Around the NBA: Versatile Bam Adebayo makes life difficult for Steph Curry, Warriors; Can Golden State flip defensive switch?

Lost in the madness that was Dwyane Wade’s buzzer-beating bank shot to beat the Golden State Warriors Wednesday night, Miami Heat second-year big man Bam Adebayo put together a really impressive defensive stretch with the game on the line. Kevin Durant had found a rhythm, and Erik Spoelstra decided to switch Adebayo onto K.D. for the final five or so minutes of a one-possession, no-room-for-error game. Bam more than held his own. Watch here as Durant purposely widens out to get Adebayo on an island with a live dribble, thinking he can beat him baseline where there is no help — only to be stoned by Bam and forced into a tough, contested jumper back in the spot he started.

Yes, Durant made this shot to tie the game. That’s not the point. That play could not have been defended better by anyone, let alone a big man trying to stick with K.D. on an island. Adebayo moved his feet, made Durant go to a counter move then contested with his hand as close to Durant’s release as was humanly possible without fouling. That Durant is, in Dwyane Wade’s words, “an animal,” has nothing to do with Adebayo, who more than acquitted himself against the world’s best over multiple possessions. 

And it wasn’t just Durant. In this next clip, Bam gets switched onto Klay Thompson, who again has his initial penetration cut off by Adebayo, only to hit another impossible-for-most-people step-back 3-pointer. 

Again, don’t get caught up in Klay making that shot. That is nothing more than the old adage that great offense trumps great defense. Bam did everything he could’ve possibly done there, and you live with the results. 

Still, those results could have shaken his defensive confidence. It wouldn’t have been the first time a sharpshooting Warrior broke the spirit of a defender. But Bam kept at it. Moments later, in perhaps the biggest defensive possession of a tie game with less than two minutes to play, Bam got switched one-on-one onto Stephen Curry, who had just beaten Bam off the dribble for a layup a few minutes earlier. This time, Bam won. 

There aren’t more than a handful of big men in the league, if even that many, who would have any hope of stoning Steph Curry one-on-one with a live dribble. Adebayo told CBS Sports: 

“I take it very personally when anybody tries to dance on me. It don’t matter if it’s the greatest player in the world, two of the all-time great shooters, whoever. It’s a mentality where, like, the switch just flips. When I ended up on Steph, the switch just flipped. It was like, OK, this is my job right here. You have to be passionate about what Coach asks you to do. Coach was depending on me to get those stops, or at least make it tough on them, you know. It fuels me that my coaches and teammates have confidence in me in those situations. I remember Justise [Winslow] coming up to me and telling me: ‘Hey, you got K.D. Come on, bro. Let’s get this stop. You got this.’ Man, that’s motivation.”

As you might recall, this wasn’t the first time Adebayo has smothered Curry one-on-one. From December of 2017:

“He was tremendous,” Spoelstra said of Adebayo’s effort, both offensively (he finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds to go with a sweet assist to a cutter from the post and a monster dunk on a rim roll) and defensively Wednesday night. “We were able to run a lot of our offense through him because of all [Golden State’s] switching and ability to flatten you out. [Defensively] it wasn’t just his ability to switch out on Curry on that one possession in the corner, reminiscent of last year, but he was guarding Durant. He has that versatility defensively and that’s why he’s so important to us.”

Can Warriors flip defensive switch?

The Warriors gave up 73 first-half points — and 126 overall — to the Heat on Wednesday night. Miami sits as the 24th-ranked offense in the league. The Warriors, meanwhile, are the 16th-ranked defense, surrendering 109.3 points per 100 possessions entering Friday, per Golden State’s regular-season defensive metrics have fallen outside the top 10 in each of the last two seasons. After finishing with the No. 6 defense in their first championship season of 2015-16, they followed that up with a No. 2 defensive ranking in 2016-17 when they won 73 games. Last season they fell to 11th in the regular season — only to vault to No. 1 in the playoffs. 

Can they flip that same switch this year?

“We hope so,” Steve Kerr said at Golden State’s Wednesday shootaround in Miami. “I don’t think you can count on that. You can’t just start the playoffs and go, ‘Alright it’s time.’ You still have to maintain good habits, and that’s what we try to focus on, and to be really frank our habits have been awful the last couple weeks. 

“If you can maintain good habits going into the playoffs, then I think you can expect an increase in energy and focus,” Kerr went on, citing boxing out, transition defense and not getting beat on back cuts as examples of good habits. “That’s exactly what happened last year. We were the No. 1 ranked defense in the playoffs last year, but our last month [of the regular season] we were atrocious. I was scared to death we weren’t going to be able to turn it on.”

The Warriors, for obvious reasons, have more regular-season leeway than any team in the league. Their main goal is to be fresh and healthy, to whatever degree that’s possible after an 82-game season, heading into the playoffs, and that’s going to mean some “load management” throughout the schedule. Sometimes that’s full nights off for players. A lot of times it just means less than 100 percent effort over the entire 48 minutes of a game. 

“It’s just difficult,” Kerr said. “When you go deep in the playoffs year after year, to exert the kind of energy that you have to these days, guarding the 3-point line, guarding rim runners, there’s so much court to cover now, for 82 games. You’re asking guys for nine months a year for five straight years to bring that energy and that intensity, it’s just not going to happen. It’s not humanly possible to do it night after night. That’s why we prefer to focus on the details rather than the defensive rating and the numbers.”

Perhaps the core Warriors — Curry, Durant, Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston — can be relied upon to flip the switch, because they know what it takes, and they know each other’s games. There are no adjustments to be made. There’s a “like riding a bike” element to the way those guys can get back in the groove seemingly on call. DeMarcus Cousins is a different story. We’ve already seen him repeatedly targeted as offenses are putting him in various pick-and-roll settings, forcing him to switch, and taking advantage of him on cuts, particularly as he gets winded. 

If Cousins becomes too problematic defensively, the Warriors will just bench him in money situations. It’s hard to imagine Kerr not going with the tried-and-true Hamptons Five lineup of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant and Green to close most playoff games, but Cousins is going to be on the court for substantial minutes, and the Warriors can’t be getting gashed in those minutes. 

Plus, Cousins gives them a lot in other areas that they’ll miss if they have to sit him: Rebounding. A low-post presence to punish switches. A capable 3-point shooter who stretches the defense — as opposed to Green and backup center Kevon Looney, who appreciably shrink the real estate the other four Warriors have to work with because of their inability to command a perimeter defender. 

“Defense has been a big part of our success, and we’re not going to get anywhere without it,” Warriors assistant and defensive guru Ron Adams told CBS Sports in Miami. “That’s the reality. We kind of ebb and flow in the regular season. Some of that, as Steve said, is just the difficulty of keeping up that kind of intensity every night when you’ve played as deep into the playoffs as we have these past four years, now going on five years. 

“But there are other factors,” Adams continued. “We’re getting every team’s best game every night, for starters. So now, if our play, particularly on the defensive end, drops even a little bit on a given night, it’s really noticeable, because every team in this league is good. So there’s that. We also have some new faces we’re trying to work in, and that’s a process. But we know what we can do as a team. The guys who’ve been here, they know what it takes. As a coach you obviously want that consistency all the time, but that’s probably dreaming. Generally we’re at our best defensively in the playoffs. Last year we had a phenomenal defensive playoffs. We know we can get there again. But we have to do it. It’s not just going to happen.”

Three Playoff Thoughts

  • Lakers’ bad losses proving costly: If the Lakers don’t make the playoffs, people are going to point to the 17 consecutive games LeBron James missed due to injury. That is a major factor, no doubt — as is the extended absence of Lonzo Ball, whose defensive impact alone, per league scouts CBS Sports has spoken with, has been missed sorely. That said, the Lakers’ inability to take care of business against some of the worst teams in the league, without or without LeBron and/or Ball, is the more controllable culprit. As of Friday, the Lakers have lost to the Magic twice, the Grizzlies twice, as well as to the Knicks, Cavs, Wizards, Hawks and the Pelicans, who were without Anthony Davis. All told they’ve lost 12 games to below-.500 teams. If they even win half of those games, they’re in the playoffs and probably fighting for something around a No. 5 or 6 seed. 
  • Spurs face crucial weeks ahead: The Spurs went 1-7 on their vaunted 23-day Rodeo Road Trip before finally coming home to a win over Detroit on Wednesday. Entering Friday, San Antonio is clinging to a playoff spot, just one game up in the loss column on the No. 9 Kings. If the Spurs are going to extend their league-long streak of 21 straight playoff appearances, their next 11 games will tell us a lot. Seven of those games are against current playoffs teams, including dates with the Nuggets, Bucks, Warriors, Celtics and Rockets. San Antonio is a bottom-third defensive team that only makes 10 3-pointers per game, which ranks 22nd in the league. Other coaches in the league I’ve spoken with have continually praised Gregg Popovich and the Spurs for once again getting the most out of their roster by playing to the mid-range strengths of their personnel. But there’s a bottom line here: In today’s NBA, if you don’t play defense and you don’t make 3-pointers, you have a seriously uphill climb. These next few weeks will tell us a lot about whether the Spurs are going to make it. 
  • Swing Seeds: Right now the No. 3 seed in each conference is under a huge spotlight. In the East, the Pacers, the current No. 3 seed, are throwing a major wrinkle in everyone’s plans to have the Bucks, Raptors, Sixers and Celtics square off in the two conference semifinals as the top four seeds. Entering Friday, the Sixers would have to play the Celtics in the 4-5 first-round matchup. Both those teams would much rather face Indiana, without Victor Oladipo, in the first round, but for that to happen one of them would have to jump the Pacers. The Sixers are just a half-game back of Indiana entering Friday. Boston is further back. so you can bet it’s rooting for Philly to jump Indiana, which would leave Boston in the 4-5 matchup with the Pacers, something the Celtics would be plenty comfortable with even without home-court advantage. In the West, the Thunder and Blazers are deadlocked for the No. 3 seed entering Friday, with the Thunder currently holding the tiebreaker. If we assume the Warriors hang onto the top seed, getting to No. 3 means avoiding the champs until the conference finals, while staying at No. 4 lands you against the Warriors in the second round. Swing seeds. Keep an eye on these. 
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