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The road to a NBA championship, part 1: The Warriors' outside first round challengers

With the playoffs quickly approaching, there's a lot of talk about which teams the Warriors play well against and which matchups the team should avoid. Let's take an in depth look at how the Warriors have fared against the other top teams in the Western Conference, and who they might face up against in the postseason.

Warriors superstar Stephen Curry faces off against Jrue Holiday.
Warriors superstar Stephen Curry faces off against Jrue Holiday.
Derick E Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

There is no parade for having the best regular season record.

As recently as 2011-12, the league's 4th best regular season team, the Miami Heat, defeated the team with the 3rd best record, the Oklahoma City Thunder, in the NBA FinalsThe top two teams in the regular season, by winning percentage, margin of victory, and SRS, were the Chicago Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs. They were tied, each boasting a 50-16 record, and neither team won the championship, let alone reached the NBA Finals that season.

Of course, the #1 seeded Bulls lost Derrick Rose to injury after playing just 37 minutes in the postseason before succumbing to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, but Spurs had no such excuses to point to when they lost to the Thunder in six games. And while the Spurs had a better eFG% in the series than the Thunder, the Thunder won the possession battle by grabbing more rebounds, committing less turnovers, and went to the foul line more than Greg Popavich's squad.

The Spurs superior regular season didn't help them against the Thunder. The Spurs four game sweep of the Jazz in the first round didn't matter any more, and neither did the four game sweep of the Clippers in the second round. Their league leading field goal percentage and three point percentage, along with the third best turnover percentage, couldn't make up for their deficiencies. They were 24th in ORB% that season, and 19th in FT/FGA, and the Thunder managed to take advantage of that in the playoffs, where each possession is more important than the last, and matchups dictate victories.

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles -- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

For the Warriors to achieve their ultimate goal for the season, the team will have to not only understand their own strengths and weaknesses, but also understand the ways that their opponents win and lose. Before we can do that, we'll have to identify who those opponents might be.

At the time of this writing, there are nine teams in the Western Conference that might face the Warriors in the playoffs: the Grizzlies, Rockets, Blazers, Mavs, Clippers, Spurs, Thunder, Pelicans, and Suns. A murderer's row of great coaches, MVP candidates, playoff heavies, and champions. The Western Conference playoffs promise to be one of the most competitive fields ever, and an unprepared team can expect their season to end at the drop of a hat.

Let's take a look at what we've seen so far from the teams we can expect to play on the first round.

The bubble teams

If the Warriors maintain their current standing as a top seed, it's likely that they'll be facing the Suns, Pelicans, Thunder, or Spurs in the first round. Each of these potential opponents presents unique challenges for the Dubs in a seven game series. The teams on the outside looking in are the Suns and Pelicans. For this installment, we'll be focusing on these two teams.

Phoenix Suns

On November 9th, 2014, on the second night of a back-to-back affair played in Phoenix, the Suns handed the Warriors their first defeat of the season. The Suns won the possessions battle by grabbing 3 extra rebounds (39-36) and forcing a season high 26 turnovers by the Warriors while giving away 21 turnovers. The Suns also shot 33 free throws, compared to just 21 for the Warriors, and the home team outscored the weary Warriors by 20 points in the fourth quarter. Stephen Curry had a dubious triple-double, scoring 28 points and dishing out 10 assists, but also committing 10 turnovers, and a few longtime GSoM community members (who have recently been suspiciously quiet) spent much of the recap thread patting each other on the back for being the only fans smart enough to recognize the Warriors' early season weaknesses. The eight extra possessions and and nine additional points from the line were too much for the Warriors to overcome, and they fell to the Suns 95-107.

The Warriors would have their revenge. On January 31, the Warriors defeated the Suns 106-87 in Oakland. Despite the Jeff Hornacek's team once again beating the Warriors on the glass 52-44, the Warriors made up several of those lost possessions by forcing 20 turnovers and only giving up 15. The free throws were a relative push, but the Warriors shot .558 (TS%) while dominating the Suns on the defensive end, forcing the visitors to shoot a meager .442 TS%. The tables were turned this time, with Phoenix on the second night of their own back to back, and the Warriors outscored the Suns 54-36 in the second half.

The Suns have made a lot of changes to their roster this season. They added former Warriors lottery pick Brandan Wright to back up sophomore big man Alex Len and created a strong rotation at center in the process. Len is averaging per 36 numbers of 10.8 points and 10.8 rebounds along with 2.8 blocks, and boasts a .568 TS%, and Wright brings his .613 TS% off the bench to spell Len and provide instant offense in the post. They've shipped out reserves Zoran Dragic, Miles Plumlee, and Tyler Ennis, and T.J. Warren has been up and down from the D League all year.

Jeff Hornacek's teams always run a high octane offense, and they are second in pace behind only the Warriors. Their ORtg is good for 9th in the league, they are 5th in eFG% and they score the second most points per game.

They also traded away disgruntled guards Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, and brought back Brandon Knight, a 6'3" combo guard who's been good for per 36 numbers of 17 points, 5 assists, and about 4 rebounds for his career. He lines up in the backcourt alongside athletic dynamo Eric Bledsoe. PJ Tucker and Markief Morris round out the starting five, while Marcus Morris and Gerald Green fill out the major bench minutes for 2014 Coach of the Year runner-up Jeff Hornacek's squad. Reggie Bullock, Archie Goodwin, Earl Barron, Marcus Thornton, and Danny Granger complete the roster, though Granger is an expected buy-out.

With all of their roster changes, the Suns look different at the end of their bench than they did last time we faced them. Their top roster spots remain largely unchanged other than clearing up the Dragic/Thomas logjam with Knight. However, Jeff Hornacek's teams always run a high octane offense, and they are second in pace behind only the Warriors. Their ORtg is good for 9th in the league, they are 5th in eFG% and they score the second most points per game. However, they give up the most points per game in the league (105.1), give up over 2 extra rebounds a game to their opponents, and put the other team on the line at the third highest rate in the league.

Despite their rebounding deficiencies, they've managed to outrebound the Warriors in both games so far this season. However, their lack of defense has allowed the Warriors to put up a .558 and a .529 eFG%, and the additions they've made don't look to help much in that department. If the Warriors can keep the rebounding and turnovers close in a series against the Suns, Steve Kerr's squad should be able to shoot their way to the second round.

New Orleans Pelicans

From November 13th through December 14th, the Warriors went on the longest winning streak in team history. In that stretch, the team faced off against Monty Williams' Pelicans twice. The first game was in Oakland on December 4th, and the contest was largely decided in a second quarter in which the Warriors outscored the visitors 31-12 much to the delight of the Warriors faithful. After trailing in the first quarter, the Warriors beat the Pelicans in nearly every facet of the game. The Warriors led the eFG% category .520-.433, outrebounded the Pels 56-47, shot 17 free throws while surrendering just 13 free throw attempts, and forced 17 turnovers while committing just 9 themselves.

The game was a bigger blowout than the 27 point margin showed, and every Hornets player put up a negative +/-. Anthony Davis' 30 point, 15 rebound performance (on .737 eFG%!!!) couldn't even help against double-doubles by Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Steph Curry.

From ESPN:

"That's the best game we've played in a long time," rookie coach Steve Kerr said. "Part of it was that we knew we were challenged by this team. It was good for our team to come in and feel threatened, and as a result kind of get our edge back."

Ten days later, the Warriors would travel to New Orleans on the second night of a road back-to-back, winners of 15 games in a row. Despite Anthony Davis missing the game due to injury, this game was a nail biter. After surrendering a 60-51 lead at halftime, the Pelicans stormed back in the third and tied the game going into the fourth quarter. Tyreke Evans scored 34 in the game, Jrue Holiday added another 30, and the Pelicans led 107-99 with 4:16 remaining in the fourth, but the Warriors weren't ready to end their winning streak yet and fought back, forcing the game into overtime.

If we defend and take care of the ball, we have a chance. -Steve Kerr

Steph Curry stepped up big, scoring eight of his 34 points in the extra period, and the Warriors won 128-122. Andre Iguodala scored a season high 20, and Klay Thompson chipped in 29 points of his own.

"This winning streak feels great and we don't want it to end any time soon," Thompson said after the game, their 16th win in a row and 10th in a row on the road, both franchise records.

While the Warriors shot well from the field, leading the Pelicans in eFG% .576-.505, outrebounded their shorthanded opponents 46-44, and managed to get to the charity stripe 10 more times than the home team, they committed 19 turnovers while forcing only 16.

"If we defend and take care of the ball, we have a chance. We didn't do either one tonight," Head coach Steve Kerr said. "Thankfully, we've got really, really talented players and we have an incredibly strong, competitive desire to win."

Every team in the postseason has a lot of talent, especially in the Western Conference, where 45 wins looks to be the baseline for admission. The Pelicans boast possibly the most talented big man in the game in Anthony Davis, a former All Star in Jrue Holiday, and former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans. Their frontcourt rotation includes defensive stalwart Omer Asik and stretch four supreme Ryan Anderson.

They are seventh in ORtg, but just 26th in DRtg. They outrebound their opponents 43.8-41.1, which is their strongest suit. They are in the middle of the pack in eFG%, FT/FGA, and don't force many turnovers or defend shooters well. However, we haven't really seen this team at full strength yet this year, with Davis, Anderson, Holiday, and Eric Gordon each missing significant time due to injury. Their bench is filled out by Norris Cole, Quincy Poindexter, and Dante Cunningham, though Luke Babbit, Alexis Ajinca, and Jimmer Fredette have all seen plenty of minutes because of the injuries further up the depth chart.

Despite injuries to Holiday, Anderson, and Davis at the time I penned this article, the team is 6-4 in their last 10 games, and has won five in a row, tied for the longest winning streak in the league and their longest of the season. Their next game is against the stumbling Mavericks in Dallas, and it's the second night of a road back-to-back for the Pels, so the odds are against them for that game, but it looks as though they missed the memo about how their season is supposed to be over.

A fully healthy Pelicans squad is nothing to take lightly, and I could see them gelling for long enough to make some noise in the postseason. On paper, a six man rotation of Asik/Davis/Evans/Gordon/Holiday/Anderson looks as talented as any top six in the league. However, besides injuries, their lack of team defense and reluctance to shoot from behind the arc (they're 23rd in the league in three point makes and attempts, despite being 8th in percentage) leaves them vulnerable against a potent perimeter attack like the one the Warriors possess.

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