OAKLAND — “Honestly,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said, “the only time I was really worried was the last week of the season.”
Kerr sat in the gym after a two-game road trip feeling confident and reflective Monday afternoon. His team had taken a 3-1 series lead on the New Orleans Pelicans the previous night, and played some of the best defense it’s played all season. The Warriors gave up only 92 points in Game 4 to the Pelicans, who averaged 113.5 points at home during the regular season.
For the past month, the Warriors have played championship-caliber defense. Their defensive rating through nine playoff games is 99.4 — best in the NBA. So, it’s easy to forget how terrible their defense was just a few weeks ago.
From April 5 to April 10 — the final stretch of the regular season — the Warriors gave up 126 points to the Indiana Pacers, 126 points to the Pelicans and 119 points to the Utah Jazz, and lost all three games. The Warriors’ defensive rating during that stretch was 116.3 — fourth-worst in the NBA. And that was with Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. They were all healthy.
“Our defense was so bad in Indiana and in Utah,” Kerr said. “There was absolutely a part of me that thought, ‘I don’t know if we can get our defense together.’ I knew we’d get our offense together, but defense requires a mentality and a spirit and a unity and a sense of purpose from the five guys on the floor, and we were just a shell of ourselves that last week.
“I did understand the concept and the fact that we weren’t playing for anything and that we had a lot of injuries. But, I had concerns.”
Those concerns disappeared during the first round of the playoffs when the Warriors shut down the San Antonio Spurs, a slow, methodical team that operates its offense through the post. The Warriors held them to fewer than 104 points in four out of five games.
Now, the Warriors are facing the Pelicans, much younger and faster than the Spurs, and playing a totally different style of offense. The Pelicans run up and down the court, playing speed basketball. But in Game 4 they had nowhere to run. The Warriors were waiting for them.
“(Our) group is very smart and versatile,” Kerr said. “And the key is the effort they bring. That’s what I always look for. And that’s what was very satisfying about (Game 4). We didn’t bring the necessary force in Game 3, we were threatened on the road, and our guys brought it and set a tone early.”
The Warriors gave up 119 points in Game 3 and lost. The defense was slipping. They needed to re-establish it, and they did in Game 4.
“Kevin Durant set the tone,” said Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry on a conference call Monday afternoon. “(Durant) wouldn’t leave Jrue (Holiday’s) body. He was really locked in. I thought he did a great job.”
Holiday missed his first two shots with Durant guarding him. The Pelicans began the first quarter shooting 2 for 11 from the field and fell behind 17-4. “That immediately put us in trouble,” Gentry said. “They came up with some good early stops, which allowed them an opportunity to run. Their rotations were great. They did a really good job of being physical with us. They did a much better job of running us off the (3-point) line.”