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The only way for the Warriors to come back in the NBA Finals is with defense

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Once a Warriors staple, the swarming, switch-heavy defense has been erratic this postseason. It can’t be anymore.

The NBA changed forever on Monday night. From Kevin Durant’s tragic, career-altering Achilles injury, to the white-knuckled chaos instigated in the last five minutes by Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson, it was a night filled with surreal memories, good and bad.

Amid that haze, Golden State’s defense spent the most important four quarters of its season toggling between mind-numbing deterioration and vintage brilliance. With their backs against the wall, the defending champions needed to muster one of their most identifiable strengths in a way they haven’t for most of this playoff run.

In the Finals, they’ve been a shark with rubber teeth: imposing, but still not as formidable as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. Thompson was routinely beat off the dribble by a point guard who isn’t known for his speed, big men DeMarcus Cousins and Kevon Looney were stalked and then abused in the pick-and-roll, and there were too many perilous stretches where the Warriors had no answers on the offensive glass and couldn’t keep Leonard off the free-throw line.

According to Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors averaged 96.4 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt during the regular season. In the Finals, they’ve generated the exact same number. That’s not a great sign for the Warriors.

Some of their breakdowns can be blamed on coach Steve Kerr’s inability (or unwillingness) to play Draymond Green at center. In the play below, Jordan Bell — who wouldn’t be on the floor in such a scenario — got lost in no man’s land because he was afraid to leave Leonard alone on the perimeter, even though the only pass Kyle Lowry could make was to a cutting Serge Ibaka.

But even Golden State’s most reliable units have struggled to get stops in these playoffs. None of their top lineups have been particularly effective, including the Death Lineup™ with Green at center, which has allowed a staggering 111.6 points per 100 possessions in 168 minutes these playoffs — equivalent to a bottom-eight defense when compared to how all 30 teams performed in the regular season. (Last year, this group’s defensive rating was 95.9, and it was an even 100 in 2016-17, Durant’s debut season.) Golden State finished the 2018-19 regular season with another top-10 defensive rating, but it was two points higher than last year’s and the team’s worst since 2012.

Perhaps Curry and Thompson can shoot the Warriors out of whatever defensive lapses force them into a sticky situation over the next eight quarters, as they did in Game 5. But without Durant, against the best defense they’ve ever faced, winning their fourth championship in five years will be incredibly difficult unless they rediscover the staunch resistance that made them great.

We briefly saw it again in the closing seconds of Game 5, with Green’s pantheon fingertip block on the game’s final shot, and a forced backcourt violation down three with 90 seconds to go. But was that stretch a blip, or can they summon it again, through Father’s Day?

Game 5 of the first-round series between the Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers was supposed to be a funeral. The Warriors held a 3-1 lead and were back home in Oracle Arena to close it out. As far as hopeless situations go, this was the basketball equivalent to being bitten by a rattlesnake. The only thing left was for the Clippers to lay down and die.

Instead, without the assistance of a 31-point comeback or unnatural barrage from behind the three-point line, all they did was dominate methodically and without fear. That night, Los Angeles scored an ungodly 1.33 points per possession, good enough for their second-best offensive game of the entire season. Despite Kevin Durant’s 45 points and Curry and Thompson combining for 46, the Clippers won by nine.

The loss wasn’t wobbly enough to inspire any panic, but one play was a signal that turning a switch wouldn’t be so easy. The play developed like so many do, with Curry switched onto a wing scorer like Danilo Gallinari, intentionally led there after a ball screen. With Green helping a step up from the right corner, Gallo whipped a pass to Patrick Beverley. Green left his feet on the pump fake (mistake one) and put Golden State in the exact type of rotation their scheme and personnel is built to prevent.

Beverley drove left towards the basket, where Durant had since slid over to protect the rim. But instead of a low-percentage floater or forced layup that got snuffed out by one of the game’s most intimidating wingspans, Beverley was able to leave his feet with options. Despite Beverley hardly being a threat, Thompson and Looney put all four of their feet in the paint with their backs to the perimeter. They treated his drive like a crisis.

When Beverley skipped the ball out to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the wing, Thompson left his feet (second mistake) to close out on a rookie not known for his jumper. That left Landry Shamet, aka JJ Redick Jr,. wide open in the corner.

The Warriors revolutionized the NBA in so many different ways, but over the past five years, the strongest pillar propping up their dynastic run was the tried and true belief that defense wins championships. Since 2015, only the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz had a lower regular-season defensive rating. Before this year’s run, they finished first, seventh, second, and first in defensive rating among 16 playoff teams. But heading into Monday night’s Game 5, the Warriors had the 11th-best defense these playoffs, a precipitous freefall that can’t be explained by Durant’s absence.

Since they won the title in 2015, the Warriors only allowed more than 110 points per 100 possessions in two playoff series: their first-round matchup against the Portland Blazers back in 2016 and the 2017 NBA Finals. This year alone, three of their four opponents – Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, and Raptors – cleared a 110 offensive rating with ease. Toronto’s 115.1 offensive rating heading into Game 5 was the highest these Warriors have allowed in any series, per’s database.

Of course, competition matters. The Warriors squared off against offenses that were led by Leonard, Damian Lillard, James Harden, and — last but not least— Lou Williams. They finished the regular season as the second- (Rockets), fourth- (Blazers), sixth- (Raptors), and eighth-best offenses (Clippers) in the entire league. Golden State ran through what professional scientists often call “a gauntlet.”

Some of their lack of defensive success can be explained by luck from deep. Before Game 5 of the Finals, those four teams made just under 41 percent of their wide-open threes against Golden State. Last year, the Warriors allowed 36.9 percent, then 36.4, 39.8, and 37.1 in previous years on similar shots. Still, while the NBA playoffs were a different world five years ago, this Warriors team has given up nearly six more wide-open threes per game in these playoffs than they did during that initial run.

Thanks to some critical and uncharacteristic Warriors mental meltdowns, Toronto’s passing has at times been reminiscent of the 2014 Spurs.

In four iconic postseasons heading into this one, Golden State allowed only 100.8 points per possession on all plays when the other team was responding to their own made basket. In other words, the Warriors were impervious to a counter punch. This year has been different: Golden State has allowed a miserable 112.6 points per 100 possessions on similar situations.

No team has taken advantage more than the Raptors. They’ve pushed off makes (and misses), repeatedly jabbing a team that’s used to having a clean chin. Here’s an example:

The Warriors have looked exhausted, a step slow, and, at times, broken. The intelligence hasn’t gone anywhere, but when Green isn’t on the floor, they crumble in ways they haven’t in the past. That aggression and tenacity that opposing teams have feared for so long no longer exists for 48 minutes.

If they’re going to bounce back and improbably win it all, again, without Durant, they’ll need to reach down deep and rekindle the most vital part of their pedigree: a championship-level defense.