The Warriors played their best game of the playoffs in their first must win game of the playoffs. While fans could argue that doing so earlier in this series would have made the last few days less stressful, it may be that the urgency of the moment was the impetus for a bold strategic decision.
Putting an unusual defender on Tony Allen has happened before (I remember the Spurs doing it) but using Andrew Bogut as the freelancer brought additional benefits for the defense that were incredibly important. For the last few years, Bogut has been one of the best rim protectors in the entire league with a specific strength of handling penetrators from the perimeter. Ron Adams and the Warriors coaching staff functionally did the defensive equivalent of making him “All-Time Quarterback” letting the Aussie focus on his greatest strength and covering it for the whole team. That only works if everyone else does their job and the opponent has someone like Allen out there but those circumstances presented themselves and the entire Golden State squad made it happen. As Nate Duncan said on our podcast after the game, the standard defensive alignment last night had no Warrior on their traditional positional assignment. That is remarkable and shows how even a great defensive team can adjust to an opponent. This change also benefits the Warriors on offense because having everyone cross-matched means that no Grizzly starts a possession on their desired cover, leading to problems in transition. Golden State exacerbated this problem (as suggested in this space) by running more frequently off makes. Lots of positive adjustments after a disappointing Game Two where the Warriors looked unprepared for a full strength Memphis team.
Folks on Twitter have asked whether Memphis can counter this strategy and there are a few different approaches that I expect to see more in Game Five. First, using Tony Allen as a frequent screener can work because it forces the Golden State screenee to make it through without too much help since Bogut will be away from the action. Doing so will produce looks but not great ones because the Grizzlies do not have many strong three point shooters and will have trouble getting good shots at the rim because permanent rim protector Bogut has been sitting on it the whole time. The other Allen option is to have him drive more often but with the mentality of a passer rather than a scorer. When the Grindfather uses the open space to look for his shot, the Warriors will let him have it but moving closer to the rim could activate Golden State’s help instincts (a big tenet of their defensive philosophy going back to the Jackson/Malone days) and generate some easy looks for other guys. That would be asking quite a bit of a player who has never been a strong passer- in fact, Allen’s assist to turnover ratio hovers at around even which is not great for a perimeter player.
One Warrior I wanted to single out for positive attention is Harrison Barnes. He was asked to do a ton defensively as Zach Randolph’s initial, primary defender and delivered. The Black Falcon succeeded at fronting Z-Bo and holding his ground long enough for the help to get there when needed. That move allowed for the Warriors to keep more consistent pressure on Randolph and he ended up converting 43 touches (twenty-five less than Game Three) into twelve points, zero assists and four turnovers. Using a player with less help responsibilities and a smaller offensive role for such a tough assignment makes a ton of sense and HB was clearly up to the task. If he can come even close to replicating that success, it will be hard for Memphis to sustain enough offense to stay afloat.
This series is incredibly far from over but the Warriors now have a blueprint effective enough that the Grizzlies will need to develop counters and use some less than ideal configurations in order to take back home court advantage. By making the right moves in Game Four, Golden State took control of the series but they still need to turn control into wins against a quality opponent.