50 games into the season and the Warriors have finally faced each one of their NBA opponents.
Because of an interesting scheduling set, the Warriors have not had to face the Western elite such as the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder until after the first of the year. They now enter a uniquely hard month and a half of basketball which will send them on the road twice to San Antonio, two more games against the Thunder (both games in less than seven days), and puts the Warriors on the road for a big 7 day road trip coming up in the middle of February.
After Saturday night's prime time matchup at home against the Thunder, it's clear Golden State has been up to the challenge against the league's elite, but can still continue to perfect their game as the Thunder were able to expose aspects of the Warriors roster. The game had signs of a blowout with the Warriors coming back from an early 9-0 deficit with a large run spanning the first and second quarters that saw them go up by 20. But the Thunder, behind a deep offensive roster that was able to continue to attack Golden State on the pick and roll, was able to inch their way back into the game and make it close under 5 minutes.
What have we learned from these big matchups — against the Thunder, against the Cavs, and against the Spurs — about how teams have planned on attacking the Warriors? What advantages do we continue to have, and what should the team prepare for as weaknesses going forward?
Weakness: The Warriors are still turning the ball over too many times
The Warriors currently sit at 26th in the league in turnovers allowed during games (18th adjusted for pace). The coaching staff has been asked about this continually, and we have been given the "turnovers of aggression are allowed" excuse. The truth is, teams are now overplaying the passing lanes, waiting for players to try to make the difficult cut off the back door. Sure, the Warriors only had three turnovers in the first half last night, which directly help them to go on their large run. But the seven that they had in the second half, mostly in the 3rd quarter, led to no offensive rhythm and momentum for the Thunder.
Teams have enough tape on the Warriors to know their sets by now. The season grind is about adjustment, knowing how teams will overplay what they think is coming. A feature of the Spurs game was that the Warriors were back-cutting San Antonio all night as they would overplay their swing passes. This led to layups, advantages in the half court, and instant offense. It was a textbook sign of play-counter play. The issue with last night is that the second unit, a constant mishmash of players fighting for rotation spots, cannot run the offense as well as the starters. The Warriors became predictable, and the Thunder took advantage. We didn't see the same lazy turnovers tonight off of failed outlet passes. We saw steals from behind on ill-advised drives, and we saw poor entry passes as the Warriors tried to take advantage of mismatches in the post.
Golden State's rotation will shore up toward the playoffs, and we should see a more diverse offense even as the starters get rest. The unselfishness of the Warriors is amazing, but even at times the simpler play should be taken to get a shot rather than going for the perfect play and the possibly layup.
Strength: The Play of the Bench has been phenomenal
There were times during the game on Saturday night where Shaun Livingston was our best player on the court. I love national TV coverage when the Warriors play, as there will typically be the "it's so great to see Livingston come back from that horrible knee surgery!" You know what guys, he has been back playing elite ball for about a year and a half now, and continues to be one of our under-the-radar MVPs.
The Warriors bench against top opponents has been huge, extending the pressure on opponents past when the starters exit the court. Last night Golden State's second unit outscored the Thunder 42-17. A lot of credit has to be given to the players and coaching staff for keeping the entire roster ready to contribute at any time. Mo Speights put in one of his better games, jumping right in as Bogut hacked his way to continued foul trouble. The team is missing the presence of Festus Ezeli with the second unit, but until he returns Mo has filled in admirably. Speights' corner three was fun to watch, but it really was his passing, his hustle and aggression that pushed the team (a +20 on the night in plus/minus). The Thunder did take advantage of him at center on the defensive end, but you have elite pick-and-roll players going against a back up center. Don't forget the contributions of Andre Iguodala, who always seems to show up are against the better teams in the league. He only scores 8, but was a Durant stopper all night.
The bench will continue to get stronger as it shortens up, and that will only help the Warriors to continue to take pressure off the starters down the stretch.
Strength: Diverse offense, and not settling for the three
There was a time not long ago where a shooting night like last night — 7-for-26 from behind the arc — would have been a sure loss for the Warriors. As shown by last night, its leaders are not afraid to abandon the 3-point line to attack the Thunder in the paint. OKC features some of the best rim protectors in the league. Serge Ibaka puts up over 2.5 blocks per night. The Thunder, even with Golden State being run off the line all night, couldn't keep their defensive discipline as multiple guys cut to the rim, and the Warriors always made the right pass.
Curry has to lead by example. Finishing the night 1-for-9 from three, it was key for Curry to check himself, use his potential shooting threat to draw in defenders out of the lane, creating open lanes and easy baskets. The same goes for Klay Thompson, whose only three of the night was the dagger down the stretch. He brought his jump shot closer to the lane, made Durant work on defense, and worked more in the post.
The Warriors will not always have their outside shot working. It is their reputation as jump shooters with accuracy that create the number of layups that they get each night. Another night of 24 assists, dominating the scoring in the paint, and being more than one-dimensional chuckers show the league that even when you take away the three, that is still only half the battle.
The Thunder brought their A-game. You can't say they were missing much last night — 40 from Durant and 27 from Russell. After the game, Westbrook added:
Russell Westbrook on the Warriors: "They’re a pretty good team, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. We’ll be ready for next time."— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 7, 2016
This is what the season is about. Teams bring the Warriors their best, and so far Golden State has had the answer. The next time these two teams will matchup, it will be in OKC at the end of a seven game trip. There is a good chance the Warriors will be exhausted and the Thunder will run them off the court by 30. Golden State proved again it has the parts and depth to play A+ basketball against the rest of the league elite, and continue to be the favorites looking far into the post season.
I, for one, cannot wait for the big matchups to come. Can we just end the season at the All-Star break and start the playoffs now? Give it to the home crowd for making a Saturday night in February feel like game four of the conference finals. The only true mark left in the season is the magical 73 game winning record, and personally I would trade that in instantly for another title.