OAKLAND -- The Warriors have spent five weeks breaking the habit most essential to their success, and it’s a horrible look for a group with the lone goal of repeating as NBA champs.
They’ve spent four full seasons as a top-4 defense, grasping the significance of that aspect and using it to ignite an offense that shines brighter than any in the league. Even as the Warriors became synonymous with scoring they always knew their foundation was defense.
All too often lately their defense is softer than doctor’s cotton, if not altogether nonexistent. The Warriors have not forgotten how to play defense, but they go through prolonged stretches of games when it looks like they have.
“The first thing is we’re not taking care of the ball,” coach Steve Kerr told NBC Sports Bay Area after practice. “And then it’s about the detail. We’re getting beat on back cuts, boxouts and offensive rebounds. Our 3-point defense has dropped. We’re not challenging and we’re not closing out. And a lot of those 3-point shots come off offensive boards.
“As soon as our effort and our attention to detail picks up, we’re going to be right back where we were."
Which is why they spent a significant portion of Monday morning going over fundamental defensive principles.
“Just gentle film reminders; I don’t need to yell and scream,” Kerr said after practice. “We’re doing fine, but we’ve got to mix in some drill work and film work and prod them a little bit.”
Said Stephen Curry: “Boiling down to a possession game, and that’s turnovers and (rebounding). And then our defense, it’s just intensity and focus and the consistency of that game to game.”
The coaching staff also flashed some numbers that illustrate how their habit of playing solid defense has taken at least temporary absence, as if the Warriors left their defense in 2017.
“Our defensive rating...was way lower than it usually is,” Curry said rather sheepishly.
In the 16 games since the calendar turned to 2018, their 108.8 defensive rating ranks 24th in the NBA. The Knicks and Nets and Mavericks are among the teams that have been better. Moreover, the Warriors have allowed their 3-point defense to slide to 25th and their overall field-goal defense to 18th.
“It directly correlates to focus,” Draymond Green said. “And it’s that time of year where focus is a little hard to come by.”
Ron Adams, the assistant coach whose focus is on defense, is having difficulty understanding how the Warriors can allow themselves to so consistently fail at reaching their standard.
“Ron’s pissed,” Kerr, who doesn’t like the trend but is firm in his belief that he comprehends it, said.
Adams has been in the league 26 years. He recalls the likes of Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, players whose competitive edge always seemed to be razor sharp.
“I guess I’m old-school,” Adams said. “But it seems there should be level of pride that doesn’t go away. You’d think after losing a game, there would a higher degree of intensity for the next one. The results may not always be what you want, but you’d think the desire to be great should always be there.”
Kerr, however, actually was teammates with Jordan in Chicago. As much as he remembers Jordan’s fanatical desire to win at everything, he also concedes that the third year of success is more difficult than the second and the fourth more difficult than the third.
So Kerr’s rationalization is this: After three years of unparalleled regular-season success, an NBA team finds it more and more difficult to consistently gather the energy needed to sustain excellence. When discussing the challenges the Warriors face this season, he often references those great Bulls teams on which he played.
“Ron is not happy,” Kerr said. “But we’ll be all right. I know how this works, having been through it with the Bulls.”
Curry, however, expressed a note of caution. The Warriors cannot allow themselves to fall into the trap of believing they can coast through the regular season and then pull themselves together in the playoffs.
“Can’t wait that long,” he said. "I never like giving ourselves an out because I feel like we hold ourselves to a higher standard and that’s what’s put two (championship) banners up. We’ve changed the culture around here of what it means to be a winning team, consistently.
"But there’s a little bit of us fighting that human nature. We’re four years in a row into this grind. When I went out (with injury in December), the guys were top-5 defensively. We felt threatened and everybody did their part to win those games and handle that stretch.
“We know how to put the full package together and we’ve got (29) games to figure that out.”