A few short days after I watched the Lakers compete hard against the Miami Heat, took a look at the Warriors schedule, and pronounced that the Warriors still have a tough road ahead to make the playoffs, I’m ready to take it all back. This Warriors team is going to the playoffs. Guaranteed.
The Warriors have beaten two of the toughest teams on the schedule. The Lakers have gone into not just a tailspin, but a patented Kobe implosion, fueled by 10-32 and 7-22 shooting performances. Now comes the news that Dwight Howard has reinjured his shoulder.
That might actually be a good thing for the Lakers. Howard may quite possibly never again be the player he was prior to his back surgery — and quite obviously won’t be this season, at any rate. Deprived of his freakish athleticism, he’s just another undersized center with no offensive skills and no brain. But unlike those other centers, still retaining a toxic superstar ego. He was involved in a huge clash of wills with Kobe over his role in the offense, to the point of waving boxscores (Kobe 22 shots, Howard 5) in sportswriters faces.
Pau Gasol hates Kobe too, but not as much as Howard. Pau’s a consummate professional, willing to put aside his ego for the good of the team. And he’s a far better fit with Steve Nash in D’Antoni’s offensive system. So there’s still an outside chance the Lakers will get it together enough to grab the 8th seed.
But not enough to catch the Warriors. That ship done sailed.
Is it a total miracle that the Lakers self-destructed this season? I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s certainly something that none of the pundits (save one) predicted.
And you might call it one of several minor miracles that have combined to create the one giant miracle that is this Warriors season.
The Rise and Fall of the Western Conference Miracle
The Lakers imploded.
The fabulously talented TWolves have been wiped from the map by a biblical plague of injuries.
The Mavericks whiffed in the offseason, then suffered a Dirk Nowitzki knee injury.
The Jazz appear willing to tank this season’s playoff berth in order to dump Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap, making room for the young fellas Favors and Kanter.
The Blazers are attempting to rebuild via a patented Joe Lacob tank job, entering the season with a bench stripped of veterans. Like any team led by David Lee, however, the Blazers’ starters haven’t yet gotten the memo.
The Rockets, by contrast, attempted a rebuild by dumping all of their starters, before stunning the NBA with the trade for James Harden. (I wonder, could Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh and a #1 have fetched Harden to the Warriors? Could a starting lineup of Curry, Harden, Thompson, Lee and Ezeli have gotten anything done?)
The Suns dumped Nash, added Michael Beasley, and predictably fell to pieces.
Bottom line, the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture is weaker than it has been in decades. It’s quite likely that a .500 record, or worse, will earn the 8th seed.
The Scheduling Miracle
I don’t want to take anything away from how the Warriors are playing. They deserve everything they’ve achieved this season. But I have been absolutely astonished at the numbers of breaks they have been afforded by the schedule.
Have you noticed how many of their toughest opponents have shown up at Oracle on the back end of a back to back, to meet a fresh and rested Warriors squad?
Have you noticed how many of their toughest opponents have had key players missing, or worse — playing on one leg — when the Warriors met them? Hawks without Horford, TWolves without Love and Pekovich, Mavs without Nowitzki, Nets without Wallace here, Lopez away, Celtics without Rondo. And in the last two games, Clippers with an utterly crippled Chris Paul, and the Thunder with Russell Westbrook playing through either a re-aggravated or freshly created hip injury that left him more passive and incapable of movement then I’ve ever seen him. I don’t believe he’s ever attempted fewer drives than he did last night. (And with all due respect to Klay Thompson, his defense wasn’t the reason.)
Don’t try to bring up Bogut and Rush, that’s beside the point: I’m trying to point out the break the Warriors have gotten versus their competitors that have faced, or will face, these same teams at full strength.
These little everyday NBA occurrences don’t merit the word miracle. But put them all together, and they seem part and parcel of the magical aura currently surrounding this Warriors team.
The Opponent Three Point Shooting % Miracle
I’ve pointed this out in my last two posts. The Warriors are currently second in the league in Opponent Three Point Shooting %, at 32.7%. You might think this had something to do with their improved defense this season, but it really doesn’t. The Warriors defense is largely designed to induce their opponents into shooting from outside. The three is what the Warriors are giving.
Last night, the Thunder came into the Oracle #1 in the league in three point shooting %, at over 39%. Against the Warriors, they shot 5-16, for 31%. Were any of those threes contested?
It’s been crazy like that.
The Larry Riley Miracle
I’m referring of course to Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green, the two great defensive rookies that Larry Riley discovered and persuaded the Warriors to draft with the 30th and 35th picks. Where would the Warriors be this season without Ezeli and Green?
Larry Riley, disgraced, stripped of his GM title, made to take the fall for Joe Lacob’s tank jobs and ambitions. Larry Riley, desaparecido, completely unmentioned by Joe Lacob in his frequent self-aggrandizing interviews with house organ Tim Kawakami.
Larry Riley pulled Joe Lacob’s fat out the fire in this first season of the Andrew Bogut fiasco.
The Warriors defensive improvement has been remarkable this season. They are currently 12th in the league in what is known as defensive efficiency, or points per possession. Quite an improvement over the previous two seasons of Joe Lacob’s stewardship.
Mark Jackson deserves some credit for that. In particular, I love the fact that he has turned himself into a dynamic defensive tactician, tailoring his defensive gameplans to the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents. Take his recent gameplans, for example, where he had Klay Thompson counter-intuitively guarding Tony Parker, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. Absolutely marvelous, baby. (I’ll get into what I think were the reasons for this tactic in a later post.)
But as I’ve stated before — and I think Mark Jackson would agree — 90% of the credit for the Warriors defensive improvement is due to the Warriors’ upgrade in defensive personnel on the front line. Ezeli, Green, and Landry. But in particular, Festus Ezeli. The first living, breathing defensive center the Warriors have had since Andris Biedrins contracted osteitis pubis back in 2009. Take that strategy of having Thompson guard the point guard: it doesn’t work unless your center has the extraordinary athletic and intellectual ability to show on the pick and roll and yet recover in time to defend the rim. To, in effect, double-team the point guard without losing contact with his own man. That extraordinary player is Festus Ezeli.
The improved defense of David Lee this season? I predicted it, back before Lee had played his first game in a Warriors uniform. The main reason Lee is a much better defender this season is simply because, for literally the first time in his career, he has been given strong defensive teammates on the front line to play alongside. For the first time in his career, he is no longer alone on an island on defense. Has his defensive intensity increased? You bet it has, as a result. It only makes sense to exert yourself on defense, when that effort pays you dividends.
The improved defense of Stephen Curry? Well he’s being hidden quite a bit, as he was on the likes of Danny Green, Willie Green and Thabo Sefalosha in the last 3 games. But also, for the first time in his career, he is able to press up on his opponents, and funnel their drives into a trap.
A trap by the name of Festus Ezeli.
The Nellieball Miracle
The biggest miracle of all in this miraculous Warriors season? The beautiful offensive basketball the Warriors are playing.
The Nellieball 2nd and 4th quarters. The uptempo. The aggressive, early threes. The aggressive, completely empowered point guards creating for themselves off of simple high screens. The glorious David Lee pick and roll.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
Do you happen to remember the Warriors’ 3-4 start to the season? The Warriors walking the ball up the court, and making a wing entry to start some complicated motion offense that resulted in nothing? Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli and Carl Landry being force-fed postups? Stephen Curry and David Lee and Jarret Jack reduced to the role of bystanders? Off the ball outlets?
The Warriors media sharpening their knives for Mark Jackson?
That was Joe Lacob’s glorious plan coming into this season. For the first time in 20 odd years, the Warriors were going to play BIG. And run post-up offense.
This was the result: Curry and Thompson opening the season with horrid shooting percentages. Jarrett Jack averaging 8 pts, 4.5 assts., also on horrid shooting. David Lee averaging 13 pts.
And this was the result: Losing.
The absolutely gorgeous, newly confident basketball the Warriors are now playing is a direct result of Andrew Bogut pulling the plug, and Mark Jackson awakening almost immediately to the fact that he would have to radically redesign the Warriors’ style of play if he wanted to keep his job.
In other words, the basketball the Warriors are playing right now — Stephen Curry and Jarrett Jack completely unleashed to create and launch at will on the fast break, or off the high screen — Klay Thompson firing quick open court threes as well — David Lee surgically dissecting and destroying teams at crunch-time center, in the pick and roll — this glorious basketball was
And it’s a miracle we got to see it.
It is a miracle that after two long soul-crushing seasons under Joe Lacob’s amateurish and confused stewardship, Warriors fans have finally gotten the chance to see their two great all-stars playing together in the only system that allows their phenomenal talents to flower. The system that Joe Lacob said can’t win in the playoffs, and called “the sins of the past.”
To paraphrase Mark Jackson, praise Brahma,Vishnu and Shiva. Glory be to Buddha. Baruch atah Adonai elohaynu, melech ha’olam.