Up 2-1 with two more home games, the Golden State Warriors have to be feeling good. But, they have one nagging problem: Ty Lawson.
Lawson struggled in Game 1, but he has consistently abused the Warriors’ defense, setting up teammates and scoring himself. In Game 3, Lawson exploded for 35 points on 22 field goal attempts and 11 free throw attempts.
While Lawson has been effective in transition, and isolated on several possessions, the majority of his offense has been generated through the pick and roll. According to mysynergysports.com, Lawson ends 34.5 percent of his possessions as the pick and roll ball handler. In these situations, Lawson scores 0.89 points per play, 23rd best in the league. The Warriors had the league’s 13th best defense by points per play, but struggled to defend the pick and roll ball handler, allowing 0.83 points per play, which ranks 25th in the league.
The Warriors generally ice pick and rolls, especially when Bogut is involved. This is a good strategy for slowing the ball handler while giving the big man time to recover to the roll man, but forces the big man to attempt to contain the ball handler before the guard can recover. Against the lightning-quick Lawson, the Warriors have struggled.
The Nuggets are often criticized for lacking a complex offense. Their possessions often devolve into a simple high pick and roll with little organized off ball movement. But in the last two games against the Warriors, at least when Lawson plays, this has been effective. In Games 2 and 3, the Nuggets have scored 124 and 128 points per 100 possessions with Lawson in the game. The play shown above demonstrates many of the options the Nuggets have available out of the high pick and roll.
Jarrett Jack is supposed to prevent Lawson from using Kenneth Faried’s screen, but is too far from Faried, who simply moves to the other side of Jack. In typical “ice” fashion, Bogut sags off the screen, hoping to prevent Lawson from getting to the basket. But because the screen was set so high, Bogut is forced to extend all the way to the elbow, far enough that Lawson has space to get by him. With Jack hung up on the screen, there is several feet of space between Lawson and any Warriors defenders, leaving Lawson wide open for a mid-range jump shot. Lawson shot 40.3 percent from mid-range this season, but since the All-Star break, he has made an incredible 52.4 percent of his mid range attempts, per to NBA.com.
Lawson chooses to drive at the retreating Bogut, forcing, Harrison Barnes to decide between cutting off the drive and staying on Wilson Chandler, a 41.3 percent three-point shooter. Barnes hesitates for a moment, ample time for Lawson to burn Bogut and get the rim with only Stephen Curry to defend him.
This is Lawson’s shot chart through the first three games of the series. Lawson has attempted 24 shots at the rim, and only 7 from mid-range. Though many of his at the rim shots come from transition opportunities, the Warriors have done a poor job at forcing Lawson into taking mid-range jump shots.
Lawson has shot a high percentage on these attempts recently, allowing him to get all the way to the basket draws help defenders, and compromises the Warriors far more than a hopefully semi-contested jump shot would.
Andrew Bogut is not yet mobile enough to contain Lawson beyond the free throw line, forcing the Warriors to find another method of defending one of the fastest players in the league. In the last few months of the regular season, and sporadically throughout the series with the Nuggets, the Warriors have defended point guards with the 6’7 Klay Thompson. Like nearly every player in the league, Thompson is not quick enough to defend Lawson without help, but his size does allow him to be more effective in preventing Lawson from using screens and contesting pull up jump shots while remaining in position to deny the drive.
Thompson may be able to slow Lawson, but defending any good scorer is a team effort. As Zach Lowe detailed for Grantland, NBA defenses are almost always under-help.
With Wilson Chandler out of the picture just crossing half court, Harrison Barnes should position himself at the free throw line and at least a step closer to Lawson, directly in his driving lane. Also, Bogut should step off Javale McGee and into the center of the line. Though he my fear another embarrassment at the hands of McGee, discouraging Lawson from penetrating should be the priority. In both this play and the play previously shown, Harrison Barnes should be much more aggressive with his help defense. Helping “one pass away” is a generally flawed practice, but intelligent positioning that allows a defender to guard his man and affect the ball handler will be necessary in the Warriors efforts to defend Lawson.