I’ve doubted this team all year long. From the instant they started 2-0 on the road, to their 4 straight road wins over Detroit, Brooklyn, Washington, and Chartlotte. They just hadn’t been IMPRESSIVE to me. I loved how they were battling. I loved how they seemed to not crack under pressure, but they were still JUST getting by. It didn’t seem to me, especially after the home loss to Orlando before the start of this road trip, that this could carry on all season without Andrew Bogut. I was excited, but I didn’t believe in what they were accomplishing. After knocking off the LeBron James and the champs in Miami, that’s all changed.
The way they played last night was an exclamation point on a season that has seen almost everything go their way, at least since the loss of Bogut and Brandon Rush. This team has experienced a change, a breakthrough so apart from the way they played last season and in 2010-2011, that it’s almost impossible to believe. Their off-season acquisitions, Jarret Jack and Carl Landry have been huge in implementing a tougher team attitude. But above all else, I believe in Mark Jackson. Jackson was oft despised by Warrior (and other) fans for his work with ESPN as a broadcaster. That, combined with his non-existent coaching record, made him a very unpopular hire off the bat, when there was a market for a couple of coaches thought to be much better (names mentioned at the time: Brian Shaw, Rick Adelman, Mike Brown). Last season was a disappointment for Jackson, as he never really got a chance to prove himself. He didn’t get a full training camp to implement his new team philosophy. Stephen Curry went down with ankle problems very early on, and Andris Biedrins continued to play terrible basketball, leaving the Warriors in the ever-present search for a good center.
Suffice to say, he continued to be criticized more than was actually warranted. Early on, I counted myself among his detractors, but even before the season had begun, I had started seeing the things he was bringing to the team. He was pushing Stephen Curry to take steps forward in his game. He had incredible confidence in everyone on his team. There was no player he wouldn’t profess supreme trust and belief in. It seemed, just by perseverance alone, he could improve this team. He talked of a winning attitude, a commitment to rebounding and defense. He struggled to get the team, led By Monta Ellis and David Lee, to commit to the concept. Just as it felt like he was getting close, after the decision to start Ekpe Udoh at center, it became clear that Steph would struggle with his ankle injury the rest of the season. Rather than attempt to climb back into the playoff race, the front office decided upon a risky move. A couple risky moves, actually. First, they shut down Curry for the rest of the season. Next the decided it was the perfect time to try and pounce on a possible top center in injured big man Bogut. With retaining their draft pick riding on finishing in the bottom 7, they began to shut down one player after another, playing their remaining good players less and less as the season wore on.
It worked out. The Warriors finished with the 7th pick in the draft, pushing the pick the Utah Jazz would receive for a past trade to next season. They also ended up, in the draft, getting all 3 players they had targeted highly at their draft positions. Harrison Barnes, a SF for the future, Festus Ezeli, as close to an NBA-ready defensive big man as could be found in the draft, and Draymond Green, a great college player who had fallen due to lack of a position at the NBA level.
And since that moment at the lottery, when the Warriors confirmed possession of their draft pick, there’s been a change in the way the Warriors play basketball. All their new players have bought into Mark Jackson and his philosophy. Without a single great individual defender, the Warriors are the most improved defensive team in the league. Everything they’ve done has been built around a team concept. And last night was the culmination of all of it. After a great start without much hype, they went into Miami last night and made sure people were paying attention. Whenever they trailed, they fought back. Whenever LeBron hit a tough shot, they responded. Whenever the pressure tightened, they looked like a better team than the champs. It was a masterful game from the Warriors as a whole. And it came with Steph Curry playing his worst game in what many believe has already been a down season for him.
Why did it work? Why does it work? Because this team is unselfish. Curry, while not an elite-level talent in the NBA, is possibly the least selfish-for-his-abilities player in the league. Whenever the Heat doubled or trapped him, he made an effort to take his two defenders out of the play by passing to the open space. He didn’t try and beat them off the dribble, where he might have struggled even more. Instead he limited the harm he was inflicting by giving his team numerous 4 on 3 offensive chances. Over and over he hit the open man, who then was able to make the offensive play. He set up easy scoring opportunities for Lee and Klay Thompson, off of late rotations by the Heat. A couple plays are easiest to remember. After being trapped at the top of the key, he bobbled the ball around before hitting Lee on the wing, who whipped the ball to Thompson for an open 3. Later in the game, he was trapped at half-court, then hitting a sprinting Lee who raced up the court for a 4-on-3 easy score in the paint. At the end of the game, he had no problem running off screens and letting Jarrett Jack handle the ball. The result? The game-winning alley-oop lay-in for Draymond Green.
Curry didn’t get credit for assists in most of these plays, but it showed that even in a terrible scoring game, he could make an impact. It showed the growth that he’s been experiencing all season. And it showed how great the other players on this team can be. Everyone else is just good enough to make sure that trapping Steph Curry is not a good offensive strategy. As Steph adjusts to this kind of defense (Hint: Less turnovers), it could be an even worse strategy.
So this is what this win means: The Warriors are for real. It’s not a hot start. It’s not a team playing above their heads. It’s a team of average parts combining to play better than the sum of them. Their commitment to a team game has made them a threat to everyone the way the Grizzlies have been a threat the past couple seasons. The ceiling for this team is high. One caveat: if you think this began this season, you weren’t watching last year. Mark Jackson has had this team on this path from the moment he was announced as the team’s head coach. Having a full off-season and a new binder-full of committed rookies and veterans has only sped it up. So “all the credit in the world,” that goes to him. And his team, it’s going to be fun to watch this year.