The worst kept dirty secret the National Basketball Association doesn't want you to unearth is that the NBA season is approximately 30 games and two months too long. It's a rarity to see the hierarchy of the conference standings seismically reordered after game 20 (barring obvious injuries causing a world-beater to fall to earth).
The Warriors are now at game 54, and are rounding second base coming into the longest stretch of the season: the late-winter mire after the All-Star Break and before the ides of March rekindles competitive spirits in anticipation of the start of the over-padded postseason. Late-winter NBA ball is a malaise of unimportant games being played by enervated players. At this point in the season, there's nothing we find out in a game that we didn't already know.
Well... usually. Specific circumstances conspired to create a slightly-intriguing late-February match up between the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers tonight in LA. For one, the 1996 Chicago Bulls were 48 - 6 after their Game 54, meaning that the Warriors could keep a step ahead in the schedule over their historical competition. For another, the Warriors had so far avoided back to back losses on the season. After Damien Lillard stole his boyhood's team's soul last night in the Rose Garden, that distinction was in jeopardy. With center Andrew Bogut announced out with a sore achilles, and his backup Festus Ezeli on the mend, the Warriors' bid for perfection on games after losses was only compounded heading into Staples.
Adding to the intrigue is the beginnings of the playoff bracket rumblings that will only crescendo between now and the final day of regular season play. The Chris Paul-era Clippers have matched up poorly with the Warriors, requiring seven games to dispose of a Mark Jackson-led (or, in other words, actively sandbagging), Bogut-less Dubs squad in the playoffs two years ago. However, the opposite has held true generally for the Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs. This is a roundabout way of saying, it remains to be seen who Warriors fans should actually be rooting for to secure the #3 seed in the West (assuming the Warriors hold fast at #1) between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Clippers.
Thunder might have the second most dangerous offensive player in the conference, but Chris Paul and the Clippers may be a stiffer task in the second round for the Spurs to face. Or not.
In any case, coach Steve Kerr opted to go with fan-favorite-turned-most-hated-player-turned-fan-favorite-again swingman Brandon Rush to slide into the wing spot in Bogut's wake, sliding fan-favorite-turned-most-hated-player-turned-sorta-fan-favorite-again forward Harrison Barnes and forward Draymond Green into the 4 and 5 spots against the DeAndre Jordan-led Clippers frontcourt.
It feels appropriate to note that I used to smirk knowingly when analyst Charles Barkley refers to Draymond as a 6'5" player, but after seeing pictures of him being ~2" shorter than purportedly 6'7" guard Shaun Livingston and 6'7" Klay Thompson, well... it's now doubly impressive to see him successfully body up Jordan in the post. Leverage, and such.
Jordan has always hovered in the twilight zone between analytics and eye-test. While his actual rim protection defense has always been less than impressive, it's undoubtable he does cast a shadow that causes drivers to visibly hesitate into a poor decision at least once every game, and perhaps more times than that which are not so obvious on television.
It took a tremendous, commendable focus as a team to keep Jordan out of offensive rebounding position for much of the night. With Bogut, Ezeli, and James McAdoo looking on from the sidelines, and Marreese Speights virtually unplayable on the defensive side of the ball, Kerr had no choice but to rely on the Warriors bigs and wings to box out Jordan, and the guards to hang back to secure 50/50 rebounds.
The Warriors came into the game more emotionally prepared to play a basketball game at the competitive level an NBA team should be. There were occasional signs of frustration, particularly from Stephen Curry with regards to Chris Paul's typical physical defense. Paul bodies up Curry while simultaneously still allowing Curry to get to the places he wants to get to, which is a bit of a contradiction yet an accurate description. Paul doesn't play Curry particularly great on defense -- certainly not on a Corey Joseph level -- but he plays him perhaps a bit more physically than Curry usually sees from a smaller guard.
Draymond Green sporadically attempted to breathe some fire into his teammates on the court, as they huddled a few times in the game during a free throw. The Warriors, as with every team, are playing their own mental fatigue as much as they are the other team. This time, with spirit: the NBA season is too long.
I think most people understand that on a personnel and systematic level, the Warriors can be a very good defensive team. Perhaps even the best non-Spurs defense in the league, given consistent effort. Tonight was another "mediocre" showing from a defense that has the potential to be so much more. There were certainly things the Warriors did exemplary on that end -- the aforementioned planning to not allow DeAndre Jordan to impose his will on the boards being one (Jordan still got his rebounds, but his impact was minimized). Overall, it was a rather uninspiring effort -- grading them relative to what they could do.
And, hey, the Warrior bench came in at the beginning of the fourth and marginally increased the fledgling lead they were subbed in to hold. That was a large contribution on a night in which Anderson Varejao sat at home in his boxers and the Warriors suited up precisely zero players over 6'11". Klay Thompson and Draymond subbed into the unit and pushed the lead to its highest all game of 16.
Andre Iguodala rebounded from a subpar performance (didn't every Warrior?) yesterday to put in another solid workday. I've now reached a greater understanding on Iguodala: every time it appears he's committed a mystifying foul on a shooter, it's because he was technically in the correct stance and the ref simply rewarded the offensive player. In other words: if you think Iguodala did something wrong on the basketball court, watch a replay. You're probably wrong.
Thompson had himself a shooting night in a game largely absent of the usual Steph Curry flamethrower reenactment. He ran the floor and made himself available on the fastbreak to finish with dunks; hit pull-up midrange shots; and hit some key three pointers. The offense isn't lubricated if neither Curry nor Thompson is shooting at a superhuman rate.
The Clippers, no matter how banged up the Warriors are, have seemingly always simply had a tough task matching up against the Warriors since Chris Paul joined the team. Even before Steve Kerr, and before Doc Rivers, and before Draymond Green was anything more than a second round pick. I suppose the question is whether you'd rather face a good matchup in the second round in the Clippers, or if you'd prefer the Spurs to face a less-than-ideal matchup in the second round in the Clippers. The Clippers' frontcourt would seem to create more mismatches for Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge than Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams/Enes Kanter.
At any rate, the Warriors won a late-February game against the Clippers tonight in Staples. Draymond Green recorded his 11th triple-double of the season. Stephen Curry didn't do anything ridiculous with the ball in his hands (by his standards of "ridiculous", at least), but he did make some shots when they mattered. Doc Rivers didn't throw anything weird at the Warriors that dramatically changed the match up. Both sides had bench mobs in for the final minutes.
"Waaarriors" chants managed to erupt in Staples Center, before the Clippers blew that up by hitting a few triples to close the gap to just three points with five seconds left. That capped a 13 - 0 run against the Warrior bench unit. Then the starters came out and turned the ball over, allowing a potential game-tying halfcourt heave by Chris Wilcox to air out as the buzzer sounded. Rivers and Kerr chuckled as they shook hands.
Late-February basketball in the National Basketball Association.