As the Golden State Warriors prepare to embark on their first playoff journey since 2006-07, the team's defense will be a huge key to any potential playoff upset.
According to a telling statistic from GSW Stats, the numbers support the notion that the Warriors are far tougher to beat when they ramp up their stopping power:
Warriors improve to 16-2 when holding the opposition below 40% from the field this year, holding Hornets to 39.8%— #GSWStats (@gswstats) April 4, 2013
Really, though, that figure is somewhat misleading. Every team sports a better record when its opponents don't shoot the ball well. That's sort of how basketball works; when the other team struggles to score, it's easier to score more than they do.
Not exactly rocket science, right?
But for the Warriors, who've been plagued by some stomach-turning defensive numbers in recent years, a little more stopping power means a lot.
In the four seasons prior to this one, the Dubs had ranked no better than 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency in any year. They were 26th last season, 26th in 2010-11, 29th in 2009-10 and 28th in 2008-09.
Golden State is hardly a defensive juggernaut now, but they're certainly a far more balanced outfit than they've been in years. With a defensive rating of 102.4, the Warriors check in at No. 12 in the league, which is a nice complement to their No. 10 offense.
It'll take more than balance to knock off the Denver Nuggets in a first-round series, though.
A lot could change between now and the end of the regular season, but if the playoffs started today, the Dubs would be facing an extremely tough matchup with George Karl's high-octane club. Defense is always important in the postseason, but against the fast-breaking Nuggets, it's a life-or-death necessity.
This season, Denver's offense has been the fourth most efficient in the league, with an offensive rating of 107.5 points per 100 possessions. And when the Nuggets are at home, that figure spikes to 110.
If Golden State's guards—Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in particular—can't keep the Nuggets from relentlessly penetrating into the lane and starting the break, it could be a very short series for the Warriors. Denver thrives on points in the paint and transition opportunities, so unless the Dubs can find a way to turn the Nuggets into a perimeter-oriented offensive team, there's little hope of an upset.
For an idea of just how hard it is to keep the Nuggets from running and dominating inside, consider the following: Denver leads the NBA in points in the paint, points in transition and second-chance points.
Conversely, the Nuggets rank 25th in the league in three-point shooting, with an accuracy rate of just 34.1 percent on the season.
Golden State's objective should be clear: Keep Denver on the perimeter. Executing it will be another story, though.
The Warriors have lost three out of four matchups with the Nuggets this season, and even in their lone victory, a 106-105 win on Nov. 29, the Dubs didn't slow down Denver's offense.
Andrew Bogut's improving health should certainly help the Warriors combat Denver's endless supply of energetic bigs, but the Aussie won't be able to do it alone. And David Lee essentially negates every positive play Bogut provides on the interior.
Fortunately, there is some hope that the Dubs are moving their defense in the right direction of late.
In the month of March, Golden State played its best defense of the season, posting a defensive rating of 98.1. That figure is nearly four-and-a-half points per 100 possessions better than their rating for the season, so perhaps the Warriors are peaking defensively at the right time.
They'll have to be at least that sound on D to handle the Nuggets.
Really, though, the Warriors' biggest key to playoff success might have more to do with luck than anything else. If Denver slips up without Ty Lawson down the stretch, the L.A. Clippers could overtake it for the No. 3 spot in the West.
That'd mean the Warriors would get the Clips—and not the Nuggets—in the first round. With three wins in four tries against L.A. this year, the Dubs have got to be hoping that that occurs.
Clearly, Denver would provide the stoutest test for the Warriors' improved defense. But Golden State would probably prefer to postpone the examination as long as possible.