There’s a rhythm to it—a sort of pattern that’s emerged over the years. The more you watch the Warriors, the easier it becomes to recognize.
Golden State’s offense, a perpetual motion machine constructed to produce panic attacks at the prospect of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson finding enough air space to launch a 3-pointer, warps the defense’s fundamental geometry to the point that seemingly everyone in blue and gold’s getting a layup. The Warriors’ defense, spearheaded by Draymond Green and perennially tougher than it’s given credit for, induces half-court claustrophobia, erasing bread-and-butter actions, and leaving opponents with little besides contested attempts taken out of rhythm.
More often than not, those tough shots miss, which kick-starts the Dubs’ transition game, where defense turns into offense to create chaos. Suddenly, the opponent’s in a horror movie, forced to choose between picking up Steph, Klay, or whoever’s running to the rim; every choice is somehow wrong, and the result is always searing pain. Eventually—usually a couple of minutes into the third quarter—the opponent’s trapped in that vicious cycle with no hope for escape. By the start of the fourth, Steph’s on the bench, towel draped over his head, cracking jokes, and celebrating his teammates’ buckets—his night’s work complete.
Countless teams have been rocked by that rhythm over the last eight years, from cellar dwellers to championship chasers, and it claimed another victim Wednesday. Luka Doncic’s Mavericks entered Game 1 with the swagger of a team that had just annihilated a title favorite; they exited licking their wounds, on the business end of a 112-87 shellacking that drew the Warriors within three wins of their sixth NBA Finals appearance in eight years. The more things change around the core of Steph, Klay, Draymond, and Steve Kerr, the more they stay the same.
The rout started on defense, where Golden State limited the visitors to 36 percent shooting and an 11-for-48 mark (22.9 percent) from 3-point range. Finding a way to slow down Doncic—who’d torched Utah and Phoenix to the tune of 31.5 points and 6.6 assists per game in the first two rounds—loomed as the biggest issue facing the Warriors entering this series. As predicted, Andrew Wiggins picked up the primary assignment on Doncic, and he did a whale of a job, using his length, strength, and quickness to hound the All-NBA playmaker all over the court. He picked Doncic up the full 94 feet, fought over the top of screens, and kept Doncic from making a living by getting either all the way into the paint or to his comfort-zone stepback jumper:
As Game 1 wore on, though, it became clear that the real answer to the question of who’d guard Luka wasn’t Wiggins. It was everybody.
Luka looked to target Kevon Looney on switches, but the veteran big man more than held his own defending in space. He tried to bulldoze Thompson on the block, but the 6-foot-6 guard held his position and contested his fadeaways. Every time Doncic readied an attack, the Warriors’ help defenders—including Green, who managed to tamp down Jalen Brunson and still rotate all over the floor like his hair was on fire—shaded toward him and loaded up, ready to slide over to take away a driving lane, dig down on his dribble, and try to prevent him from getting all the way to the basket. After averaging 4.6 shots in the restricted area through the first two rounds, Doncic didn’t get a single up-close attempt in Game 1—emblematic of a team-wide dearth that saw Dallas as a team take just six shots at the rim.
Doncic wasn’t able to get nearly as much of what he wanted in Game 1 as he did against Utah and Phoenix because Kerr and his staff made a concerted effort to take it off the menu. Whenever Luka tried to hunt mismatches with screens, Curry or Jordan Poole would come up high on the floor with a hard hedge aimed at stopping the ball-handler in his tracks long enough for Wiggins to get back in position to pick up Doncic. Kerr and Co. started using the “high tag” coverage years ago to try to protect Curry from the search-and-destroy tactics of Warriors postseason nemeses LeBron James and James Harden, and when everyone’s locked in and attentive, it can be pretty effective:
Kerr threw everything at Doncic in Game 1: the high-tag hedge, switching the pick-and-roll, a little bit of drop coverage, a few blitzes and traps, a sprinkling of zone, and even a couple of possessions of a box-and-one—the “middle school” defense that Nick Nurse and the Raptors used to fluster Curry back in the 2019 Finals. (Always remember: Like artists, good coaches borrow, and great coaches steal.) The array of coverages stifled Doncic, disrupting the defense-destroying zone he’s been in for most of the last three months; he finished with just 20 points, his third-lowest total in 24 career playoff games, on 6-for-18 shooting, with seven turnovers and four assists.
Combine that with the way the Warriors went at Doncic on the other end, involving him in multiple actions to make him guard in space and empowering Wiggins (19 points on 8-for-17 shooting, five rebounds, three assists) to attack him with hard drives and pull-ups, and it’s enough to make even an MVP candidate stare into the middle distance in search of answers:
The connectivity of Golden State’s help defense carried over on the other end of the court, too. Seven Warriors scored in double figures and six dished multiple assists, as the totality of their ball and player movement in Kerr’s free-flowing read-and-react offense eventually overwhelmed a Mavericks team that just got through dealing with much different styles of attack against the Jazz and Suns. Even with the greatest shooting backcourt in NBA history (remember when that seemed like a controversial called shot?) combining to go 4-for-13 from 3-point range, and the team as a whole shooting a ho-hum 10-for-29 from distance, the Warriors carved up Jason Kidd’s defense, shooting a scorching 68 percent inside the arc against a Mavericks team that, in its calculated double-down on small-ball and five-out floor spacing, doesn’t really have much to speak of in the way of rim protection.
Even on a shaky-by-his-standards night shooting the ball—including a double-take-prompting 4-for-7 at the free-throw line—Curry remained the prime mover in Game 1, scoring 21 points and pulling down 12 rebounds (three off his career playoff high) in 31 minutes. Green, as he did in closing out the Grizzlies, more frequently looked for his shot on the short roll in addition to seeking opportunities to set up teammates … like the time early in the third quarter when he ripped Doncic’s dribble, pushed the ball in transition, and saw Thompson, who’d been scoreless to that point, running with him. One Draymond shovel pass later, Klay had a layup; he’d promptly make his next four shots.
It’s a small thing, but that gesture—replacing the zero in someone else’s scoring column rather than adding to your own—is the kind of thing you do for a teammate with whom you’ve spent the better part of a decade building something, and whom, due to a pair of devastating injuries, you’ve had to wait a long time to share it with again.
“We’re super comfortable on this stage,” Curry told reporters after the game. “Because we have been away for two years … there’s more gratitude of being back here, and more sense of urgency on not letting the opportunity slip away. Who knows how it plays out, but I’m enjoying every bit of this. I know Klay is as well, and I know Draymond is, because we haven’t played meaningful games at this time of year in two years. It’s special.”
It is, and so are they—a core that has gone through every peak and valley the sport has to offer, that has reached the mountaintop and been laid low, and that’s starting to see that summit come back into view. No skipping steps, though: The Warriors know Dallas lost Game 1 in both of its previous series and went down 0-2 to the top-seeded Suns, before adjusting, recalibrating, and roaring back. Said Kerr: “One game we did an excellent job defensively, but we are under no illusion that we’ve figured anything out.”
The bet here is that if Doncic, one of the fastest processors and most gifted manipulators in the league, sees those coverages again, and if a Mavericks squad that entered this series shooting 38.5 percent from deep sees looks like these again …
… they won’t stay this cold—like, fourth-worst offensive performance of the entire season cold—for very long.
“There were a lot of great looks that just didn’t go down. It happens. It’s basketball,” Kidd said after the game. “Hopefully we get those same looks in Game 2, and we believe we’ll make them.”
The Warriors believe, too, though—in their ability to speed Doncic up, to make Dallas’s shooters think and its defenders hesitate, and to lean on their glorious and expansive shared history to chart a path back to the championship round in the present tense. Through Steph and a devastating defense, all things seem possible; there’s a rhythm to it, and eight years later, you can still hear the beat in the Bay.