Few teams have had success against the Golden State Warriors, but there is one unlikely team that laid the blueprint on how to beat the NBA's best.
The Golden State Warriors have only been beaten 17 times in 92 total games this season. Surprisingly, it was the Orlando Magic and now unemployed Head Coach Jacque Vaughn who authored the best strategy to slow the league’s best team. So what is the magical strategy to beat the Warriors?
In short, foul.
This is not the ‘Hack-A-Whoever’ featured so prominently in the Rockets-Clippers series. The Magic used fouls not to send the Warriors to the free-throw line, but rather to keep them off the three-point line. More specifically, the Magic used their fouls to stop Golden State from getting out in transition where the Warriors are highly effective and particularly lethal from beyond the arc. The Warriors are so adept at getting out in transition because they usually have four guys on the floor with guard-like athleticism who can all finish at the basket or find their favorite place along the arc. But many teams are effective in transition. Where Golden State excels, especially with MVP Stephen Curry, is in semi-transition. In semi-transition, Curry repeatedly finds cross matchups or uses drag screens at the top of the key to exploit off balance defenses, usually culminating in three points.
To proactively prevent this issue, the Magic fouled the Warriors nearly every time they were going to get out and run. Of course, the Magic avoided clear-path fouls and other blatant intentional fouling, but they did just enough to earn a whistle and slow the pace.
Charles Barkley often says, “You don’t live by jumpers, you die by jumpers”. Thus far, the Warriors have lived 75 times and only died 17 times with their long range jumpers. The Warriors have been able to make a liar out of Charles Barkley because they have some of the best shooters in the world getting easy jumpers in transition. Barkley’s thesis holds most true when teams are attempting difficult or contested jump shots.
The Magic believed the best way to force the Warriors into difficult shots was by eliminating easy shots that the Warriors find with regularity in transition. Without the ability to run into open space, the Warriors were forced to take their normal high allotment of threes against a set and ready Magic half-court defense. Against the Magic, the Warriors made only eight of 27 threes, good for 29.6%. On the season, the Warriors averaged the same exact amount of attempts (27.0) but made an average of 39.8% of such attempts (10.8 makes per game). Effectively, the Magic stole 8.4 points away from the Warriors by fouling to limit transition threes.
With this strategy working so effectively throughout the game, the Magic found themselves up by a score of 97 to 95, with under 40 seconds to play, with possession of the ball, in Oracle Arena. Naturally, this is what ensued…
The Magic abandoned the strategy that yielded tremendous results throughout the game, and Steph Curry hit what proved to be the game winning three.
As you may have noticed, the Warriors were in the bonus when Orlando elected not to foul in the closing seconds. While it is hard to condemn Vaughn and the Magic for not putting Curry on the free-throw line with the near certainty that he’d tie the game, that final possession illustrates a larger point. Point being, even though you know what the Warriors want to do, they put such extraordinary pressure on you (with pace, persistence, or elite shooting and dribbling) that it is nearly impossible to eliminate their strength entirely. Think about this. Pretend you are Tobias Harris on that final possession. You know there are less than ten seconds left in the game and a two-pointer cannot beat you (though it will likely force overtime). You also know the guy bearing down on you is one of the best shooters ever and if he gets a good look from three he’ll probably bury it. Still, because of the pace, the unnatural matchup, and a few threatening dribbles, Harris and the Magic give up the one shot that they can’t afford to give up and they give it up to the last person on Earth that they’d want to shoot it, no less.
That’s exactly why fouling is the best strategy. Fouling eliminates the possibility of error. The possibility that the power forward gets hypnotized by a quick dribble combination. The possibility that the guard gets blindsided by a drag screen and there are no teammates close enough to help. The possibility that center instinctively protects the paint rather than recognizing his man sprint to an open corner three.
The logical rebuttal to this strategy is you can’t foul because all of the Warriors great shooters would just score even more easily at the free-throw line because they’ll be in the bonus for large portions of the game. Logical, yes. Correct, no. While the Warriors are a great free-throw shooting team in terms of percentage, they do not shoot a large volume of free-throws. The Warriors have neither the post presence nor the to-the-rim slashers that tend to help teams generate frequent trips to the charity stripe.
Because the Warriors don’t naturally put foul pressure on the opposition, they are susceptible to this fouling strategy. Eliminating a handful of transition possessions per game could turn a splashy guard into a struggling shooter, a raucous crowd into an anxious audience, and the league’s best team into just another squad wondering what could’ve been during a long offseason.