Adam L: Obvious Problems, Uncertain Solutions (Rockets 116, Warriors 107)

Lax defense and sloppy execution. There’s no mystery regarding the immediate causes of the Warriors’ recent slide. The real questions are why the problems (re)appeared now — just over the halfway point of the season — and, more importantly, how the Warriors can correct them. The 107-116 loss to the Rockets Tuesday night, extending the losing streak to 5 games, only raised more questions. Despite Andrew Bogut starting, Jarrett Jack back from his shoulder injury and all the motivation you could want for a regular season game following last week’s embarrassment, the Warriors still looked over-matched in nearly ever facet of the game.

The All-Star break is coming at a good time — if only to serve as a timeout to stop a multi-game run of ugly basketball. If the Warriors’ current struggles are related to fatigue alone, the break will provide some relief. The team expended a ton of energy in its frantic run of late-December and January wins. It’s natural to expect that adrenaline rush to wear off at some point from the playoff level intensity. But the break shouldn’t be treated as some magic solution, curing all basketball ills. And after five straight games of lackluster basketball, it seems optimistically simplistic to attribute the team’s struggles purely to being tired.

The Warriors have fallen back into old habits — allowing opponents easy points and failing to execute when they need points themselves. The second half meltdown against the Rockets showed how the two failings can work in tandem to let a game slip quickly out of hand. In the third quarter, the Warriors had 6 of their 13 turnovers for the game. The Rockets capitalized on the mistakes to settle into an offensive rhythm, rattling off 8-2 and 13-5 runs on their way to a 31 point quarter. The back-to-back turnovers by Jack and Lee with around 2 minutes left were particularly painful. The Rockets got lay-ups off both and cracked a manageable 5 point lead into a more daunting 9 point one.

The Warriors had stretches earlier this season with lax defense and other stretches with poor execution. So long as it was only one problem, it was manageable — precise execution allowed the team to outscore opponents in poor defensive games, and stingy defense allowed the team to sneak wins when offensive execution grew sloppy. What we’re seeing now is the combined effect of those mistakes, leaving the Warriors with no cover and little hope against quality teams. On Tuesday, Mark Jackson went to his bench to experiment with different match-ups. There was one variable that proved to be a difference-maker in the second half — David Lee.

The Warriors’ All Star representative was far from a star on Tuesday. He struggled to get anything going offensively until he bulled his way to the foul line late in the game, after things had already spun out of control. He was a disaster on defense, switching when he should have stayed home and following his man when a switch would have been the smarter move. And when the team drops into zone, his spacing gets even worse. Lee’s lack of defensive awareness tears a hole in the Warriors’ defense that is easily exploited by a gifted passing team like the Rockets. A little penetration or a basic pick and roll was all the Rockets needed to get Lee out of position and trigger a shift among the rest of the Warriors to cover for him, often opening up clear shots or lanes to the basket.

The second half game-flow, with a variety of Rockets power forwards going off for easy baskets, paints a particularly dire picture of Lee’s impact on the game at the defensive end. The Warriors start the second half giving up 5 points to the Rockets over the first 5 minutes. Lee checks out, Landry checks in and the Warriors play the Rockets to a draw over the next 4 minutes. Back comes Lee, replacing Bogut, and the Warriors give up another 5 points in under 3 minutes. Lee sits out the last minute of the third and the first three minutes of the fourth, and the Warriors scratch 5 points off the deficit. Lee returns for a final 7 minute stint, replacing Draymond Green, and the Warriors give those 5 points right back to the Rockets. Lee may never be a good defender, but at least when he’s scoring with high efficiency, he can contribute more than he gives up. But when Lee’s struggling on offense, as he did against the Rockets, he’s a loss all the way across for the Warriors.

Lee wasn’t the only defensive problem for the Warriors, with Klay Thompson also struggling to stay with his man and properly space the court. Chandler Parsons made the most of the extra room Thompson allowed him for much of the night, knocking down open shots and finding open teammates on his way to 9 assists. Thompson’s defensive struggles don’t map as perfectly to the rise and fall of the Rockets’ lead, but they similarly suggest a player that’s a net drag when he’s not scoring at a rapid clip. Over the first 25 minutes, Thompson was 8-14. Over the final 23, he was 1-7. As with Lee, the Warriors played their best second half defense when Thompson was off the court.

While the Warriors’ shouldn’t be panicking, something needs to change to break the team out of what is increasingly looking like a downward spiral of devolving play. There are two obvious choices: Lee, Thompson and others need to elevate their defensive games after the break — or Mark Jackson needs to start giving more minutes to players that can produce stops.

The first option would be the best, since both Thompson and Lee are major offensive contributors most nights. Thompson has been excellent one game and a mess the next, much like on offense, but I have hope he can gain some consistency. His learning curve is still pretty steep, and he’s never played with a defensive presence at center like Bogut. A few more practices and games might produce results. The more difficult case is Lee, who seemed much more focused on locking down his man before he was named the Warriors’ first All Star in 15 years. For Lee, the stingier defense was the abnormal result and the present matador effort is a return to the status quo. Maybe more time with Bogut will make a difference, but in some ways Bogut’s superior defensive positioning and awareness just make Lee more of a liability. Bogut is an active defender, rotating from one spot to the next when the ball is in play. Lee’s inability to anticipate or adapt to Bogut’s movement means he’s often caught out of position in relation to Bogut. When Bogut flashes to cut off penetration, Lee needs to make sure the ball can’t just be dumped to his man for a lay-up. And when Bogut bodies up to his man on the block, Lee needs to stay home to guard against the exit pass rather than shade towards the ball to give Bogut help he doesn’t need. We all saw Lee play better defense than this earlier in the season. If the Warriors are going to play him 40 minutes a night, they’ll need a return of that effort to break out of this losing rut.

The second option — cutting minutes for Lee and Thompson in favor of better defenders — is risky but intriguing. The Jack/Curry backcourt has thrived all season long (Tuesday night was no exception, as Jack made a gutsy comeback). Pairing the two guards together as starters with Barnes at 3 would be unconventional, but might help tighten up the defense from early in the game. Thompson could still see major minutes as an outside shooting specialist (the Korver role), but would have easier defensive match-ups coming off the bench as a first substitute for either Jack, Curry or Barnes. It would be a demotion, but for a second-year player struggling to find consistency, all options should be on the table. As for Lee, the alternatives are more limited. Landry is a better defender but has been increasingly unproductive over the past month. After averaging 10 points and 6 rebounds in December and January, Landry is down to 8 points and 4.7 rebounds in February. Biedrins or Ezeli paired with Bogut doesn’t give the Warriors enough offense from the post positions. The last resort option, which Jackson has been experimenting with more recently, is to give Draymond Green increased minutes at the 4. Green had a solid game Tuesday and has been gradually improving offensively (despite some ups and downs game-to-game). When teams try to stretch the floor against the Warriors, as the Rockets did with their power forwards, Green’s quickness and mobility on defense is a huge asset — and doesn’t come at the expense of rebounding ability.

Ultimately, Mark Jackson has plenty of options as his disposal. But the one option he should dismiss is to simply hope that a few days off over the break cures all the Warriors’ ills. Just as there’s no denying how impressive the team looked earlier this year, there’s no sugar-coating how poorly they’ve played over the past 10 days. While Jackson doesn’t want to implement knee-jerk changes, the gap between the 6th, 7th and 8th teams is far too small to do nothing. If the Warriors continue to free-fall, they improve the odds of a horrible first round match-up against the Spurs or Oklahoma City. And if the Lakers or Blazers were to get hot for a week or two and rejoin the playoff race, the Warriors could even suddenly find themselves in the 9th spot — once again on the outside of the playoffs. The All-Star break should be a time to reflect back on the Warriors’ improved play this year. But nothing stands more at odds with that improved play than what we saw on Tuesday against the Rockets.

7 Responses to “Obvious Problems, Uncertain Solutions (Rockets 116, Warriors 107)”

Coltraning says:
February 13th, 2013 at 2:02 am
Fairly Well said, Adam. In this game you make a compellng case that Lee’s defense hurt the team when combined with a very poor shooting night for him. Not a coincidence that on a night Lee gave 8 points less than his average, coupled with a truly bad defensive game, the Ws lost by 9. However, you pass over Bogut’s poor offensive game or another stellar game from Curry in silence. Also, Barnes was strong on balance and still was shorted minutes. Landry has become incredibly predictable on offense and teams have figured him out.

Look. Houston is a very good team, and the strategy of Harden/Lin driving and kicking or drawing fouls is simple and effective. The weird thing is, while Harden is the best player on either team, I still maintain the Ws are more talented, and part of this is figuring out how to integrate Bogut.

The team is now 4-5 since his return. They have not found a rhythm with him, and the result has been uncertain offense and defense and Lee seems to be having the hardest time adjusting, followed closely by Landry. Lee has averaged 4.5 points less a game on 5% worse shooting since Bogut, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that he does not have the same spacing. Hopefully he will figure it out.

Steve says:
February 13th, 2013 at 2:03 am
The doom and gloom decibel now gets turned up and goes full throttle for the next week. To avoid stay off the main (blogging/internet) roads and stick to the side streets.

The simple answer to what’s wrong with the Warriors, as opposed to analysis paralysis of each individual player and each coaching decision, is that the Warriors are currently in a collective slump (merriam: a period of poor or losing play by a team or individual). Believe it or not, they will start winning again, the only question being at what rate/percentage once play resumes after the AS break.

I agree with Our Team, Houston is simply a better team than the Warriors right now. That doesn’t mean their record after 82 games will be better, but head-to-head they present problems that GSW currently has no answers for.

My predictions, like that of most others, isn’t worth the cyberspace it’s typed on, but FWIW, I think the 5 game road trip after the break (T-Wolves, Pacers, Knicks, Celtics, 76′ers) is where the Warriors right this ship and get back on a generally winning track the rest of the way. Maybe even a win (in their hoped-for good luck new jerseys) vs those big, bad Spurs right before that trip begins will be a big jump-start. Regardless, I’m not jumping overboard quite yet.

The Warriors, with 3 rookies playing significant minutes, and minus Rush and Bogut, overachieved in their first 52 games. How fortunate are they to be 8 over .500? Through 52 games the Warriors have been outscored by the opposition 5251-5263. Very fortunate, indeed. So, thank your lucky GSWs for a 30-22 record and take a deep breath and relax for the next week. And stick to those side streets while you’re at it.


GS Warriors’ trade deadline approach: “We would like to take a longer look at our core, but we’re always looking.”

Coltraning says:
February 13th, 2013 at 2:07 am
By the way, it would be remiss of this blog, Even in the midst of a distressing losing streak, To not acknowledge the historic and truly extraordinary stretch LeBron James is having. He is now the only player in the HISTORY of the NBA to score 30 points on 60% or better shooting in six straight games. Just amazing…

Steve says:
February 13th, 2013 at 2:21 am
Ric Bucher: I don’t know how it will play out on the court, but incorporating Andrew Bogut into the Warriors promises to be a fascinating social experiment, as far as team building is concerned.

After the Warriors lost a season-high fifth in a row to the Rockets, Bogut was pointed about how the team’s defense must improve. “Definitely one-on-one, 1 through 5,” he said. “We have to take it personal. We rely too much on the help to come.”

The rub: the Warriors don’t have good one-on-one defenders, starting with their two biggest stars, Steph Curry and David Lee. Up until recently, the Warriors have been effective by playing a zone-ish D with loads of quick, sharp rotations and help. Bogut has a legitimate point, but it’s a different approach than has been heard previously in the Warriors’ lockerroom. This should be good.

RickP says:
February 13th, 2013 at 2:41 am
Speaking very impressionistically, the offense looked different than when they were winning.

I recall Curry staying near the arc and Lee staying near the elbow as part of a frequent offensive set. Curry would come off a screen, or draw a double, pass to Lee and then Lee would initiate the offense — either a midrange shot or a pass under the hoop. I didn’t see that play much tonight. I do recall seeing Bogut do something similar with that sneaky bounce pass.

And, although I criticized it, during the first half of the season Curry rarely got to the rim and didn’t shoot many FT’s. Now, he’s penetrating more, but the offense doesn’t seem as effective.

On defense, I remember thinking that the W’s had stopped giving up the uncontested waltz to the rim. Not any more. I saw several of them.

I also recall fewer rushed W shots. Houston seemed unsually quick, was that why?

The box score shows most of the major categories close to even. The rox had more shots — a consequece of small differentials in boards and TO’s.

The gameflow chart does not seem to fully justify Adam’s comments about Lee’s bench minutes. He sat 5 times. Three of them were even. The last one was very brief and was -1. The main problem was the end of the 3rd/beginning of 4th. That stretch was +5, but the 10 man picture was unique in the game. Also, Klay was out for the same stretch, and Curry/Jack were in. I do agree though that the bigs were not defending the hoop well, and I’ll defer to Adam’s judgement about what went wrong.

Another thing I noticed a few times was the absence of W’s under the offensive glass. It was sometimes a one on five battle for the board while the other 4 Ws ran back. Not that setting up that early helped much — there were still things, like that baseline run, that they simply never figured out.

And, while I can nitpick the offense, they got 107 points on 84 shots with decent underlying numbers.

For me, the problem was not defending the rim very well.

oz warrior says:
February 13th, 2013 at 4:37 am
Klay seems to do well in the first three quarters, but struggles consistently in the fourth to find his shot.

Let’s hope this is a part of his game that develops.

nelliesbiggestfan says:
February 13th, 2013 at 6:44 am
I tried to tell you guys that integrating bogut into the mix would cause problems but you wouldn’t listen.

Bogut gets gassed after one run up the court. There were lots of times last night when he wasn’t even on my TV screen because he was so far behind the play. It’s a big problem but I guess you guys don’t want to talk about it.

This team no longer has an identity. It was a great small ball team, ezeli and beans were setup centers and the small unit closed out games. That unit over achieved on defense because of its energy and chemistry. There was a pattern to the substitutions and it worked, the players were confident in that system. It failed against low post bigs but was successfull against everybody else.

Now the w’s don’t know who they are. Bogut isn’t ready for prime time, you can’t turn the team over to him yet, and you may not be able to give him the team at all, we don’t know yet. Do you slow the team down and pound it in to bogut ? If you do that you have to change this teams mentality completely.

MJ is in a tought spot. The w’s will have to change to take advantage of bogut’s skills but that new team might not be as good as the smallball team it will replace. The bogut/lee tandem is too slow and too white. Lee needs an athletic monster like chandler next to him, that’s what helped nowitzki the most, otherwise you’re better off playing Lee at center. And BTW, Lee’s best numbers this year happen when he plays center, not PF.

Lee’s play has slipped, but don’t think that is the real problem here, the real problem is bogut and what to do with him.

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