After a shaky start, the Golden State Warriors put in their first signature win Tuesday night in Portland. What takeaways point to a team putting things together?
Nov 1, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) celebrates with teammates during the third quarter of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports
For a franchise that upgraded on a team that won 73 games, a lackluster start was not in the cards. After starting 24-0 last season, the Golden State Warriors fell on their face on Opening Night, losing by 29 at home to the San Antonio Spurs.
Newly acquired Kevin Durant played well, but the Warriors’ holdovers couldn’t muster any competition.
Two lackluster wins against lottery teams did not do much to put fans and critics at ease. The Warriors could only muster a six-point win against the Phoenix Suns, a team that lost by 19 to the Sacramento Kings.
An eight-point win against the New Orleans Pelicans doesn’t mean much when that same squad loses to the Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks at home.
A road game against the Portland Trail Blazers was an opportunity for the Warriors to test themselves against a solid opponent. Could Golden State put things together, or was the dominance going to be pushed back even further?
Portland got off to a fast start, but it was the Warriors’ night and their first blowout win of the season was not to be denied.
A couple of first-half runs put them ahead at the break, and a dominant third quarter put Golden State up by 27 entering the fourth. A familiar scene for those following the Warriors last season.
How did Golden State shake off whatever was plaguing them — be it rust, lack of chemistry, or the weight of being America’s new villain — and blow out a solid Portland squad? In every win there are a number of things to point to, but three things in particular stand out from the victory.
The most prominent, of course, is the excellence of Wardell Stephen Curry III.
Oct 30, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) reacts after being called for a foul against the Phoenix Suns during the first half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Stephen Curry Got Hot
At halftime, the Golden State Warriors held a six-point lead. Subtract Stephen Curry’s points and they would still have lead the Trail Blazers. His five points compared to Damian Lillard’s 22 at the break was a ready-made headline for Curry’s struggles to start the season.
Those struggles disappeared with the flick of the net in the wake of his first shot in the third, a three-pointer that started the fire. 12 minutes later, and Curry went from five to 28 points overall after a scorching quarter.
What many casual fans do not realize is that the best version of Stephen Curry is not the one who pulls up from 30-feet every time he crosses half-court. Yes, Curry is the best shooter in league history, and yes he can hit that shot consistently.
But the best version of Stephen Curry is one who scores all across the court.
During the third quarter Curry was everywhere, giving the ball up to Draymond Green and Ian Clark and racing past screens and helpless defenders. He had multiple catch-and-shoot three-pointers on the right wing, often with a recovering defender tickling his chin.
Curry was also active at the rim, streaking towards the basket and catching a pocket pass before laying it in. On one such play he received the pass, ducked under the hoop, and used his body to shield the layup from two defenders. And-one, three points the old-fashioned way.
Kevin Durant still leads the team in scoring, and that is fine. Stephen Curry doesn’t have to top the statistical leaderboards. But for the Golden State Warriors to be dominant, he needs nights like Tuesday when he is active and hitting shots from everywhere.
Once that third quarter began, Portland never stood a chance.
May 7, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Ian Clark (21) passes around Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) in game three of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports
The Warriors Got Help Off The Bench
Through three games this year, the Warriors’ Big Four were averaging 85 points per game combined. No other player on the team averaged more than five, nor had any bench player even hit double digits. If it wasn’t a star scoring, it wasn’t happening.
That’s a very different turn from last season, when the Warriors commonly got strong performances from outside the stars. Harrison Barnes, for all of his flaws, had the pedigree of an elite scoring forward and would put up the occasional 20-point game.
Andre Iguodala had nights where he slashed to the rim and spotted up from the corner en route to 15 or more.
Even the role players had scoring punch. Marreese Speights was streaky, but when the arrow pointed up he could drop 25 with a grin. Shaun Livingston would find the right matchup and completely abuse a smaller guard in the post. Leandro Barbosa always had a spark.
The game against Portland was the first display that the bench could support the starters, and it was led by lesser-known guard Ian Clark. The fourth-year player out of Belmont saw some spot action last season when Curry or Livingston were injured, including some strong performances in the playoffs against Houston.
But none of his performances to date compared to what he unleashed in Portland, dropping a career-high 22 points on the Trail Blazers in 25 minutes. He checked into the game with the Warriors down 20-14 in the first quarter, and by the end of the frame the Warriors led 34-25 and Clark had 11 points.
Overall he shot 8-for-8, canned three triples, and was a perfect 3-of-3 from the line.
Clark didn’t just look for his own shot, but was active feeding the ball to Steph Curry. After Clark proved he had to be closely guarded, the defense sprouted holes that Steph ran through, catching passes that turned into shot at both the rim and the arc.
Clark finished with only one assist, but his ball movement helped to spark Curry’s explosion.
Andre Iguodala also got free in transition to pitch in 11 points, a season high for one of the league’s best bench players. His plus-39 was a team-high, followed by fellow bench veteran David West at plus-26.
If the bench can contribute at similar levels moving forward, this Super Team will have the support it needs to dominate opponents.
Nov 1, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) passes the ball as Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) defends during the first quarter of the game at the Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports
The Team’s Defense Locked In
Against the Spurs the Golden State Warriors completely folded on defense. The problems started at the pivot, where Zaza Pachulia looked helpless trying to defend the rim. Through four games he has continued to struggle in the middle, amassing a total of zero steals and blocks.
With Pachulia riding the bench in the first quarter, Golden State unleashed a version of the Death Lineup with Draymond Green at center and blitzed the Trail Blazers. An aforementioned career night from Ian Clark sparked the offense scoring 20 points in 5:07 of game time.
Just as impressively, the defense held Portland to just four points over that same stretch.
The length of Draymond Green and Kevin Durant form a frontcourt that is nearly impenetrable for pocket passing or shaky ball handlers. Both have incredible recovery speed and strong defensive instincts.
Durant doesn’t have the lower body strength that Harrison Barnes did, but his faster hands and increased reach more than make up for the difference.
The reason the Death Lineup was so potent last season was its ability to space the floor on offense without giving up defensive ground. With Durant the Warriors’ best five should be able to lock in on defense.
While that defensive presence was missing through the first three games, it came roaring back in Portland.
The wild card for the Warriors is whether the team has rim protection outside of Draymond Green. With Pachulia struggling, and the team’s other options still too young to drink, that burden falls on the shoulder of David West.
Tuesday night he checked in during that 20-4 run and continued the defensive pressure, playing alongside Green to lock down the Trail Blazers.
Any defensive contribution from West, McAdoo, or Looney will go a long way towards helping this team win games. Their offense will continue to pick up speed, and more than likely they will pace the league again this year.
But for the Warriors to go from a title contender to the presumptive winners, they need to bring an elite defense with them.
A few 20-4 runs and every opponent will fall to pieces. With the league’s reigning MVP, contributions from the bench, and a strong defense the Warriors will continue to win games by the start of the fourth quarter as they did in Portland.