In assembling the franchise’s best start in over two decades, the Golden State Warriors have already beaten the Clippers, Nuggets, Mavericks, and Hawks, all 2012 playoff teams that are likely to be there again come April. They’ve dispatched potential postseason newbies Brooklyn and Minnesota twice each, too, and currently ride a four-game road winning streak. And they’ve done it all without Andrew Bogut. Basically, life is good in the Bay and may only get better as the season wears on, the schedule eventually eases, and the Warriors finally gain a clean bill of health.
But before any of that, Golden State faces perhaps their toughest matchup of the season tomorrow on the road against Miami. The defending champion and overwhelming 2013 favorite Heat have been far from perfect this season, hardly immune to the Larry O’Brien Trophy hangover typical of most title winners. They’ve been uncharacteristically sloppy on defense, Dwyane Wade’s been slow to recover from offseason knee surgery, and Erik Spoelstra is currently tinkering with what looked like a set-in-stone playing rotation. Miami, like every other team in the league, has had their share of issues in the early going.
But this is still the Heat, Wade is still Wade, Chris Bosh is still Chris Bosh, and LeBron James still plays on a different level – perhaps even higher than the one he orbited last year – than most any other player in NBA history. Miami is 14-5, leads the Southeast, and is riding an impressive two-game win streak in which those much-ballyhooed defensive breakdowns have been missing. For all the scrutiny they’ve faced the last six weeks, they’re right on schedule in their title defense despite seemingly playing in cruise control for most of the season.
But the Heat are beatable, and there would be no better way for the Warriors to cement their new place among the league’s upper-echelon than doing just that. Following are several keys to tomorrow’s matchup in South Beach.
- Miami plays an aggressive, attacking style on defense, constantly rotating and switching to overplay passing lanes and thwart pick-and-rolls before they get started. And they’ve got the quickness, length, and versatility to do so better than most, as evidenced by the major success they’ve enjoyed on that end of the floor since the core of this team came together in 2010. But the Heat – playing primarily small for the first time and integrating two new pieces – aren’t immune to breakdowns and miscommunication, the crux of their 19th-ranked defensive efficiency. So how to do the Warriors exploit Miami’s weaknesses? The long ball. And lots of it. The Heat allow more three-point attempts (25.2) than any team in the NBA and the second-most makes (9.1). Their opponents shoot a mediocre 36.0% on threes, but that’s a notoriously fickle statistic; what’s most important is that the opportunities are there. And what backcourt tandem to better take advantage of them than Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. If the Warriors pull-off the minor upset, three-point shooting will be a major reason why.
- Aside from the historically bad Boston Celtics, no team grabs fewer of their own misses than Miami. And Golden State cleans the defensive glass better than any team in the league, collecting just over 75% of the opposition’s missed shots. So the Heat won’t get second-chance opportunities, that much is certain. But will the Warriors? GS ranks 10th in offensive rebounding percentage and Miami 13th on the other end, so it stands to reason this could swing the game in the direction of either side. The Warriors rely on multiple shots in a given possession for offense, and if the Heat can prevent them that’s another factor in their favor. Vice versa? The same applies.
Golden State’s Three Guard Lineup
- Defending LeBron James is futile. So while Harrison Barnes offers a rare combination of size and athleticism that makes him, in theory, an ideal LeBron-stopper, that likely won’t matter; James will get his regardless. So it makes sense that Mark Jackson would rely on lineups featuring Jarrett Jack, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson on the perimeter as much as he normally does, even if that means James has a more favorable matchup. The Warriors move the ball and space the floor best with this trio on the floor together, two factors that are key against the Heat’s fledgling defensive attack. So it should prove strength on strength when Golden State goes this route, the Warriors moving with extra pace and precision and firing from deep more than ever, while James produces at a level even better than what he normally does. Whoever wins this arm-wrestling match will have an upper-hand that could ultimately decide the winner.
David Lee and Carl Landry
- In the past two weeks I’ve claimed that each of Golden State’s power forwards is playing better than any of his peers. And when they do so simultaneously, like last night in Charlotte, the Warriors are extremely tough to beat. What about when they’re actually on the floor together, though? Predictably, the results are overwhelmingly in favor of GS. This unlikely interior tandem boasts the team’s top plus/minus of any duo (+7.3) and is especially devastating on offense; the Warriors score more efficiently and offensive rebound far better when Lee and Landry man the post than any other twosome. And though neither is exactly All-League worthy on the other end, their collective offensive contribution easily outweighs any deficiencies they present on defense. Given that and the tendencies of the Heat, expect to see a lot of them tomorrow night. Miami prefers playing small with James or Shane Battier as a de facto power forward, and while the former would have no problem checking either Lee or Landry, Battier is sometimes easily bullied in the post. If that proves true, Spoelstra will have to decide between sticking with the the preseason’s plan of small-ball or playing more traditionally with a true big man (UdonisHaslem or Joel Anthony) alongside Bosh. It’s a win for the Warriors regardless, though, as the Heat are better offensively when they’re playing that position-less style that features Battier or Rashard Lewis.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.
Follow Jack Winter on Twitter @armstrongwinter.