How to play defense, courtesy of the Spurs-Warriors game

Everybody was hoping for a more competitive game that what we saw on Monday night. But with two juggernauts like these squaring off, there is still a lot that can be gleaned from the game, particularly on the defensive end.

Both of these teams excel defensively because they have the ability to muck it up and squash the opposing team's ball movement. When that happens, you get into isolation situations, and the other team's efficiency dives off a cliff. So, how exactly do they throw a wrench into the other team's ball-movement machine? There are a few ways, and they're all fairly fundamental:

1. Hands up.
2. Play the angles.
3. Don't overreact.


"Hands up on defense" is something preached by every coach from pre-school to the pros. It's as fundamental as getting in your defensive stance, or seeing your man and the ball. The reason for this is that it cuts off passing lanes, and can even lead to a tipped ball when your attention is elsewhere. After the Spurs squash the first action the Warriors run, watch Danny Green break up a would-be Klay Thompson layup, just by having a hand in the passing lane.

I'm not even sure if Green knew the pass was coming, but he knew where the ball was, and where it would have to go to hit his man.

But it wasn't just the Spurs making plays like these. Curry did a fantastic job of keeping a hand in the passing lane. Here, he keeps a hand up as Tony Parker dives around a screen for a handoff. It's enough to disrupt the play and force the Spurs to start from scratch with a shortened shot clock.

Here, Draymond gets right up on Aldridge with his...everybody say it now... hands up, seriously cutting off Aldridge's passing lanes, while Barnes simultaneously disrupts Kawhi's cut to the basket (hands up). Then when the Spurs try to reset the offense, from the elbow it's Curry lurking in the passing lane again. Against a weaker defensive team, Aldridge would have had a nice feed to West or Kawhi under the hoop.

Curry does it again below. There's not even anything particularly exceptional about this play. He's just paying attention, and has his...

...HANDS UP! Now, watch the difference between the play above, and the one below.

In this play, Parker does a nice job at first, cutting off Curry's potential drive. The problem arises after the pick and roll. Curry dribbles to the elbow area, and as Parker recovers back to his man, both Aldridge and Parker are caught with their hands down. This gives Curry the perfect chance to get a pass back to the middle, where the spurs are outnumbered. If they had their hands up, Curry would have been forced to wait, or to throw a less direct pass to Green, giving the Spurs more time to rotate back into position.


Something that the Warriors did exceptionally well, was not give the Spurs any good angles for passing. Whether they were switching a pick, fighting around a screen, or fronting the post, the Warriors never made anything easy for the Spurs. Below, watch how Iguodala beats Kawhi Leonard to the block and denies the post entry. Then, as Danny Green drives, Iguodala knows that Danny Green no longer has a passing angle to Kawhi, so he drifts over and cuts off the passing angle to Diaw.

Playing the passing angles is one of the things that makes Iguodala a great defender. Watch here, as he defends the pick and roll. At first he gets hung up on the screen, but as he recovers to Tony Parker, he comes in at an angle (with his hands up) that makes the pass to David West difficult. Tony Parker is forced to hold the ball for an extra second or two, which is enough time for Festus Ezeli to recover and rotate back to West. Unfortunately, Ezeli closes out very poorly here, but the only reason he even had a chance to get the stop was because Iguodala made the pass to West difficult.

Similarly, watch the pick and roll below. After he sets the pick, Kawhi does a great job of sealing Harrison Barnes and keeping him topside. However, the angle that Curry takes to recover to Parker completely destroys that passing lane, and effectively shuts down what would have been a sure dunk for Kawhi. The Spurs are forced to move on to a secondary, lower percentage option.

Of course, the Warriors aren't the only ones who can cut off a passing angle. Watch the Herculean effort of Tony Parker as he gets switched onto Draymond Green. First, he cuts off the immediate drop pass from Curry, and then does a spectacular job of fronting the post, with a little help from David West who drops back to cover the back end.

Now watch how quickly this play materializes after the Warriors change their passing angles. At first, the Spurs seem to be doing fine as Mo Speights catches the ball with his back to the basket 20 feet out. The problem comes when Danny Green switches onto Klay Thompson. At the exact time of the switch, Danny's positioning is fine. He is in no danger of getting scored on, because there's no way Speights has a passing angle to a cutting Thompson. However, Speights makes a quick pass out to the top, and now the angles are completely different. Draymond delivers the ball quickly, and Danny just doesn't have time to recover.

Playing the passing angles properly is one of the things that makes the Warriors' and Spurs' defense elite.


Playing great defense is as much about what you don't do, as it is about what you do. By, "Don't overreact," I mean everything from "close out under control" to "don't double when you don't need to." Generally speaking, this is something that both teams are very good at, although the Spurs struggled with it a bit last night.

To see what happens when you overreact, let's look at a couple of bad defensive plays from [GASP!] Kawhi Leonard. In this first play, Parker gets switched onto Iguodala, which is going to be a problem. Iggy is big, and Parker is definitely going to need some help defending the post. However, notice that when Iguodala catches the pass, he seems to have no intention of scoring at all as he holds it over his head. Despite this, Kawhi elects to double team from under the basket, leaving his man all alone. Instead, Kawhi should have waited until Iguodala was not so pass ready; he probably would have tried to back Parker down if this had played out, which would have been a perfect time.

The next one is a similar sort of play, and although Draymond is in a more aggressive stance, he is still 15 feet away from the basket, and with Draymond's passing ability, you just can't double off a man under the basket.

In contrast, watch how much control the Spurs play with on this play. Notice how nobody helps any more than they need to. In particular, when Curry drives, West gives just enough help to make Curry think twice without leaving Bogut wide open. And then as Barnes drives, the Spurs all know that Kawhi has got it under control, so they can all stay home on their men and cut off any hope of a pass. Plays like these are why the spurs have a historically good defense.

Here is a great example of how a Warriors overreaction leads to an easy basket. As Patty Mills brings the ball up, all eyes are on him. So, when he probes to the elbow, both Ezeli and Barnes shade that way. Then Mills uses the double screen to get open at the top of the arc and lets one fly. On this play Ezeli has overreacted, and although it seems minor at the time, it quickly leads to a 3-pointer that would have been huge in a closer game.

The Spurs and Warriors are playing championship level defense, and the keys to doing it are very fundamental. Keep your hands up. Cut off the passing lanes. Don't overreact.

Now, all that being said, there's not much you can do against this kind of thing, and if Steph is going to do this every night, then good luck to the rest of the league.

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