It’s not insane to imagine the
Golden State Warriors
sweeping the entire playoffs. Let’s start there.
The Warriors are definitively the best team in the NBA and the only one that employs four All-Stars. Their defense is almost as impressive as their offense, which is saying something — they scored more efficiently this season than any team in NBA history. They had a better point differential than the team that won 73 games last season, and devising a game plan to limit
has agonized opposing coaching staffs.
Before they even played a single game together, one Western Conference executive said everybody around the league was rooting for them to “get hurt or hate each other.” Durant got hurt, but he’s healthy now and they seem as harmonious as ever.
Their road to the Finals — and potentially a second championship in three years — could turn out to be the least dramatic of any title winner in recent history. In fact, SB Nation’s Tom Ziller was bold enough to predict that Golden State will go 16-0. Before it gets started, let’s take a look at what this superteam has done and what, if anything, might get in the way.
So things went … perfectly?
Well, they didn’t get 73 wins again, but that’s fine. Curry said recently that he felt there was less hoopla at the end of the season, which is both true and a weird thing to say about the most covered team in the NBA. It’s almost impossible for Golden State to impress people because of its talent, but it couldn’t ask to be in a better position than this.
That’s not to say that there weren’t hiccups here and there. The Warriors lost their first game of the season by 29 points, and it took them a little while to find the rhythm they had for the vast majority of Steve Kerr’s tenure. Durant was incredible from the moment he arrived, though, and when Curry realized he didn’t have to defer to help him feel at home, Golden State started looking unstoppable again.
The Warriors were 50-9 before Durant went down with a Grade 2 MCL sprain and a bone bruise in his left knee at the end of February. Then they lost five of seven games. Kerr conceded that this represented adversity, relatively speaking, but also called it a “blip on the radar screen.” When their hellish road trip ended, they ran off 15 wins in 16 games to close the season.
While Durant was out, they placed an even bigger emphasis on passing. They also, unexpectedly, were even better on defense. When he returned for the final three games, he had no trouble fitting back in.
Heading into the season, the only real skepticism anybody had about Golden State concerned how it would defend without a traditional rim protector and how it would keep everybody happy on offense. Both of those worries seem laughable in retrospect.
OK, I get it, best team ever. Are they even a little bit vulnerable?
If I was looking to construct a case against the Warriors, I’d probably point to their clutch statistics, which are down significantly from last season. Two games in particular stand out. In Cleveland on Christmas Day, they gave up a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and lost by a single point. Against Memphis on Jan. 6, they went ice cold in the final frame and lost a 24-point lead, losing in overtime. Part of the rationale for bringing in Durant was the fact that he can get a shot off whenever he wants, but there’s an argument that his presence could make it more difficult in crunch time because he’s used to isolating in those situations, which runs counter to Golden State’s identity.
I understand that logic, and whatever the Warriors do the next time they’re in a close game will be analyzed in detail. If given the choice, however, between having Durant or not having Durant in a clutch situation, every executive and coach in the league would like to have him.
Golden State does not have many true weaknesses. The main one is defensive rebounding — only the lowly
New York Knicks
grabbed a smaller percentage of available defensive boards in the regular season. The book on the Warriors isn’t much different than it was last year when the
Oklahoma City Thunder
challenged them and the
beat them — dominate the offensive glass, switch as much as possible to prevent their offense from flowing, and push the ball like crazy in transition to avoid facing their halfcourt defense. If all of that was easy, though, then they wouldn’t have won 67 games.
We should just ignore the Warriors’ first-round series then?
Not necessarily. The
Portland Trail Blazers
didn’t get demolished when they met Golden State in the second round last year. Some of that is because Curry missed the first three games, but a lot of it was also because Portland can be a handful offensively.
and C.J. McCollum like the challenge of competing against the Splash Brothers, and if
is healthy, then the center will present a different kind of problem — and annoy as many Warriors as he can.
These games could be fun and somewhat competitive. You’d be hard-pressed, though, to find anybody outside the Blazers’ locker room who thinks their defense stands a chance against the Warriors’ firepower. If you’re a fan without an allegiance, the best you can hope for is a few shootouts. If Portland doesn’t get hot from 3-point range, blowouts are likely.
How much of a threat are the
San Antonio Spurs
and the rest of the West?
Kerr borrowed the phrase “appropriate fear” from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and he will make sure his team has it for any of its playoff opponents. That said, there’s a fair bit of distance between Golden State at its peak and any of these challengers, and sweeping the Blazers would make everything easier.
If the Warriors take care of the Portland quickly, then they could have much fresher legs than their second-round opponent.
Los Angeles Clippers
is widely considered the closest first-round series on paper, and it could turn out to be a seven-game slugfest. If it’s as tightly contested as most think it will be, then either team might be mentally and physically drained by the time they face Golden State. That could result in another short series, even though Los Angeles and Utah are both excellent teams that could theoretically pose problems.
The Spurs and Rockets were the second- and third-best teams in the NBA by net rating, and if neither one is upset in the first round, then one will face the Warriors in the playoffs. The teams differ stylistically, but they are similar in that they have powerful offenses and MVP candidates. San Antonio also had the NBA’s top defense (edging the Warriors by 0.2 points per 100 possession), but there are real questions about whether or not that will hold up in a playoff environment, especially against Golden State. Houston might actually have the best shot simply because of variance: it is going to shoot an absolute ton of 3-pointers every game, and when a high percentage of them go in, it can beat anybody.
Without a serious injury, suspension or some other kind of unanticipated disaster, any Warriors loss before the Finals will be a massive upset. They shouldn’t be expected to win by 30 every time, but they have earned the right to be considered the massive favorites all the way through.
What about the Cavaliers?
The way they’ve been playing, it might be foolish to assume a third straight Warriors-Cavs meeting is in the cards. Cleveland has seemed slow and tired for a while now, and it will have to break some bad habits defensively to even have a chance to win back-to-back titles. The Cavs do have one thing going for them that nobody else does, though:
is on their roster.
If it wasn’t already obvious, the whole world learned last June that you can never count James out, even when his team is down 3-1 against the best regular-season team in NBA history. He is intimately familiar with Golden State’s personnel and tendencies, and he has the shooters around him that he needs to manufacture good looks against the league’s best defenses.
Since Cleveland’s competitors in the East have gotten better, a return to the Finals would likely mean that it figured out how to stay more connected on defense somewhere along the way. The Cavs’ playoff rotation won’t be that different from last season —
were non-factors in the comeback — and they have proven they can overcome adversity. They needed a few lucky breaks and three of the best individual performances in Finals history from James in order to pull it off last year, though, and, assuming the Warriors are healthy in June, they might need even more than that this time.
If there’s a rematch, Golden State will need to consistently create good shots despite Cleveland switching everything. It will need to exploit mismatches and not let the Cavs make them uncomfortable. If Cleveland flips the switch, some of this could be challenging, but based on how the Warriors’ season has gone, they should be able to figure it all out.
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