DALLAS – After two months of near invincibility, the rest of the NBA has discovered the Golden State Warriors do in fact have weaknesses – two to be exact.
On Dec. 12, the Milwaukee Bucks handed the Warriors their first loss of the season, ending a 24-0 start. How did they do it and what can other teams learn from it?
The Warriors were playing the last game of a 12-day, seven-game road trip. They had played the previous night in Boston, where they had to go to two overtimes to beat the Celtics. They had a flight to Milwaukee after the game and got in bed only a couple of hours before sunrise.
They were not exactly a lively crew that night.
Then on Wednesday, Golden State came to Dallas after a five-game homestand. The Warriors had not traveled in two weeks and were well rested. Despite that, they were no match for the Mavericks, who built a lead that reached 30 points before winning 114-91.
In a related story, Steph Curry sat on the bench in street clothes, resting a bruised left shin.
So the task for opposing teams is quite simple – make sure the Warriors are very, very tired … or figure out a way to keep the MVP out of the game.
Otherwise, they have proven to be unbeatable.
It did not help Wednesday that they were missing three other players – Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Leandro Barbosa – with a variety of ailments/injuries. That was noted by Dallas guard Devin Harris, who delivered one of the greatest understatements in recorded sports history.
‘They were a little short-handed tonight,” Harris said. “Might have made a little difference.”
Yes Devin, and if you visit the South Pole without a jacket, you might be a little underdressed.
A little difference? Forget Barnes, Ezeli and Barbosa. Focus on Curry.
“It’s 30 points out of the lineup,” Draymond Green said, “but it’s really more than that. It’s the assists and just the attention that’s paid to him.”
The box score supported that. The Warriors lead the NBA with a 114.1 scoring average. Wednesday, they had 91.
They lead the NBA in assists with 28.4 a game. Wednesday, they had 20.
Klay Thompson and Green make 46 and 45 percent of their field goal attempts, respectively. Wednesday, each was 4-of-15 from the field.
The Warriors were appropriately critical of themselves after the game. They allow 101.8 points a game and gave up 114. So the defensive effort was not great.
“Even while he’s out,” interim coach Luke Walton said, “we should still be able to compete better than that and win ballgames.”
“We can’t just lose games because he’s out,” he said. “We’ve got to make it work.”
There is something the Warriors can’t say, however, but the rest of us can. Obviously their effort has to improve defensively. Even without Curry, they have enough talent to beat at least half of the teams in the league, maybe more. They got 38 points from Thompson and an NBA-leading fifth triple-double from Draymond Green on New Year’s Eve in defeating the Houston Rockets 114-110 to improve to 30-2.
But they knew already they are not going to win a second straight title if they are missing key players. While they are confident they could have beaten a full-strength Cleveland team in the Finals last season, they saw first-hand how difficult the Cavs had it playing without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love.
The fact is that so far this season, when the Warriors are healthy and rested, they are unbeatable. There were no heads hanging after the loss Wednesday. The Warriors still had the same confident look they have had all season. Even the poor defensive effort will be helpful because it will remind them they have to play harder. And in an 82-game season, it is not uncommon that players benefit from periodic reminders.
Before the season, the NBA made the correct decision to showcase the Warriors and Cavaliers on the featured Christmas Day game. But looking at it now, wouldn’t it have been great to see that first Golden State-San Antonio matchup that we’re still waiting for (circle your calendars for Monday, Jan. 25).
On the flip side, the two teams – along with Cleveland, clearly the class of the league – will meet twice in the last week of the season. After playing in Golden State 3 1/2 weeks from now and in San Antonio on March 19, the Warriors and Spurs have a home-and-home on April 7 and April 10.
Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki was not asked about the Spurs, but had this assessment of the Warriors:
“If they’re healthy, they’re a heavy, heavy favorite to win it again,” he said. “They’ve got athletes, they’ve got shooting, they’ve got defense, they’ve got rim protection. I think it’s as complete of a team as we’ve ever seen in this league.”
And as Devin Harris might say, when playoff time arrives, the Warriors are going to be a little tough to beat.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.