Golden State Warriors: How far will they go?
One of the downsides of living in the Bay Area is having regular access to every Golden State Warriors game. For a dedicated Lakers fan, this is often more of a curse than a blessing. I guess I should be happy to be able to watch NBA action on a consistent basis and in doing so, I have followed the Warriors intently throughout the season, including attending a number of their games. Their journey has intrigued me; after their delightful playoff run last season, hopes were high for the Warriors, who hadn’t made any significant postseason noise since their famed playoff victory over the no.1 seeds in the Western Conference, the Dallas Mavericks, in 2007. Now, at the sixth playoff spot in a stacked Western Conference, with 16 games left in the season and 8 games behind the West leaders, San Antonio Spurs, you have to wonder how far they’ll go this year.
Golden State started off this season winning eight of their first eleven. However, during that span, they only beat one team (Oklahoma City, and that came on an Andre Iguodala‘s buzzer-beater) that currently holds a playoff spot. Their three losses were all to teams who will make the postseason in April (LAC, MEM, SAS). Their star Steph Curry struggled during those eleven games, shooting below .500 from the field in eight of those matches. Thankfully, the Warriors’ other starting players (Golden State has what is considered one of the strongest starting line-ups in the league) were able to pick up the slack and started strong, especially Klay Thompson, who went 38-75 from beyond the arc during that time. Despite Curry’s shooting slump, hopes were certainly high for this team, which showed great passing and team chemistry, and looked good under Mark Jackson‘s coaching.
Following the first 11 games of the season (GS was 8-3), the Warriors hit a major slump, losing five of their next six (with four of those losses coming against playoff teams and their one win being a one-point victory over the 11th-ranked New Orleans Pelicans). During this time, it became clear that there were still major kinks that needed to be worked out. Defensively, the Warriors were horrible, giving up over 100 points in every game but one and looking slow on offense, with Curry and Thompson increasingly settling for contested 3-pointers. Part of their slump had to do with the loss of Iguodala, who went down with a hamstring injury for a few weeks in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Nonetheless, the play of Harrison Barnes, who they had slotted to be their sixth man, was disappointing and the bench overall (ranked as one of the worst in the West) was in disarray.
Inconsistent play plagued the Warriors until December 21st, 2013, when the Warriors, with a record of 14-13, rattled off a 10-game win streak which highlighted some impressive victories, including wins over the defending champs, the Miami Heat, and Western Conference playoff contenders, the Clippers and Phoenix Suns. I remember admiring the tenacity of the Warriors, who played physically (see scuffles in Clipper game) and were’t timid on the defensive end. Curry’s shooting picked up and the bench played much better, allowing the Warriors to maintain leads when the stars sat and contributed to Golden State being able to close out games efficiently. I was also very impressed with Andrew Bogut, who has revitalized his career in a way since his move to the Bay Area. Before a horrific injury sidelined him for months, Bogut was a defensive powerhouse and elite rim protector. It took him a while to get back in the groove, but he is almost back to the point he was at when he was considered one of the top five centers in the league.
Perhaps the most astonishing revelation during this period was the play of Jermaine O’Neal. O’Neal, a 17-year veteran of the league, had bounced around various teams the last few years and was considered to be out of shape and close to retirement. Former Boston Celtic coachDoc Rivers even criticized O’Neal on his presence in the locker room and he wasn’t expected to have much of an impact on the Warriors. However, we have been treated this season to an unlikely Jermaine comeback story. He has consistently played above-average defense when Bogut is sitting, and while his isolation plays on offense is amusing, he hasn’t been ineffective, shooting close to 50% from the field. It’s been one of those feel-good roller coaster rides that NBA fans all around, Warriors fans especially, have enjoyed throughout the season.
Following the 10-game win streak, in the 16 games before the All-Star break, the Warriors reverted to their inconsistent play, going 6-9.
The break must have done everyone some good because since the second half of the season began, the Warriors have gone 10-3, the best record in the NBA since the All-Star game. They played mainly mediocre teams, but have had nice victories over the Houston Rockets (in OT) and Indiana Pacers. Entering the home stretch of the regular season, there has been a lot of speculation as to how far the Warriors could potentially go. They have shown flashes of brilliance and championship potential throughout this season, but have also been marred by inconsistency and play that wouldn’t be worthy of the playoffs.
How Will They Do?
My short answer is that the Warriors will lose in the first round.
To me, they haven’t showed the ability to close out games against playoff-caliber teams. Out of 40 games played so far this season against teams that will play in the postseason, the Warriors are just 18-22. That type of record just isn’t going to cut it on the road to the Finals. Last night’s loss against the Los Angeles Clippers was a perfect example. The Warriors struggled to maintain their grip on the game in the fourth quarter. They were out-hustled and outplayed by a team that just wanted it more. Steph has been abysmal at handling the ball in late game situations and their offense just stagnates when they play higher-caliber teams. What I saw last night was a bunch of Curry and Thompson desperation shots in the fourth quarter. The few times they did pound it into David Lee or Andrew Bogut, they were rewarded with a basket and/or a foul. So why don’t they do this more? Everyone in the world who watches basketball knows that Curry and Thompson are their first and second option on offense when they are both on the court.
Manipulate that perception and throw it in the post.
The Warriors also play horrendous defense in late -game situations. They haven’t been able to get stops when needed and their full-court press is easily broken by better teams. Chris Paul andDarren Collison were able to roam relatively free last night and no one tried to deny the best point guard in the league the ball during crunch time. When, and if the Warriors defense is fixed, the offense will flow much smoother and come more naturally, although I speculate whether it’s too late for such a significant change.
Currently, the Warriors are slated to play the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs if the standings stay the way they are. This is unfortunate for the Warriors as the Clippers present match-up nightmares for Golden State. It doesn’t seem like anyone can guard Blake Griffin of late andDraymond Green did a pretty poor job of it last night. DeAndre Jordan abused just about everyone on the boards and no one on the Warriors can match his athletic prowess. Klay did a pretty good job on Paul until late in the game last night but that puts the speedy Collison on either Curry or Iguodala, neither of whom can keep up with him. The bench of the Clippers, which includes Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Glen Davis, and Danny Granger is far more superior to the Warriors, whose acquisitions of Steve Blake and Jordan Crawford this season haven’t panned out (it may be a little early to pass judgement on the Blake trade).