With Golden State’s exhilarating 104-99 win over the NBA best Oklahoma City Thunder late Wednesday night, the Warriors moved to 26-15, and became the only team this season to post W’s over the Miami Heat, Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers – frequently regarded as the leagues three best teams.
At the halfway point of this already frantic NBA season, the Warriors’ 26 wins are already three more than they totaled last season. They’ve gone from perennial lottery team to a team to avoid at all costs in the playoffs.
Last season Golden State was a lost cause, circling the drain before drowning in the NBA’s dark abyss. The franchise waved the white flag by midseason when it traded its best player, Monta Ellis, in what certainly seemed to be a strategic tanking ploy to save a draft pick – traded to Utah if outside the top seven. It all boiled over on March 19, when all of Oracle Arena redirected its frustration and booed owner, Joe Lacob, as he honored Warriors legend Chris Mullin at halftime. As the boos avalanched down onto Lacob and several Warriors greats, Mullin had to grab the mic and plead with his fans to stop. They kept booing.
As a casual observer and a loyal minion to my own cursed franchise – the Cleveland Cavaliers – I cannot say they were unjust in their cause. After all, this is a franchise that, up until this season, missed the playoffs 30 times in 36 years and had more players (22) than wins (17) in 2001. They’ve blown so many personnel decisions over the last few decades that I feel lucky to be from Cleveland (that’s a little extreme), and they haven’t had an All-Star since 1997 (Latrell Sprewell).
This evening, before the Knicks and Celtics square off, the All-Star reserves will be announced (7:00pm EST on TNT) and Warriors golden boy Stephen Curry and forward David Lee both have a shot at making the team.
“We look around this arena and we have a lot of passionate, supportive fans,” Curry said to Ric Bucher after the game. “You know, ride or die type mentality, whether we have great years or bad years. To be 11 games over .500 and to put two guys in Houston for them is a big deal.”
Two All-Stars would be a nice feel-good memento for these Warriors, but they are less concerned with playing in Houston than they are about playing in April, May and June. And here’s why they can.
Mark Jackson’s dedication to defense
This is where it all starts for Golden State. Jackson, one of the premier point guards of the 90’s with the ultimate team-first mentality – third on the all-time assists big board – has continually worked to make defense a priority for a team mightily lacking in that regard.
With no coaching experience to his name, Jackson has done more than succeed. Golden State has jumped from 20th to sixth overall since Jackson’s arrival, a major factor in the teams’ ability to win on the road and finish games down the stretch.
After a surprising 10-7 start to the season, the Warriors traveled east for a make-or-break seven game road trip. They finished the trip 6-1 with wins at Brooklyn and a last-second thriller over Miami. In an interview with ESPN’s Bill Simmons, Curry and Lee claimed that road trip was the turning point. They knew they were for real.
To this point the Warriors have played 17 games with a three-point or less margin with 90 seconds to play. Last night’s victory over the Thunder helped them improve to 12-5 overall in those games, a major turnaround from last years inept 9-18 record in the same situation. A commitment to defense is one thing, but there’s also a specific three-guard lineup that has given opposing coaches fits this year.