The Green layup put the warriors up 11 as the clock ticked under two minutes. The game and the Mavericks’ legitimate chances of winning the series were fading. A 3-0 series lead in the West finals had essentially been clinched. A moment of relaxation seemed warranted for the Warriors.
Curry apparently took it. On the ensuing defensive possession, Reggie Bullock set a simple screen up top, and instead of hedging onto Luka Doncicas the current defensive scheme instructed, Curry just wandered into the lane with a cutting Dorian Finney-Smithletting Dončić step into a wide-open 3 to cut the lead to eight.
Despite the Doncic splash, Dallas was still in trouble. The Warriors had an eight-point lead plus possession with only 109 seconds left. It’d take a miracle to pry the win from them. But Steve Kerr wouldn’t allow the mistake to go unchecked. He called an immediate timeout and lit into his superstar guard, who has never scoffed at tough coaching.
“The whole point of the game in that stretch is no 3s and no fouls,” Kerr said. “We talk about it all the time. When the game calls for that, you get up (on guys), you don’t fall asleep. We’ve got one of the greatest players in the world coming down. He makes 3s in his sleep. The game isn’t over. We just let him walk into a 3-pointer.”
In the grand scheme, the importance of the play vanished within moments. Jordan Poole hit a 3 to seal it. The Warriors went up 3-0 in the series with a 109-100 win. They’re a win from the Finals. But it’s that type of timeout from Kerr that spoke to the urgency with which he has coached in this clinical conference finals takedown of the Mavericks.
“This was the one we felt like we had to get,” Kerr said. “Coming here, up 2-0, you’ve got to take advantage of your momentum. You can’t let a team back in.”
Kerr’s rotation was delivered a concerning blow in the second quarter. Otto Porter Jr. — who has been the Warriors’ second-best bench player the past two weeks — came down awkwardly on a layup and injured his left foot. X-rays were negative. More testing will determine the severity in the next 24 hours. But Porter missed the second half on Sunday night.
That left a vacancy in Porter’s usual spot, entering in the middle of the third quarter. Kerr went to Moses Moody, the rookie who had been out of the rotation all playoffs before the past two games. Kerr’s staff remembered Moody’s solid performance against the Mavericks in March. They had a hunch he could help in this series. They went with it. Like several other coaching choices, it has worked.
There was a timeout before Moody entered the game in the third quarter. During it, Mike Brown decided to switch up the defenses. He wanted to throw a look at Dončić that he hadn’t seen yet. So they discussed the box-and-1 with Moody guarding Dončić. Before the timeout huddle split, Green spent some time explaining to Moody how best to guard Dončić.
Here are the first 10 seconds of that defensive possession. Moody starts out in the corner, face-guarding Doncic away from the ball. Dončić, probably a bit surprised the Warriors are guarding him with a rookie despite Andrew Wiggins being on the court, cuts to the top of the key to get the ball and attack his matchup.
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, picks up his dribble and passes out of it. This possession eventually ended in a late-clock contested miss from Spencer Dinwiddie†
The Warriors stayed in the box-and-1 look for only five possessions. It produced the preferred results — three points, four stops, zero shot attempts from Dončić and a live-ball turnover. Then Brown shifted the Warriors out of it and moved on to another look.
“When you’re playing against a guy like Luka, you just never want to give him a steady diet of anything,” Green said. “You can pick what you think is the absolute best coverage against a guy and you keep doing that. Let’s say it works and it works and it works. If you keep doing it, a guy like that, he’s going to figure it out. You want to try to keep him off balance.”
The Warriors’ base defense this series has been man-on-man with Wiggins guarding Dončić. In the regular season, they switched a ton against the Mavericks, which allowed Dončić to target Curry and Poole to great success. The staff recognized this in the lead-up to the series and made sure to instruct Curry and Poole to hedge out and recover, while allowing Kevon Looney to switch.
“We don’t want to just fall into switches,” Green said. “That’s what they want. So I think our coaching staff did an incredible job, as they always do. I told y’all before, I have never gone into a playoff game feeling like I wasn’t prepared or another team was better prepared than us. Our coaching staff continues to do an amazing job, and, equally as important, guys are following the game plan.”
There is also a need to adjust within games if necessary. The Mavericks roasted the Warriors in the first half of Game 2, utilizing the Bullock guard-to-guard screen for Dončić. Curry was guarding Bullock and attempting to hedge and recover. Bullock has a quick trigger. The Mavericks kept getting Bullock open for catch-and-shoot 3s, freeing him up to get it off before Curry could get back.
The Warriors staff discussed it at halftime and switched up defensive assignments. The Warriors put Klay Thompson on Bullock and Curry on Finney-Smith. Finney-Smith is a catch-and-shoot threat from the corner, but he doesn’t have nearly as quick and accurate a release in pick-and-pop settings at the top of the key. Dallas could no longer exploit that matchup. It’s probably been the most important adjustment of the series, to this point.
“There’s a lot of communication because we switch defenses a lot throughout the game,” Curry said. “But what we’re trying to do is pretty straightforward in terms of giving Luka a lot of different looks because he has the ball in his hands pretty much every possession. … But from man to zone to box or whatever it is, those are pretty straightforward defenses that we’ve practiced pretty much all year.”
That last point is key. Kerr met with Brown in the summer to discuss handing the defense over to him. Brown spent the past few seasons in charge of offensive schemes but has a stronger defensive reputation. Within 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 had never even practiced it, just drew it up in the huddle,” Kerr told The Athletic in Nov. “But that’s the thing about it. It’s really simple. You just have to have a couple of basic rules. We didn’t do it again the rest of the year. We hardly do it now. But the overall theme is how you can disrupt teams from their patterns. That’s what Mike, I and the staff have learned the last couple years as the league has gotten more and more difficult defensively.”
So the Warriors told all their players in training camp that they’d be switching up defenses more often throughout the regular season.
“I just felt like the NBA game is so rhythmic and pattern-oriented, and these players all run the same stuff,” Kerr said in November. “You go from one game to the next and everyone is running high screen-and-roll, high pins, all the same stuff. You see these patterns. So to be able to mix it up is important. There is so much shooting, it’s hard to guard everyone man-to-man and still take teams out of their rhythm. Teams are used to seeing blitzes. When they get used to playing against certain things, it gets harder to break a rhythm. So we decided to do more stuff to break rhythm.”
That has never been more important than this Dallas series. Green agreed that this is the most the Warriors have ever switched up defenses on the fly during games. It’s a point Jason Kidd made recently, expressing how impressed he was that the Warriors didn’t need timeouts to switch up schemes. They’d just look over to the sideline at Brown barking out signals.
“We try to designate a guy or two to kind of look over at Mike on the way back every time because he’s changing the calls,” Green said. “And so like I said, it’s something that we’ve practiced all year where he’ll come to myself, he’ll come to Otto, he’ll come to Andre when Andre was playing and say, ‘Hey, you got to look at me because I’m changing defenses.’ It’s kind of like a defensive coordinator sending a signal to a middle linebacker and they are sending the signal on to the other guys. It’s been effective for us.”
The Warriors held the Mavericks to 22, 25 and 21 points in the first three quarters of a desperate Game 3 for Dallas. The Warriors played poorly on offense in the first half but led by one entering the locker room because they continue to keep the Mavericks out of rhythm.
The Warriors used a zone defense on 17 possessions in Game 3. The Mavericks scored on only five of them. Here’s one of the 12 stops. It ends in a Maxi Kleber 3.
Kleber and Bullock went a combined 0 of 15 overall and 0 of 12 from 3. The Warriors, unlike the previous two series, have been fine with the role players beating them, making the correct calculation that they couldn’t often enough.
“It’s fun to go to battle with (Kerr) because very rarely does he fail,” Green said. “Very rarely do I go into a game thinking he didn’t give us an amazing game plan. The confidence he has around this time of year is incredible. You feed off it. He feels confident about our game plan, so you feel confident about the game plan. Then you go play hard and execute.
“He’s been an incredible coach to play for in these situations. He and his coaching staff prepare us for everything. … It feels a lot like I felt at Michigan State. There was not going to be a team that comes 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)