Here’s hoping that some great things grow from inauspicious starts.
The 2016-2017 Golden State Warriors rolled into Oracle Arena with a certain thunder about them. After a sterling preseason performance that enticed viewers with promises of high-octane, circus-like offensive displays and general basketball dominance, the Warriors staggered out of the gates against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night.
The unyielding defense of Gregg Popovich’s Spurs was perhaps a less than ideal testing grounds for the Kevin Durant - Stephen Curry show. The rangy, vigorous Spurs wing corps, led by Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard, covered the Warrior offensive machinery with molasses. Curry occasionally sparked flint with a play of two in the first half, but by and large the Warriors played like a two-week old helium balloon: listless, half-hearted off-ball movement; little cohesion or chemistry in coach Steve Kerr’s lineups; and a general lack of spontaneity or imagination in an offense that has staked its claim on those two attributes for so long.
Some of that is early-season jitters, like two first quarter layups blown by Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Some of that is random variation laying wreck on otherwise sure-shooters, like Thompson’s missed open looks along the perimeter and (in theory) Ian Clark’s thunked open corner threes.
Ultimately, though, the Warrior offense fell victim to self-inflicted wounds. Unforced, unnecessary live-ball turnovers (especially at the end of quarters) plagued the Warriors.
On the other side of the court, Popovich decided he would be the first coach to test the obvious hole left by Andrew Bogut: everything the Spurs did tested the responses of a Warrior defense rigged and ready to compensate for a lack of a strong interior presence. This is not a novel strategy, and it will not go away. Every team will ride heat-seeking missiles into the paint, forcing rotations and scramble recoveries all game long. Kerr and co. simply have to clean up this phase of the defense.
Leonard led the charge into the paint, to the tune of 15 free throw attempts. When the Warriors weren’t fouling, they were collapsing off of the perimeter to spring free-flowing double teams. Being astute Spurs players coached by Popovich, many times these traps resulted in outlet passes to open midrange pop-shots by LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol.
The maniac focus on probing the Warrior defense’s innards resulted in a 8 - 20 advantage in offensive rebounds (34 - 50 overall).
All of the offensive sputterings and defensive frustrations resulted in a huge loss the entire NBA was eager to see: 100 - 129.
When the Steve Kerr Warriors lose games, it’s almost always a litany of smaller problems that coalesce into an insurmountable disadvantage. The aforementioned turnovers stand loud and proud among the chief reasons, but turnovers are only indicative of an underlying theme that is inseparable from the Warriors’ proud devotion to fun: carelessness.
The Warriors came into tonight less mentally sharp than the Spurs. The Spurs were more prepared to play competitively. That’s careless. Spurs players were sharper on cuts, faster to free balls. That’s careless. No one in white boxed out all game, when it’s been understood since early July that this team will need to rely on solid fundamentals in order to team-rebound. Airy carelessness, an aversion to the little details, which are both tedious and winning habits.
Of course, habits can be relearned, and the hunger from years past will return quickly after this shellacking. This was a performance which lacked vigor and attention to detail. To those that bought the hype, paid for it in full up front, it may seem like the world is crashing in on the Warriors’ ears.
But, really, Steve Kerr has had a sagacious approach to the Warriors all summer long. Even when the Warriors were winning preseason games by 50, fancy-sounding formulas were spitting out predictions of 69 wins for the Warriors, and reporters were egging Kerr to admit he was wrong about the Warriors needing to develop chemistry and relearn a re-jiggered defense (and integrate the mother of all offensive weapons), Kerr maintained that time would be needed.
The real challenge now will be for Durant, Curry, Green, and Klay to trust in the process of coming together. If they coolly continue the path of team-building, the others will follow. In order to make this whole thing work, the players need to trust in Kerr and co. Hopefully, by the end of the season, this game and night is in retrospect a small, painful stepping stone. Hopefully, the folks who filed out of Oracle clad in immaculate $110 jerseys and $45 hats 10 minutes before the final buzzer won’t be the ones in the stands cheering on that beautiful finished product.
This performance tonight was not indicative of a terminal disease or a fatal flaw in this team. It was a necessary, vulgar display of power on the part of the Spurs, and an opportunity for the Warriors to measure themselves. Level heads knew this was a measurement coming in. We just thought we would need a yard stick when really we only needed a ruler.