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The Golden Breakdown: The backbreaking first quarter run by the Celtics

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The Warriors’ continuing habit of falling behind early against opponents came back to haunt them against the Celtics. It turned out to be the catalyst behind another disappointing performance.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

If there is one quarter with which the Golden State Warriors have often been associated with, it has been the third quarter. It is the quarter where they have almost always committed their destructive nuclear carpet bombing against hapless opponents, who are often left with nothing but the results of a scorched earth policy enacted by the defending champions.

But that seemed like an eternity ago. Now, the Warriors are still closely associated with a certain quarter — but it is a more dubious distinction. Their recent messy relationship with the first quarter has transformed them into a team known to sputter out of the starting gate.

After the Warriors were absolutely bludgeoned by the visiting Boston Celtics on Wednesday night in front of a national television audience, the Warriors now sport a record of 3-5 over their last eight games, starting with their loss against the Portland Trail Blazers just before the All-Star break.

The common thread that links all of those five losses together? You guessed it — an abhorrence for establishing strong first quarter performances.

Versus Portland — 33-31

Versus Houston — 20-35

Versus Miami — 22-32

Versus Orlando — 22-28

Versus Boston — 24-32

All in all, a combined -37 first quarter performance for the Warriors in their five losses over an eight-game stretch, which is indicative of a team mired in confusion, apathy, and an apparent lack of self-awareness, rather than a team possessing five All-Stars and having won three of the last four championships.

Their nature as the most talented team in the NBA often gives them leeway, in the sense that no matter how badly they play in the beginning, their talent will always win out in the end. To give additional context to this problem, the Warriors also put out mediocre first quarter showings in their three victories over the same eight-game period.

Versus Sacramento — 35-30

Versus Charlotte — 34-30

Versus Philadelphia — 31-32

They were able to come out of the first quarter against Sacramento and Charlotte with slight leads, while they only trailed by one against Philadelphia. But within that common thread lies another, more sinister connection that is the culprit behind these slow starts — the gaping lack of consistent defensive effort.

Their defensive rating for the season is at 109.5, good for 16th in the league. Their defensive rating during this recent eight game stretch — 114.5.

Yikes.

It’s not like the Warriors are lacking in good defenders. Draymond Green, though not showing the same kind of athleticism he displayed in years past, still puts out the same effort on defense, often compensating for his ailing and battered body through his defensive IQ, anticipation, and knowledge about his opponents’ tendencies and gameplans.

But beyond Green, everyone else, although capable of being good to great defenders when completely locked in, have collectively produced dud after dud when it comes to overall defensive performances. The Warriors possess plenty of talent on both ends of the floor, enough to sleepwalk their way toward a playoff berth and to subsequently flip the switch on their way to a championship — that pretty much is a proven fact.

But as the old adage goes, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. Simply put, the Celtics, a sputtering team themselves, worked hard and showed much more effort. The Warriors, on the other hand, did not — and were made to pay for it.

The first few minutes of the first quarter often sets the tone for how the rest of the game will play out. Judging by how the Warriors approached the game defensively in the first quarter against the Celtics, it was an ominous portent of how the rest of the night would unfold.

Letting the Celtics open the game with an 11-0 run isn’t how the Warriors wanted to start things out, but they allowed themselves to be exploited defensively, and the Celtics were smart enough to pick on the Warriors’ exploitable holes in their defense.

1. As expected, the Celtics immediately put DeMarcus Cousins to the test. A simple pick forces Cousins to switch onto Kyrie Irving. Remember, Cousins wanted to prove to everyone that he was capable of switching — and apparently, the coaching staff is allowing him to switch this time. But Irving is a hard cover, even for players who are more equipped to defend him. Cousins simply does not have an answer for Irving.

2. The Celtics set up another pick to force a switch onto Cousins. When the Warriors elect not to switch, Al Horford slips the screen and pops out to the right elbow. The threat of Horford shooting an open mid-range jumper forces Green to rotate on over and provide Cousins some help, which allows Marcus Morris to cut along the baseline and receive the pass, scoring over Green, who tries to block the shot, but is too late.

3. The Celtics run another pick-and-roll, this time with Marcus Smart as the ball-handler. Alfonzo McKinnie prepares to fight over the screen to keep up with Smart, but Smart changes direction, leaving McKinnie behind in the dust. With Cousins playing back in drop coverage, Smart makes the long-range jumper.

4. An early screen set by Horford forces Cousins to switch onto Jayson Tatum, who locates the mismatch down low and feeds the ball to Horford. This is, however, a misdirection, as Tatum catches Cousins off-guard by immediately cutting inside after the pass. Tatum receives the ball back, and Cousins, unable to keep up, is forced to foul Tatum for the three-point play.

5. A turnover by McKinnie on the bounce pass to Kevin Durant allows the Celtics to push the pace. The Warriors inexplicably allow Morris to walk his way toward the free throw line and shoot a wide-open mid-range jumper. Having had enough of his team’s lack of initiative to open the game, Steve Kerr finally calls a timeout.

Judging by these clips alone, one would make the assumption that Cousins is a huge problem — perhaps the one and only problem — that ails the Warriors in terms of being defensively inept. While Cousins presents a slew of challenges on that end — and is one huge elephant in the room that may have to be addressed sooner or later — he is far from being the only problem.

In addition to being sieves on the defensive end, the Warriors also have other problems — a penchant for committing turnovers (21 against the Celtics), bouts of stagnation on offense, and a bench unit that cannot provide them with additional scoring help. The bench’s 32 points came mostly from garbage time during the fourth quarter, when the game was all but decided. In comparison, the Celtics’ bench scored 68 points, with enormous contributions from Gordon Hayward (30 points) and Jaylen Brown (18 points).

As my esteemed colleague Brady Klopfer pointed out in his straight-shooting recap, all the Warriors managed to accomplish on Wednesday night was to waste a lot of people’s times. The aforementioned 11-0 run was a microcosm of what plagued the Warriors all night long, and to break it all down into much more detail would become a needlessly repetitive endeavor. Breaking this game down to one statement, it was simply a matter of the Warriors shooting themselves in the foot and not even bothering to slow down or stop the bleeding altogether.

There are the usual caveats accompanying this recent setback — no Klay Thompson, no Kevon Looney, and no Shaun Livingston, all crucial pieces of the puzzle; the Warriors losing another regular season game that they don’t care about and will be a mere blip on the radar when all is said and done; and the playoffs being more important to the Warriors, and the fact that once they get there, they will become an altogether different and much more focused squad.

But Stephen Curry himself, the unquestioned leader of this team, begged to differ.

Curry is right. Sooner rather than later, the team will have to start backing up all this talk of turning on the switch by actually showing that they can do it at this point, instead of making everyone wait till the playoffs. It doesn’t have to be playoff-intensity level — but show that you still care about winning, that you won’t go down without a fight — that five years of being at the top hasn’t reduced the hunger, the intensity, and the desire to be the very best, like no one ever was.

Until that kind of effort shows up, then it’ll be extremely difficult for fans to keep on being invested in this team until the playoffs come around.

Sixty-four down, 18 more to go.

Stay Golden, Dub Nation.

*All statistics courtesy of NBA.com