The Warriors unfurled a massive defensive abomination Wednesday night, and in such a case it’s always tempting to throw a big blanket of blame over the braided head of D’Angelo Russell.
That’s Russell’s reputation, right? That he’s a fantastic scorer, with the ability to create, but his languid defense is going to give away as many if not more points than he produces?
And, man, did Hornets guards Devonte Graham and Terry Rozier, both smallish by NBA standards, get theirs. They combined for 58 points, basically burying the Warriors under an avalanche of 3-pointers in Charlotte's 106-91 victory.
Of course, they did. Russell, after missing nine games, was back in the starting lineup. Such a conclusion was predictable.
Yet it is, in this instance, a thousand ways wrong.
Though Russell wasn’t not exactly locking down either Graham or Rozier, a lot of the damage they did came with him on the bench. Indeed, it’s not hyperbole to suggest the Warriors lost this game because Russell was on the bench.
The Warriors trailed by three, 71-68, when D-Lo took a seat with 6:17 remaining in the third quarter.
A little more than five minutes later, with Russell still on the bench, the Warriors were squinting at a 12-point deficit. By the time D-Lo returned early in the third quarter, they were down 15 and the slow fade was on.
“The late third quarter really killed us,” coach Steve Kerr told reporters in Spectrum Center. “We just didn’t have much traction defensively. We turned it over a few times, and they got some easy hoops and it was too bad because we started out the 3rd quarter really well. We just couldn’t stay in the game.”
What happened? Russell’s rest break – which, it must be noted, was simultaneous to that of Draymond Green – was greeted by a 3-pointer by Rozier, followed by a Rozier dunk off a turnover by backup guard Ky Bowman, followed by a Graham triple.
Graham finished with 33 points, with 10 triples. Rozier had 25 points, with five triples.
The separation created during that stretch crushed the Warriors and, moreover, told a story about their defense that extends well beyond the lapses that can be attributed to Russell.
The team that won championships with its defense – though the offense received greater acclaim – has only a couple players committed to full defensive engagement and that’s hardly enough to offset the generally poor habits on that end of the floor.
The holey defense of November, the one Kerr lambasted a couple weeks ago, has seeped into December.
Yeah, the roster has been fortified. After spending the past two weeks with eight or nine available players, the Warriors dressed 11 against Charlotte. But the broad gaps and slow rotations and flat-footed postures remained – along with communication that alternates between little and none.
“You can’t play defense without communicating,” Green said. “Next to just wanting to play defense, the most important thing is communicating. We’ve got to be better.”
Which is what was said opening night, when the Clippers rolled up 141 points. It was said after the Spurs rang up 127, after the Jazz hit 122 and the Lakers hit 120. It was fairly screamed two weeks ago, after the Mavericks went for 142 – with Russell out of the lineup.
This is not to excuse the offense, which often goes fully zombiesque, with little movement and possessions that seem to give up after one or two passes. That offense committed 17 turnovers Wednesday, giving the Hornets 23 points.
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When the offense is better, and Russell certainly will help, the defense should get better. But the habits can be there at all times, no matter what the offense is doing. Graham and Rozier often had enough time to shower before aiming and firing.
Kerr and his coaching staff are trying to be patient. Green, who lives for defense, is trying to stay optimistic. They all understand the team is in transition.
But must a tumble from the elite forgo defensive principles to such a degree that it plummets right past ordinary and into a place beneath the NBA’s cellar?