I know I’m not the first one to write this, but the Western conference has caught up to the Golden State Warriors.
Last season, if the team was heading into Portland for a game with tremendous seeding implication during the final stretch of the regular season I’d expect a win — even without Steph Curry. This season it’s just different: the league is catching up; removing some of the margin for error. And it showed last night.
Anatomy of a 4th quarter collapse
Factor one: stupid fouls
With just about two minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Golden State Warriors were very much in the game against the Portland Trailblazers. Up six (their largest lead of the night) and riding another dominant and efficient performance from Kevin Durant it felt like the Warriors were just about to start putting the game away.
And then the mistakes started happening.
Shaun Livingston, normally one of the headiest players on our roster, inexplicably got caught reaching in on a rushed buzzer beater as the quarter ended. Monta Ellis used to do this, and it has gotten no less infuriating over time — it’s the sort of derp basketball play that would get me benched immedeately on my high school junior varsity team has no place in the NBA... and yet, here we are.
The shot didn’t fall, but the damage had been done. Damian Lillard went to the line and calmly drilled three free throws to end the quarter. Instead of a six point lead, the Warriors ended the third with a nominal three point advantage - but more importantly, it felt like a tone had been set: the Warriors were going to flub this game away.
The pattern continued in the fourth, when the Warriors just could not stay out of their own way. These aren’t totally unheard of errors, but in a tightening race for the top seed in the West, you just can’t play like this and expect to come out on top of the West.
Anthony Slater of The Athletic broke it down last night (including video):
But the Warriors’ plague of costly overaggression was just getting started. Before the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter, they’d foul a 3-point shooter three more times, bringing the total to four instances in seven minutes, enough for a full month of basketball done in less than a quarter.
Another factor: rebounding
The Warriors are one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA, ranking 22nd in offensive rebounding percentage, and 28th defensively. Now, normally this isn’t much of a concern, as the Warriors have traditionally just outshot their opponents — the Warriors rank #1 offensively, and fourth defensively. But this system design does have weaknesses, and it was exposed last night.
The Warriors finished with 33 rebounds (six of which came on the offensive end), the Blazers finished with 46 rebounds (14 offensive). The Blazers are the better rebounding team, no doubt, as evidenced by being sixth place in offensive rebounds in the NBA, and 11th defensive rebounding rate.
But here’s the thing that’s bothering me: it doesn’t feel like the Warriors are reliably dominant enough to not address this rebounding issue. In the past it was less of a concern because the talent gap was wide enough to allow a fairly forgiving margin of error, but teams like the Rockets and Blazers are officially closing in. Now that the league has caught up, exposing these flaws to the right opponent is becoming something close to a critical path error - meaning a break down in this specific area may lead to a loss, regardless of how well our team shoots.
And that’s a problem, now that we are just a handful of weeks from the playoffs.
Other factors that I don’t want to talk about: turnovers and bench scoring
On the turnovers, I’ve talked at length about this previously, but since the Warriors lead the league in assists, and assit-to-turnover ratio (both by a fairly wide margin), I tend not to worry too much about the turnovers. Last night, there were a couple of extremely costly — and dumb — turnovers late. Again, here’s video from that Slater article linked above:
But on the night, it wasn’t that bad for the Dubs. We had 12 turnovers, the Blazers had 11; they scored 16 points off of ours, we scored 14 points off of theirs. So it really didn’t matter all that much, but in a game where the Warriors don’t have quite the same amount of wriggle room, all of these things matter.
As far as bench scoring goes, the Warriors got absolutely murdered last night. No surprise there, since we played without most of our good bench players. No Andre Iguodala to calm down the offense, or get timely stops; no David West mid-range jumpers or blocked shots. And of course it’s no surprise that the Warriors couldn’t pull out a win without Patrick McCaw. It’s just unfair to throw either of these two categories at the wall of “why the Warriors lost last night.”
But still, in a tight game, these reoccurring shortcomings are becoming more and more of a concern. I’m just not ready to talk about it. Beyond that, I’m not sure what there is to do exactly. Our team is what it is, and I think there are some aspects just inherently tied to the other side of our strategies.
The Warriors return to action tomorrow in an early afternoon game on national television, no matter who plays, Golden State is going to have to tighten their focus if they’re serious about coming out of this season on top of the West. Right now, there are enough danger signs pointing us towards that #2 seed that I’ve started to lower my expectations. And for a team with lofty championship goals, that’s a really tough sentence to voice.