Mar 20, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili (20) gets fouled while shooting against Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) during the first half at the AT

In the clutch: Golden State Warriors

The Golden State Warriors are one of the most effective fourth quarter teams in the NBA.

Take a minute or two to let that to sink in.

The 2013 squad’s performance in the closing minutes of tight games should come as a surprise. After all, the Warriors had a miserable 12-26 record in close games last year. That team shot only 40.5 percent from the field in clutch situations[1], and its defense surrendered 19.3 more points than they scored per 100 possessions.

This year, a well-rounded roster and stable playing time for younger players like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes has led to stronger performances in the fourth quarter. That, in turn, has kept the Warriors from giving up leads or falling short in situations where they would have almost certainly faltered in previous years.

The Warriors are plus-37 points in 151 minutes of qualifying clutch situations this year, according to NBA.com, and advanced metrics show that the team actually outperforms its usual production on both ends of the floor when games come down to the wire.

Golden State’s crunch time defense holds opponents to only 96.4 points per 100 possessions, 6.1 points less than what they average normally. The tighter effort on the defensive end hasn’t appeared to have any effect on offense, where the Warriors score at an impressive clip of 108.6 points per 100 possessions, compared to only 104 points/100 possessions normally. To put that in perspective, if Golden State were able to sustain that rate of scoring on a regular basis, they would have the third most potent offensive in the league behind only the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat.

The crunch time improvements on offense and defense net the Warriors more than 12 points per 100 possessions in the final five minutes of close games (they usually net +1.5 points over opponents per 100 possessions), an extremely impressive differential that puts Golden State behind only Oklahoma City, Miami, Indiana and Denver in terms of clutch performance.

That 12 point differential can be attributed to two factors.

First, although Golden State still struggles to convert from the field in the clutch (40.3% FG, 32.4% 3FG), they’ve gotten remarkably better at getting to the line. The Warriors average 0.97 free throw attempts per minute in clutch situations, and they’ve converted on 83 percent of those attempts (second best in the league, behind Oklahoma City’s absurdly efficient 90.1 percent).  Last year, Golden State averaged only 0.6 attempts per minute and shot a DeMarcus Cousins-esque 73.4 percent on those attempts.

The Warriors’ newfound ability to get to the line is due in no small part to the development of Stephen Curry into a full time point guard, as well as the addition of Jarrett Jack, who has emerged as a front runner in this year’s Sixth Man of the Year Award contest. Both players, especially Curry, have shown a willingness to attack the paint that previous Warriors squads lacked (as everyone who has seen Monta Ellis pull up from mid-range can attest). Players who get to the rim are more likely to draw shooting fouls, and as even the most casual NBA will tell you, close games are often decided by free throws.

Secondly, Mark Jackson has come into his own as an NBA coach. Jackson’s ability to manage his timeouts and deploy defensive specialists like Kent Bazemore, Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli in the closing minutes of games eliminates some of the defensive liabilities that come with lineups featuring Curry and David Lee. Green, in particular, has managed to earn regular minutes despite shooting only .328 from the floor because of his ability to play smart, defense-first basketball.

The latter point explains why the Warriors are not able net plus-12.1 points per 100 possessions outside of clutch situations. The high volume of fouls and timeouts that occur during the fourth quarter allow Jackson to swap out lineups on a regular basis, and as excellent as Bazemore, Green or Ezeli can be in limited minutes, you wouldn’t want any of those players getting offensive touches for an extended length of time. On the opposite end, we now know exactly how bad David Lee is at defense, and keeping him in the lineup when opponents have possession in the final minutes exposes the Warriors to any number of offensive attacks.

Overall, Golden State averages only 1.5 points more than they allow per 100 possessions, which sandwiches them between the Atlanta Hawks (42-33) and the Los Angeles Lakers (39-36) for 11th in the league. That being said, their ability to turn it on in the fourth has clearly had a pronounced effect in keeping them from falling in the standings.

 


[1] Close/Clutch applies to situations when the lead is less than five points with five or fewer minutes remaining.

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