five post-ups for David Lee: Skinny David Lee has looked very good this year, improving meaningfully on defense and playing well in transition. His all-around performance has been a pleasant surprise and a significant development for the team. That said, posting up has never been a strong suit of his. Last season, his Points Per Possession (PPP) posting up was 0.95, lower than his overall PPP and meaningfully less successful than his performance as a cutter, offensive rebounder, or in transition. That figure is also worse than the team’s overall PPP this season since the Warriors are No. 2 in the entire league. In fact Golden State is in the bottom 10 in post up effectiveness despite being second overall, No. 1 in spot-up situations, and top-10 in pick and rolls. The statistical evidence has anecdotal support as well, as Lee just does other things better offensively. No shame in that of course, just a factor to consider.
Part of the goal had to be attempting to give Kevin Durant his sixth foul but Durant had not had a particularly strong game and actually defends post-ups pretty well. In fact, his 0.75 PPP last season was better than his average defensive while KD forced more turnovers more times than he committed shooting fouls in those situations. Furthermore, Durant’s fouls on Thursday had come from less stagnant plays where ball movement and his instincts put him in tough spots. When Jackson said after the game that you have to be satisfied with “quality possessions” it shows he thinks of these as quality possessions when they are not. Those kinds of misconceptions can be incredibly dangerous when they impact choices in key moments.
Overhelping on defense: While seemingly part of Golden State’s defensive philosophy, the Thunder (and any team that moves the ball well) exploited that to get wide open looks for Thabo and Durant in half-court sets. Using help defense is not a problem, helping off Kevin Durant is since you cannot recover on a guy with such a high and quick release. Attributing OKC’s success to Durant and Westbrook (as Jackson appeared to do by saying the defense was “very good” and the offense was better) undersells the mistakes that helped lead to those looks. While justified on certain spots like Westbrook’s almost game-winning three, other positions were solid offense exploiting defensive mistakes.
Amazingly enough, when asked about these frustrating and debilitating decisions after the game, Mark Jackson did not back off and in fact embraced the tactics that nearly cost his team the game. When asked about the offense in the final few minutes (specifically the post-ups), he responded that he “couldn’t be happier” with the offense during that stretch without any apparent sarcasm. While I am a firm believer in process over results, the process was the problem here.
As frustrated as I was by the decision-making and execution that nearly gave the Thunder a win, the fact remains that the Warriors won the game and racked up enough of a cushion to win despite the poor play calls. The players should take a ton of pride in that, especially Andre Iguodala for how hard he made Durant work and Klay Thompson for doing an excellent job finishing his opportunities and making plays.
There are different ways of thinking about teams and franchises, but one of the ways I like best identifies a team’s ceiling and what they can do to raise that ceiling. This year’s Pacers team has used improvement by Paul George and Lance Stephenson to surpass even lofty expectations while Minnesota has embraced Rick Adelman’s scheme to great success. Coaching can greatly impact a team’s ceiling, either by raising a team up as we saw with George Karl’s Nuggets teams or holding them back like Scott Brooks and the Thunder before and after the Harden trade. At present, the Warriors are a beautifully constructed team and Bob Myers deserves even more praise because he assembled a six man core that makes so much sense playing together in various combinations. Andre Iguodala has been a perfect final piece for that group with quality defense, shockingly great passing, and unselfishness on both ends of the floor that meshes with the rest of the core. Even with a flawed bench, the Warriors have the talent and cohesion to be a championship team, as surprising as that is to say (and this is the first time I have believed it.)
Keeping those triumphs in mind, the ceiling for this team at the moment comes from decision-making by coaches at both the large and small scale. The Warriors nearly lost two games in the Nuggets series because of strange and preventable late-game disintegration and fell apart in Game 1 against the Spurs in ways that should have been caught and fixed before or during the game.
Mark Jackson has unequivocally and unquestionably proven to be an excellent motivator and leader of men- this team has completely bought in and plays with an intensity on both ends of the court that has continually impressed during his tenure. Unfortunately, the team’s unwillingness to be creative in terms of lineups until David Lee’s injury nearly cost them a playoff series (and untold regular season games) and strange decisions have turned clear wins like Thursday into perilous adventures. While entirely correctable by adding in a quality assistant that Jackson listens to or by him gaining experience over time, right now the strategic deficiencies of the Warriors coaching staff are their ceiling.