The Warriors are back in this thing.
There have been plenty of downs for the Warriors in the first three weeks of the NBA season, but over the last seven games – all at Chase Center – Golden State provided some serious ups, too.
So as the team heads back out onto the road to take on three formidable opponents (fingers crossed), it seemed as good a time as ever to take stock in where the Warriors stand.
Here are the four big things we learned during the Dubs’ winning homestand:
This is a second-tier team
And that’s a compliment!
Given the way this team started the season, such a status was hardly a given. Remember: going into this homestead, the notion of three wins in seven games felt like a win.
So four wins and two really close losses is a rousing success for a team that looked lost early in the season.
I don’t spend much time with power rankings, but I do know that the Warriors moved up in many over the last two weeks, and for good reason.
The Warriors aren’t anywhere near the level they once were, but they showed the entire league over the last 10-or-so days that they are a team capable of playing with the non-elite teams of the NBA. Forget the Lakers, the Bucks, and maybe the Nets, for now – it’ll take months for the Warriors to round into a form that can go toe-to-toe with those teams at full strength.
But this is not a play-in tournament team. No, sir. It’d take something bad happening to convince me that the Warriors aren’t markedly better than the Blazers and the Kings, two teams they beat on this homestead.
And the Warriors can go toe-to-toe with rock-solid, no-doubt playoff teams like the Clippers, Pacers, and Raptors.
No, the Warriors didn’t pull out every game – the loss to the Pacers on Tuesday was particularly disheartening – but the team went into the fourth quarter of the seventh and final game of the homestead with a chance to win five of ’em and move to No. 2 in the Western Conference standings.
It’s early days, no doubt, but given how much gelling the Warriors still need to do – how much more room they have to grow – that success is telling.
This team’s goal was always to host a first-round playoff series – to be a top team in the Western Conference. After this homeland, that goal doesn’t look far fetched at all.
This team has a defensive backbone
Warriors coach Steve Kerr announced before the season that he wanted his team to have a top-10 defense this season.
Such an idea was laughable for the first seven games of the campaign.
But the Warriors have played five games in the last 10 days, and during that period, they have the NBA’s fourth-best defensive rating.
So what’s working?
Well, for starters Draymond Green is back in game shape. It took Green a few games to round into form after his season was delayed by COVID, but he appears to be fully back now to his revolutionary ways.
With him calling out coverages and rotations, other Warriors defenders have thrived. Rookie center James Wiseman is going to have 19-year-old struggles, but he has shown flashes of being a dominant force in the paint. Andrew Wiggins has put together a tremendous string of defensive performances on the perimeter – he’s sixth in the NBA in blocks, putting him ahead of Joel Embiid. How’s that even possible?
And credit where it’s due: Kelly Oubre still might not know what he’s doing out there, but his chaotic energy is helpful to a defense that’s trying to create transition opportunities.
The Warriors haven’t needed Green to get the best out of Kent Bazemore and Brad Wannamaker on the defensive end – they bring it every night for the second unit.
The Warriors might just have a top-10 defense yet. And that’s great news, because with so many offensive things to figure out, it’s helpful to be able to stop the opposing team on occasion.
Eric Paschall has a key role
One of the big questions for the Warriors heading into the regular season was how the team would fare with Curry off the court.
That is no longer a concern.
Eric Paschall playing center was not Steve Kerr’s first choice, but it became a necessity when Marquise Chriss broke his leg after the season’s second game.
Two weeks later, the in-a-pinch option is no longer a novelty. It’s a critical part of the Warriors’ success.
Paschall – who is made of brick, making him as strong as any player in the league – has powered through smaller defenders and blazed past conventional big men as the offensive fulcrum of the second unit. Defensively, the Warriors are giving up something with him as a “rim protector” but the offensive output is such to where Golden State is willing to concede it. So far this season, the Warriors are averaging 1.28 points per possession when Paschall is on the floor to 1.15 points per possession for their opponents.
Both are gaudy numbers, but it’s a nice margin for the Warriors. And for a second unit, it’s a godsend.
Tuesday night, in the Warriors loss to the Pacers, the loss of Paschall – who was out due to the NBA’s health and safety protocol – was inescapably evident. The Warriors straight-up couldn’t score with their second unit and the Pacers found their way back into the game twice, eventually taking over late in the fourth because…
They’re lacking a closer
Curry is getting so much defensive attention and having to work so hard for baskets throughout the game that he is, more often than not, gassed at the end. You go up against a box-and-1 for 30-something minutes a game.
But it highlights the truth that late-game basketball is a different sport. Teams typically go small, defenses lock in on the perimeter, and the ability to create and make tough shots in one-on-one situations becomes vital. It’s like the playoffs out there.
Curry is brilliant, but he’s not going to rise over his defender to knock down a shot. It’s not smart basketball for him. Curry can try to make a guy miss, however, and he can certainly create opportunities for his teammates with the defensive attention he garners, especially late, when teams have shown a willingness to get funky.
Green isn’t going to take the big shots down the stretch. It’s not Oubre, either. Damion Lee might be the Warriors’ best option next to Wiggins, who has come through in those moments in the past.
This is the gambit opposing teams are making though – force the ball out of Curry’s hands, rotate like crazy, and dare Wiggins to win one-on-one.
If he can do that far more often than not, the Warriors are going to be a highly formidable team.
If not, then the Dubs have problems.
As we see all the time in baseball: it doesn’t matter how good your starter is if your closer can’t finish the game.
By the way, this is the same issue the Warriors faced at the end of the 2016 season. Curry was garnering all the attention late in games and putting up either low-quality shots or putting the ball in the hands of not-ready-for-prime-time players.
The Warriors fixed that problem by adding some guy that subsequent offseason. Kevin… something. I forget.
I do remember that he was an elite closer.
Wiggins – and this is not a knock, just a fact – will never be that guy. But he can be more. We’ve seen flashes this season. The Warriors need to see more such flashes if they want to keep these good times rolling.