The Warriors are led by sharpshooting guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and played at the fastest pace in the league during the regular season, according to NBA.com. The Grizzlies pound the ball inside to their two post-up beasts, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, while playing at the fourth-slowest pace.
Golden State relies on many like-size players to deftly switch screens. Each of Memphis' starters fits into more traditional position roles, and their team defense is more aggressive in sticking with predetermined man assignments.
This clash of styles should make for an intriguing showdown as each team tries to impose its will on the other. Golden State will look to increase the tempo and take more risks on both ends of the floor; Memphis will try to grind everything to a halt and duke it out in the half court.
Golden State, despite its 67-win season and league-best 98.2 defensive rating, via NBA.com, has found itself in trouble against post-capable teams. Although Memphis only nabbed one out of three matchups against the Warriors this season, the Gasol-Randolph tandem dominated with 41 points in the lone win.
On the surface, the numbers seem to indicate that Golden State can more than handle opposing big men down low. According to Synergy Sports, they rank sixth in the league at defending the post one-on-one.
But in the context of the Grizzlies-Warriors series, that number is a bit misleading. Few teams feature dual threats on the block, and Memphis is one of them. Andrew Bogut, the interior big primarily responsible for the team's prowess in defending the post, cannot guard Gasol and Randolph at the same time.
That's why the first decision the Warriors face is how to handle the automatic mismatch they face in their starting lineup. Though Harrison Barnes might technically be the team's starting power forward, it's Draymond Green who usually handles the more physical and difficult defensive assignments.
Lower body strength determines the ground for battle in post-up play. Green might give up more inches than most post defenders, but few NBA players can outwork him for position and back him down with the ball. Barnes can contest post shots more easily with his height, but that factor becomes obsolete when Randolph or Gasol operate right around the rim.
Zach Lowe of Grantland noted earlier this season how Green has evolved into a great post defender: "Green is undersize in terms of height but has proven he’s a real power forward. He fights like all hell, he has a solid foundation, and he uses his long arms to get reaching shot blocks against post-up guys who can move him closer to the basket."
Golden State head coach Steve Kerr compared Green to his old Chicago Bulls teammate, Dennis Rodman, via Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News: "I think Draymond has a lot of Dennis Rodman in him. He defies positions, he guards anybody, he’s quick enough to stay in front of point guards; he’s big and strong and tough at the rim and rebounds like crazy."
That's why it's Green, and not Barnes, who will withstand and dish out body blows against Memphis.
The problem, however, is that Randolph can bully anyone—Green included. If Green starts on Gasol, the five inches he concedes will clear space for clean looks at the rim and unbothered vision passing from the elbows.
In earlier matchups, Green has found himself on both players. When the post has been single-covered, Green has struggled. The height discrepancy against Gasol provides an easy target for post entries, and Marc only has to stick a big paw up in the air for the catch. If he flashes to the block on the move, Green doesn't even have time to use his only counter weapon—his strength.
That's what happens here on a "duck-in" toward the middle of the paint. It's a tactic in which a post player hovering near the baseline on the weak side quickly uses a swim move in front of his defender to establish deep post position.
For the Grizzlies, the duck-in is a common maneuver for high-low opportunities. On this play from a regular-season Grizzlies-Warriors matchup, Randolph catches the ball off a pick-and-pop as Gasol ducks in from the weak side.
The threat of Randolph's capable mid-range jumper draws Bogut away from the hoop, forcing him to take a high angle of recovery. Instead of sliding back toward a spot near the paint, he has to respect the possibility of a Randolph catch-and-shoot jumper.
This, in turn, gives Gasol room to duck in unencumbered. Throw in the height discrepancy, and Randolph hits him easily six feet from the rim:
At this point in the play, Golden State can only rely on luck. Gasol's full array of post moves are available to him, and the help isn't quite there. He opts for a turnaround jumper, which Green is barely able to bother:
Golden State must send help. Good teams try to vary their post coverages to throw off offensive bigs, and the Warriors are likely to do just that.
They could double the Green-guarded player on the catch; they could stunt at the Memphis post player but not double, with the aim of keeping him off balance; they could wait for the second dribble to double-team, the moment at which most offensive players drop their heads and lose sight of the floor.
It's just that the Warriors struggle when they redirect defenders toward the interior. They thrive at walling everything off on the perimeter with their constant switching, denying of penetration and nullifying screening action with players effectively zoning up on the outside.
Synergy Sports lists Golden State at 25th in the league on defensive possessions in the post when the defense "commits," a catch-all phrase for when help arrives. Opponents shot 46.2 percent in such situations, and an astounding 59.2 percent when factoring in three-point shots. In an attempt to prevent easy shots near the basket, Golden State wound up opening up the three-point line as a consequence.
To make matters worse, Gasol and Randolph are veterans who have seen every type of post coverage in the book. Gasol is clearly the more skillful passer of the two, but Golden State cannot sleep on Randolph's ability to read help and throw well-timed kick-out passes.
Take this play from a recent game against the Utah Jazz, when Dante Exum "digs"—the term for lurching-type movements at a post player from the perimeter that isn't actually a true double-team—from the top on a Randolph post-up.
The Utah defense shifts to help Exum because he has strayed well away from his man, Beno Udrih. Notice how Rudy Gobert, Gasol's man, is remaining higher up the floor rather than patrolling the paint. If Randolph fires the ball back out to Udrih, Gobert has more than enough time to rotate:
Randolph, meanwhile, doesn't immediately react to the pressure. It's more difficult to read the defense while maintaining a dribble, so he keeps the ball protected on his shoulder instead. He's waiting to see whether Exum is going to fully commit or back off.
A second passes, and Exum doesn't move. He might not be in a full double-team, but it's clear that he's more concerned with Randolph than Udrih.
Udrih, per most teams' post spacing rules, slides along the three-point line toward Randolph to provide an easy outlet. Still, Randolph waits. He's also peering at Gobert out of the corner of his eye to assess his movements.
Randolph pounces the moment Gobert sinks too far into the paint. With Gobert's momentum carrying him away from the hoop and Udrih repositioned, there's no way Utah's help can protect against an easy three-point shot.
And on the pass, Udrih is wide-open:
You can truly appreciate the expert timing of Randolph's pass when watching the play at full speed. Gobert is so caught off guard that he doesn't even try to recover. It's Rodney Hood who desperately sprints to the perimeter:
An immediate counterargument would note that Memphis doesn't shoot the ball particularly well, and Golden State will live with Memphis firing three-pointers. This mostly misses the point, however. Having defenders fly at shooters leads to scrambling and chaos, and it's always easier to penetrate when attacking a closeout.
Memphis will certainly take some of these open three-pointers to keep Golden State honest, but the more dangerous option is a pump fake and drive, leading to secondary penetration and interior passing against rotations.
This is how the Grizzlies can, at worst, generate even more wide-open shots from three. At best, they're getting on the rim for layups and dump-off passes.
These types of massive help rotations happened all the time in the earlier matchups between the teams.
In a play from their March 27th matchup, Barnes immediately abandons his man to rotate on the baseline when Randolph starts bulldozing his way to the paint with power dribbles against Green. Curry also shifts from a dig to complete on-ball pressure from the top.
Curry isn't big enough to muck up Randolph's vision, and Randolph is able to sense the onslaught of defenders to find Mike Conley for the wide-open shot:
In an ideal defensive world, every player would guard his man in isolation without help. Every pick-and-roll would be contained by the two defensive players involved. Every post-up would be one-on-one on an island.
But the NBA is about matchups, and not all matchups are equal. Just as the Grizzlies will have to solve, or at least partially impede, Curry and Thompson, the Warriors will have to slow down Memphis' post play.
And while it's easy to game-plan rotations and plan for various scenarios, on-court situations usually lend themselves to chaos. Will the Grizzlies' perimeter players be able to knock down shots and punish Golden State for overhelping? Will Green and Bogut handle their business enough to prevent the need for help in the first place?
Whatever the case, Memphis can easily stretch this series to six or seven games through brute force down low. Their offensive formula is not complex, but Golden State will have to figure out a defensive answer.