DALLAS — Steph Curry had just invited another double-team scramble and sent another laser beam pass through a dying Dallas defense. He nailed Draymond Green for Curry’s 11th assist.
The green layup put the Warriors up 11 as time ticked by in less than two minutes. The game and the Mavericks’ legitimate chances of winning the series were fading. A 3-0 series lead in the Western Final had essentially been clinched. A moment of relaxation seemed warranted for the Warriors.
Curry apparently took it. On the ensuing defensive possession, Reggie Bullock placed a simple screen up high, and instead of covering on Luka Dončić, as the current defensive pattern indicated, Curry wandered into the lane with a Dorian Finney -Smith cutting, letting Dončić enter a wide -open 3 to cut the lead at eight.
Despite Dončić’s splash, Dallas was still struggling. The Warriors had an eight-point lead plus possession with just 109 seconds left. It would take a miracle to snatch victory from them. But Steve Kerr wouldn’t let the mistake go unnoticed. He called an immediate timeout and lit up in his superstar guard, who never laughed at the tough practice.
“The whole point of the game in this streak is not 3s or fouls,” Kerr said. “We talk about it all the time. When the game calls for it, you get up (on guys), you don’t fall asleep. We’ve got one of the greatest players in the world coming up. He’s doing 3s in his sleep. The game isn’t over. We just let him in for a 3-pointer.
In the grand scheme, the importance of the piece vanished in moments. Jordan Poole hit a 3 to seal it. The Warriors won 3-0 in the series with a 109-100 win. They are a victory of the final. But it was this type of timeout from Kerr that spoke to the urgency with which he coached in that Mavericks clinical conference final.
“It was the one we felt like we had to get,” Kerr said. “Coming here, leading 2-0, you have to take advantage of his momentum. You can’t let a team come back.
Kerr’s rotation took a worrying hit in the second quarter. Otto Porter Jr. — who has been the Warriors’ second-best bench player for the past two weeks — fell awkwardly on a layup and injured his left foot. X-rays were negative. Further tests will determine the severity within the next 24 hours. But Porter missed the second half on Sunday night.
That left a vacancy in Porter’s usual spot, entering midway through the third quarter. Kerr went to Moses Moody, the rookie who had been absent from the entire playoff rotation prior to the last two games. Kerr’s staff recalled Moody’s strong performance against the Mavericks in March. They had a feeling he could help in this series. They went with. Like several other coaching choices, it worked.
There was a timeout before Moody entered the game in the third quarter. Meanwhile, Mike Brown decided to change the defenses. He wanted to take a look at Dončić whom he hadn’t seen yet. So they discussed box-and-1 with Moody guarding Dončić. Before the timeout split, Green spent time explaining to Moody the best way to keep Dončić.
Here are the first 10 seconds of that defensive possession. Moody starts in the corner, keeping Dončić away from the ball. Dončić, probably a bit surprised the Warriors are keeping him with a rookie despite Andrew Wiggins being on the pitch, cuts high from the key to win the ball back and attack his game.
But he realizes pretty quickly that the box-and-1 is designed to protect Moody and force others besides Dončić to beat them. He wanders into a double team, recovers his dribble and comes out of it. That possession eventually ended with a disputed miss late in the game from Spencer Dinwiddie.
The Warriors stayed in the box-and-1 look for just five possessions. He produced the preferred results – three points, four saves, no Dončić shot attempts and a live turnover. Then Brown pulled the Warriors out of it and moved on to another look.
“When you’re playing against a guy like Luka, you never want to give him a steady diet of anything,” Green said. “You can pick what you think is the absolute best cover against a guy and you keep doing it. Let’s say it works and it works and it works. If you keep doing it, a guy like that is going to be fine. You want to try to unbalance it.
The Warriors’ base defense this series has been man-on-man with Wiggins guarding Dončić. In the regular season, they traded a ton for the Mavericks, which allowed Dončić to target Curry and Poole with great success. The staff acknowledged this in the build-up to the series and made sure to ask Curry and Poole to protect themselves and recover, while allowing Kevon Looney to change.
“We don’t want to just fall into the switches,” Green said. “That’s what they want. So I think our coaching staff did an incredible job, as they always do. I’ve told you before, I’ve never gone into a playoff game feeling unprepared or that another team was better prepared than us. Our coaching staff continues to do an amazing job and just as important the guys are following the game plan.
It is also necessary to adapt within games if necessary. The Mavericks roasted the Warriors in the first half of Game 2, using the Bullock screen guard to guard for Dončić. Curry was guarding Bullock and trying to protect himself and recover. Bullock has a quick trigger. The Mavericks continued to open Bullock to catch and shoot 3, releasing him to take it out before Curry could come back.
The Warriors staff discussed it at halftime and changed defensive assignments. The Warriors put Klay Thompson on Bullock and Curry on Finney-Smith. Finney-Smith is a catch-and-shoot threat around the corner, but he doesn’t have such a fast and accurate version in the pick-and-pop settings at the top of the key. Dallas couldn’t exploit this game anymore. This is probably the biggest adjustment to the series, so far.
“There’s a lot of communication because we change defenses a lot throughout the game,” Curry said. “But what we’re trying to do is quite simple in terms of giving Luka a lot of different looks because he’s got the ball in his hands pretty much every possession. … But from man to zone to box or whatever, these are pretty simple defenses that we’ve been practicing pretty much all year.
This last point is essential. Kerr met with Brown this summer to discuss giving him the defense. Brown has spent recent seasons in charge of attacking plans but has a stronger defensive reputation. During their summer conversations, they discussed a regular season game in Orlando the season before when they went to a triangle and two and it worked.
“We never even practiced it, we just drew it in the huddle,” Kerr said. Athleticism in November. “But that’s the problem. It’s really simple. All you need is a few ground rules. We didn’t do it again the rest of the year. We barely do that now. But the general theme is how you can disrupt teams from their models. That’s what Mike, I and the staff have learned over the past two years as the league has gotten tougher and tougher defensively.
The Warriors therefore told all their players in training camp that they would change defenses more often throughout the regular season.
“I just felt like the NBA game is so fast-paced and pattern-driven, and these players are all executing the same thing,” Kerr said in November. “You go from game to game and everyone is running high screens and rolls, high pins, all the same things. You see these patterns. It is therefore important to be able to mix everything. There are so many shots that it’s hard to keep everyone man-to-man and get teams out of their rhythm. Teams are used to seeing blitzes. When they get used to playing against certain things, it becomes harder to break a rhythm. So we decided to do more things to break the rhythm.
It’s never been more important than this Dallas series. Green agreed that’s the most the Warriors have ever changed on the fly defense during games. It’s a point Jason Kidd made recently, expressing how impressed he was that the Warriors didn’t need timeouts to switch plans. They would just look towards the sideline when Brown barked signals.
“We try to designate a guy or two to watch Mike on the way home every time because he changes calls,” Green said. “And so, like I said, it’s something that we’ve been practicing all year where he’ll come back to myself, he’ll come to Otto, he’ll come to André when André plays and say, ‘Hey, you have to look at me because I’m changing my defense. It’s kind of like a defensive coordinator sending a signal to a middle linebacker and sending the signal to the other guys. It worked for us.
The Warriors held the Mavericks to 22, 25 and 21 points in the first three quarters of a desperate third game for Dallas. The Warriors played badly on offense in the first half but led by a starter into the locker room as they continue to keep the Mavericks off the pace.
The Warriors used zone defense on 17 possessions in Game 3. The Mavericks only scored on five of them. Here is one of the 12 stops. It ends with a missed Maxi Kleber 3.
Kleber and Bullock went a combined 0 of 15 and 0 of 12 of 3. The Warriors, unlike the previous two series, did well with the role players who beat them, making the correct calculation that they couldn’t often enough.
“It’s fun to go fight with (Kerr) because he very rarely fails,” Green said. “Very rarely do I go into a game thinking he hasn’t given us an amazing game plan. The confidence he has at this time of year is amazing. You feed off of that. He has confidence in our game plan, so you have confidence in the game plan. Then you’re going to play hard and execute.
“He’s been an incredible coach to play in those situations. He and his team of coaches prepare us for anything. … That’s a lot like how I felt at Michigan State. There wouldn’t be a team that would come into a game more prepared than us. Especially not in the NCAA Tournament. That’s how I feel with Steve.
(Photo: Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)
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