The Golden State Warriors were clearly not giving their all on Friday night against the lowly Phoenix Suns, and it showed. No matter how talent-laden a team is, when the willpower and desire isn’t fully there, then the product is going to be half-baked.
A half-baked effort from the Warriors is still good enough to scrape by most teams, especially one that is bereft of their star and replete with youth and inexperience. The Suns gave the Warriors a burst of that youthful hope and idealism all night long, until they were given a dose of reality courtesy of a late surge from Stephen Curry, who finished with 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists despite a night where he spent most of the time struggling to generate a consistent rhythm on offense.
The Warriors started the game flatter than Uncle Drew’s perception of the shape of the Earth. With less than five minutes left in the first quarter, the Warriors were trailing the Suns by a score of 23-9, an anomaly given that 9 points is normally what they would score in a span of only a couple of minutes (or even seconds).
The Warriors would recover by going on a 17-8 run to close the quarter with a five-point deficit. In the second quarter, the Warriors finally decided to drink their fuel and start the engines by torching the Suns with a 34-22 quarter, helped mostly through their brand of basketball that was once a staple of the Suns teams coached by Mike D’Antoni, famously known as the “seven seconds or less” offense (7SOL).
Pace and space revolutionized the way in which the league approached offense; with its high-octane philosophy of trying to score as fast as possible, the 7SOL offense was the pioneer behind the league-wide explosion of pace and three-point shooting. It served as a heavy influence to Steve Kerr and the implementation of his hybrid offense that transformed the Warriors from a mediocre team on offense into the best offensive team in the history of the league.
Through his observations as the former general manager of the Suns, Kerr observed how the team used D’Antoni’s principles to make teams pay for not being fast and cognizant enough on the defensive end. Upon taking charge of the Warriors, Kerr took one look at the players he was given to work with and realized that those same principles would fit such a roster perfectly like a glove — and what transpired was an offense that would shatter records and create a dynasty.
In 2014-15 — the first year of Kerr’s tenure as head coach — the Warriors finished first in the pace rankings, with 99.26 possessions per game. The following year, the Warriors finished with 100.27 possessions per game, good for second in the league. As the years progressed and teams started to adopt the principles of a fast-paced offense, the Warriors would eventually be surpassed in the rankings — during this current season, their 101.83 possessions per game is only ranked 10th, a sign of the changed (and still changing) times.
While pace is a metric that the Warriors have lost leadership of, they are still among the top teams when it comes to fast break points per game — a metric that they have led for almost five years in a row. This year, they are slightly behind the Sacramento Kings in terms of fast break points, with 19.6 per game.
So it is somewhat poetic — appropriate, even — that in a game where the Warriors faced the organization that once put a premium on striking like lightning in order to hit as hard as thunder, they themselves came back from a lethargic opening to post a halftime lead through striking fast and hitting hard.
At the end of the night, the Warriors finished with a total of 33 fast break points — 27 of which came in the first half. While the game slowed down and was won largely through individual brilliance from Curry, it was their fast-paced play that helped the Warriors prevent a potential blowout that would’ve led to an upset of epic proportions.
The Warriors are so entrenched in their philosophy of pushing the pace that they also try to get quick points off of opponents’ made baskets. The reasoning behind it is simple — when opponents score, they tend to relax for a split second before going back on the defensive end. The Warriors have always been among the best at taking advantage of that split second moment of laxity and scoring off of those opportunities.
In this sequence, the Suns quickly score off of a turnover from the Warriors. Kevin Durant’s decision to stay on the other end pays dividends, as Curry throws an outlet pass from the baseline that leads to a wide-open layup for Durant.
Curry is one of the best rebounding guards in the league; he often has great positioning under the basket and uses deceptive upper body strength and a strong base to gain the upper hand during box-out situations. After the Suns miss a corner three, Curry tracks down the rebound, and this triggers a fast break that produces a three-point play courtesy of Curry’s sublime bounce pass to Jonas Jerebko.
The Suns miss another shot, and Durant brings up the ball with the quarter winding down. Durant has evolved into an excellent playmaker and distributor, often making a habit of surveying the floor and seeing who is open for a shot. In this case, Durant sees Andre Iguodala up ahead and throws a bullet pass to him on the wing. Iguodala is left open to pull up and bury a quick three.
Perhaps the rarest sight in the NBA is that of a center leading the fast break and going coast-to-coast for a layup. DeMarcus Cousins is the last person anyone would expect to go from one end of the floor to the other and taking the ball straight to the hoop. He does so after an excellent block, which triggers another fast break. Cousins sees that Ayton is a bit lax at covering him, so he takes advantage by changing speeds and catching the defense off guard.
Communication is a vital part of successfully defending the Warriors, who are proficient at exploiting defenses who lack discipline and awareness. Communication is even more crucial after a missed shot, which often allows the Warriors to push the pace and take advantage of a defense that isn’t fully set.
In this sequence, the Suns miss another shot, and Green pushes the pace in an attempt to find holes in the Suns’ transition defense. That hole comes in the form of a Curry back screen that allows Klay Thompson to cut inside and receive the pass from Green for the layup. The Suns’ lack of communicating a switch kills them here.
The Suns fail to score again, and as expected, the Warriors take advantage on the fast break. With the Suns’ transition defense scrambling to find their assignments, Thompson runs toward the right wing and receives the ball. A simple fake and dribble side-step allows him to get a clear look at the rim for a three.
When the Warriors run on the break, Thompson is always looking for opportunities to cut or shoot the three. The Suns fail to score again, with the rebound being hauled in by Iguodala. He immediately pushes the pace and locates Thompson in the left corner. The panicking defender falls for Thompson’s fake and is made to pay with another three from the Splash Brother.
The Suns continue to miss their shots, and the Warriors continue to make them pay. Durant handles the ball and recognizes a potential mismatch against the bigger and slower Deandre Ayton. Once again, the Suns’ lack of communication burns them, allowing Durant to blow past Ayton for the easy dunk.
This time, the Suns manage to score — but as always, that doesn’t stop the Warriors from attempting to score another quick bucket. Curry brings the ball up, with Green setting a high screen on Curry’s defender. This simple action in the early offense gives Curry enough time and space to pull up for a three.
In this sequence, a good contest from Thompson forces another miss, and the Warriors are once again running. Thompson runs along the sideline, manages to get past the back line of the Suns defense, and receives the perfectly timed bounce pass from Iguodala for the reverse layup.
To cap off the Warriors’ resurgence in the second quarter, Green shows excellent two-way play by heavily contesting Jamal Crawford’s mid-range jumper. This allows him to leak out ahead of the Suns’ defense for another easy fast break layup.
After halftime, the Warriors would return to their lethargic and ne’er-do-well approach to the game, allowing the Suns to retake the lead and to momentarily bring back the terrifying prospect of the Warriors losing to one of the worst teams in the league.
At the end of the day, Curry’s heroics will be the one thing most remembered in the minds of people as responsible for the Warriors righting the ship and coming out with their eleventh straight road victory. But it was those 27 fast break points in the first half that prevented the Suns from inflicting an embarrassing defeat on the team that was expected to win comfortably.
“Seven seconds or less” once graced the city of Phoenix on an almost nightly basis. Those days are long gone, reduced to a distant memory of an era that revolutionized the game of basketball, yet failed to produce a championship.
Fast forward to more than ten years later, and the principles of 7SOL are still alive and kicking, and have now been proven to be capable enough to win a championship — that is, a championship in a different state, a different team, with far better players, and with a much more refined and stable system.
Fifty-four down, 28 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.
*All statistics courtesy of NBA.com