The status of the Golden State Warriors as one of the NBA’s most storied dynasties in its long history is unquestioned. Winning three of the last four championships — coupled with the presence of future hall of famers — has firmly etched them in that exclusive list of teams that have effectively lorded over the league in its entirety. One championship immediately sets a standard that is to be emulated or surpassed not only by everyone else in the league, but by the winning team themselves. One taste of good wine isn’t sufficient to satiate one’s thirst; a glass must be consumed in order to be satisfied. Eventually, that one glass turns to a full bottle, until even one bottle isn’t good enough anymore.
Multiple bottles of good wine consumed eventually turns into a drunken stupor — a stupor that can come with feelings of grandeur and invincibility. But more often than not, those feelings are misguided notions that come with the collapse of inhibitions.
Once the stupor is over, and the feeling of superiority disappears and comes crashing down, a feeling of panic and disenchantment starts to settle in. Reality starts to rear its often ugly head.
The Warriors’ current status as the preeminent team of the past four years can be described as one that is full of heightened expectations. Drafting three All-Stars and future hall-of-famers — one of them being a transcendent star who will go down as one of the best players to have played in the NBA – brought the franchise from irrelevance to revolutionaries of the sport of basketball. The addition of the franchise’s biggest free-agent acquisition brought the team to heights that it could have previously never hoped to reach. Three titles in the past four years — which could easily have been four titles, if not for a couple of unfortunate circumstances — is an accomplishment that has proven to be a double-edged sword.
Why is winning championships a double-edged sword? It’s quite simple: setting the standard high also elevates the expectations of those who expect you to win.
For a fanbase that has a mix of old fans who have known the Warriors during their times of suffering — and a bunch of new fans who have only known the Warriors during their tenure as the best team in the NBA — expectations in terms of the team performing at championship or near-championship quality every single game are quite high.
When those expectations aren’t met, then there are bound to be feelings of restlessness. A small hint of fear that this championship run cannot be sustained any longer has its inception in losses such as the one suffered against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Pundits – both of the professional and amateur variety – will have several things to say about this game. There is no question that some of those takes will burn hotter than the fires of Mount Doom. A loss to the Lakers – especially a Lakers team led by eternal rival LeBron James – is a bitter pill to swallow.
Another bitter pill to swallow: the Warriors’ seemingly horrendous defense against the three-point shot. Not only have the Warriors had to deal with their own struggles from shooting the three — they also have had to deal with an almost nightly shooting barrage from opponents.
After barely surviving a three-point barrage from the Los Angeles Clippers, the Warriors allowed the Lakers to shoot 13-of-33 from three-point range, good for 39.4 percent. This is still significantly above the percentage that the Warriors normally allow — opponents shoot 33.9 percent from the three against them, per NBA.com.
It is somewhat true that opponents are motivated to do well against the Warriors. The desire to show the defending champions their best is a danger that is clear and present on a nightly basis. But it is also true that the Warriors have a knack for being defensively unaware and lazy, and it has shown in their three-point perimeter defense.
The first victim of the Lakers’ three-point shooting is Draymond Green, who has shown in the past that he is excellent at making opponents miss from three-point range. His ability to recognize open shooters and quickly close out on them has saved the Warriors on many an occasion. But in this instance, he lingers too long on James, resulting in a slightly delayed closeout on Kyle Kuzma.
In this sequence, Kevon Looney gets James on the switch. Durant sags off of Brandom Ingram to prevent James from driving to his left. But ever the great passer with exceptional ball vision, James recognizes Durant’s mistake and passes the ball to Ingram. Klay Thompson makes the last ditch effort to contest, but to no avail — James and Ingram make Durant pay for helping off of his man.
This three from the Lakers is due to lack of situational awareness on the part of the Warriors — more specifically, on the part of Stephen Curry. Ingram’s missed three bounces back to the Lakers, and Curry, who was part of the ball-watching crowd that led to the offensive rebound, doesn’t get back to his man on time. As a result, Lonzo Ball buries the open three.
In this sequence, Draymond Green leaves Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson alone on the weak side to provide additional help on the strong side by packing the lane against Josh Hart and Tyson Chandler. However, Hart passes out of the crowd to the open Rondo, who passes it to Stephenson on the corner. While Green is justified in leaving Rondo and Stephenson alone on the perimeter — both aren’t particularly known for their exceptional three-point shooting — the Lakers nevertheless move the ball well and make Green and the Warriors pay for packing the paint.
These are just a few examples of the Warriors’ sub-par perimeter defense against a team that is ranked in the bottom half of the league in three-point field goal percentage (34.7 percent, good for 18th in the league, per NBA.com). Credit must be given to the Lakers for knocking down their shots, but the Warriors must also start respecting teams’ three-point shooting, no matter who the teams are or how good or bad they shoot the three. A bad shooter can easily become a decent or even good shooter within the right system, the right play, or under fortunate circumstances.
Defensive issues aside, the Warriors themselves were also defended brilliantly by the Lakers. It was clear that they had a gameplan coming into their showdown against the defending champions: clamp down on Curry and Durant, and let everyone else try to score. Normally, the Warriors make such a gameplan moot by having one of Curry or Durant work their offensive magic, while the other acts as a decoy or playmaker for the others on the floor. But it just so happened that the two former MVPs were made to have bad offensive nights at the same time.
Curry scored only 15 points, while shooting 29.4 percent from the field and 25.0 percent from three-point range. While the Lakers threw a bunch of double teams his way, he also missed a few open shots that he normally would make. Meanwhile, Durant scored 21 points, but his trademark efficiency was absent, shooting 5-of-13 from the field (38.5 percent) and 3-of-8 from three-point range (37.5 percent). He was defended in the same manner as Curry: double teamed, forced to pass out to teammates and letting the Lakers live with their shots, as long Curry and he weren’t the ones who were making them.
Thompson had another awful outing, as he was incapable of relieving the pressure on Curry and Durant. Finishing the night with only 5 points on 7 field goal attempts, Thompson was hesitant on the offensive end, while he was uncharacteristically mediocre on the defensive end.
But it was Green who was the target of the Lakers’ gameplan of ignorance — an ignorance that was born out of his infamous reputation as a non-scoring threat and a terrible three-point shooter. While Green isn’t primarily known for his scoring, nor is he expected to score a handful of points, he has often made decent scoring contributions in the past. Since the 2014-15 season, he has averaged double-digit scoring, peaking at 14.0 points per game in 2015-16 and bottoming out at 10.2 points per game in 2016-17.
That average has dropped to 7.3 points per game this season. While this is due in part to time missed as a result of injury, it is also apparent that his decline in three-point shooting has contributed to his overall decline as a low-key scoring option. After peaking during the 2015-16 season in terms of three-point field goal percentage (38.8 percent), his shot has steadily declined — shooting 30.8 percent and 30.1 percent from three during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, respectively. This season, he is shooting 23.9 percent from three, a significant nosedive that has effectively made him a virtual non-threat from the perimeter.
And being the non-threat that he is, the Lakers practically treated him like he was the Invisible Man.
Coupled with the shooting struggles of two of their best bench players in Jonas Jerebko (1-of-6 shooting overall, 0-of-4 from three) and Alfonzo McKinnie (2-of-10 shooting overall, 0-of-2 from three), the Warriors were blown out of their own building by the Southern California rivals. Andre Iguodala was the lone bright spot in the supporting cast — probably the lone bright spot for the entire team, for that matter — scoring 23 points on 75 percent shooting overall and 60 percent from three.
The Warriors have lost games in terrible fashion in previous seasons, but none of them have given the kind of feeling that this season’s crushing defeats have given. There is a sense in the air that teams fully know what the Warriors will bring to the table; they have had close to four years of footage and scouting reports to know the tendencies of the Warriors’ players, and have had ample time to build the right personnel and the appropriate schemes to counter what once was a revolutionary offense and a suffocating defense.
The Warriors have drunk their wine. They have experienced the sweet taste of dominance and the victories that come along with it. But it seems like that feeling of euphoria is now turning into that drunken stupor that has victimized dynasties of the past.
Drinking that same wine they have been consuming for the past few years may not be enough this time. They may very well need to sober up and admit that they have problems to address. Just like how everyone else around them adjusted to their style of play, they will need to adjust to their opponents’ adjustments.
Christmas is finished, and the turn of the year is right around the corner. It is far from being too late, but the time for serious adjustments may have to start now.
Thirty-five down, 47 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.