April 15, 2024

Draymond Green fueling Warriors’ defensive revival as they win fifth straight

SAN FRANCISCO — The most spectacular of the Golden State Warriors’ defensive stops Tuesday night came with a minute and a half left in a still undecided game. Draymond Green, the king of the cat-and-mouse, executed these five objectives in an eight-second span to stop a Dallas Mavericks dunk:

• Shade to the left side of the paint to deter a Luka Dončić drive, ignoring Daniel Gafford, his man, to force a pass out to Kyrie Irving on the right wing.

• Sense quickly that Irving had a step on his catch-and-go drive.

• Take a couple subtle shuffles above the restricted area to meet Irving and force another pass, this one to Gafford, the Mavericks’ high-efficiency lob threat who appeared poised to get his 161st dunk of the season.

• Recover in time to wipe away Gafford’s slam. (Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he thought Green “went up to foul him,” but he instead blocked it cleanly and sent Gafford to the floor.)

• Rip the loose ball away from Irving and save it inbound to Klay Thompson, securing a stop and a valued possession in crunch time.

Chris Paul called it one of the best plays he’s seen in his 19-year NBA career.

“The key defensive play of the game,” Kerr said. “Massive play.”

“When he’s going against guys that are a little bit more athletic, he uses his brain a little bit more,” Irving said of Green. “And when he’s going against smaller guys, he uses his physicality. So he knows how to play kind of the in-between game on the defensive end.”

Green’s stand helped the Warriors (41-34) seal a 104-100 win, their fifth straight. The late-season surge can be directly tied to their improved defense. During the streak, they’ve held opponents to 92, 93, 97, 100 and 113 points. They’ve posted a 102.9 defensive rating during the run.

The first four victories came mostly on the road against bad offenses — the San Antonio Spurs, Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Miami Heat are all bottom-10 in points scored per 100 possessions this season. But the Mavericks are ranked sixth, and the Warriors’ strapped them up in Chase Center, which has been a more difficult place for them to perform well this season.

“We held them to 100 points,” Kerr said. “To me, that’s a good sign that what we did on the road was not fluke-ish.”

Green has been particularly charged up on defense in the wake of his Orlando ejection. He had six steals and the game-sealing blockout of Victor Wembanyama in San Antonio and followed that up with four steals and the clutch block against the Mavericks.

But the Warriors’ defensive success extends beyond Green. Kerr has been starting Trayce Jackson-Davis next to him, a traditional big who lessens Green’s interior burden and provides one of the league’s shortest teams with a bigger rebounder and extra rim protector for 25 minutes a night. The Warriors outrebounded the Mavericks 52-42. Their two rookies, Jackson-Davis and Brandin Podziemski, both had 10 rebounds.

“It allows Draymond to play center field,” Kerr said. “Put Trayce on the five and have Draymond roam. Draymond likes having a rim protector behind him. Over the years, he’s played with (Kevon Looney), Andrew Bogut, JaVale McGee. We’ve turned him into a starting five this year. But it’s a reminder of how powerful he can be defensively if he gets to roam a little bit.”

A starting lineup question remains when Jonathan Kuminga returns. He missed his fourth consecutive game with knee tendinitis, but went through a hard workout Tuesday and has been cleared to face the Rockets in Houston Thursday. Kuminga has been maybe the brightest spot of the season for the Warriors, but lineups with Kuminga, Green and Jackson-Davis could have spacing issues.

“We haven’t done a lot of (that trio) this year,” Kerr said. “If we do it, Steph (Curry) has to be on the floor and probably Klay. There’s a spacing challenge, for sure. But it’s something we could still go to.”

Against the Mavericks, Andrew Wiggins took the Dončić assignment, and it looked a whole lot like the 2022 West Finals. Wiggins spent a majority of the game picking up Dončić the length of the court, turning his dribble and making him labor to get the Mavericks into offensive sets.

Dončić still produced a 30-point triple-double, but the Warriors kept him off the free throw line (four attempts), turned him over five times and mostly limited everyone else outside of Irving. Wiggins played a primary role in that while also contributing a team-high 23 points on the other end.

“He’s defending at a high level,” Kerr said. “I just think he’s in a really good rhythm.”

This sequence shows the type of special wing defender Wiggins can be when he’s operating with the effort level and focus that fueled his 2022 playoff run. He pressed Dončić out well past the perimeter, making even his catch difficult. Then, Wiggins tracked Dončić through traffic, didn’t give him space on the stepback and blocked the floater.

Curry struggled against the Mavericks, scoring 13 points on 5-of-18 shooting. Thompson added 14 on 5-of-14 from the field. It was the 33rd time both have been held under 15 points in the same game and the first time since 2019 that the Warriors won when that happened. DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant had 21 and 15 for the Warriors that night.

Against the Mavericks, Paul provided the necessary secondary scoring at important moments. He had 14 points in 20 minutes on 6-of-11 shooting. He was aggressive searching for his jumper, saying Dallas’ defensive scheme and game script called for it.

Paul saved the game late in the third quarter. Curry went to the bench at the 3:43 mark with the Warriors losing by three. Eight minutes later, nearing the halfway mark of the fourth, the Warriors went up 11, a plus-14 non-Curry run fueled by Paul.

“He’s starting to come alive,” Green said.

The Rockets lost in Minnesota on Wednesday night, which places the Warriors three games up for the 10th seed. They’ve already clinched the tiebreaker, so their lead is essentially four games with seven to go. They have a chance to drop the hammer and nearly clinch a Play-In spot with a win Thursday in Houston.

The Warriors are 1.5 back of a ninth-place Los Angeles Lakers team they face next week head-to-head with a chance to clinch the tiebreaker, so the ninth seed is obtainable. They’re still within faint reach of seventh (three games behind the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns), thanks in large part to a sustained defensive effort.

“We’ve seen teams in this league for years make the mistake of thinking they can just put a great offense out there, (have their) defense suck and think they’re going to win,” Green said. “If you run up against a team that doesn’t even have to be as good offensively, but if they’re competent on the offensive end and they play defense, you’re going to lose. So our defense, it’s a non-negotiable. We have to defend at that level.”

(Top photo: Cary Edmondson / USA Today)