Forty hours ago, the Warriors were reeling. Trailing in the second-half on the road in New Orleans and already working on their first three-game losing streak of the season, this looked like the team we’ve become all too familiar with since 2007. One synonymous with the same kind of postseason-less failure, one that can’t be counted on, and one that’s snake-bitten by perpetual injuries to its marquee players.
Basically, Golden State was finally playing like the NBA world and all but the optimistic Warriors fans expected them to this season. They were fading from the playoff picture as quickly as they painted their own throughout the year’s first half, that ever-there belief and cohesion eroding with every nagging injury and missed shot.
But one fourth quarter and 48 minutes of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day basketball later and all that’s changed; such is the reward for beating a league-best team for the third time in four tries for what may be the best win of the season. Behind a dominant, team-wide fourth quarter performance and some scorching Steph Curry shooting, the Warriors righted the ship just as it was sinking and beat the Los Angeles Clippers 106-99 in front of a frenzied sellout crowd at Oracle Arena on Monday afternoon.
There’s much to be gleaned basketball-wise from Golden State’s impressive win. This was a competitive, back-and-forth game throughout, one that saw a 66-point first quarter total followed up by a 38-point second and a gritty Warriors comeback late after the Clippers’ nearly-fatal third quarter run. Individual performances and the matchup chess game can be analyzed endlessly, too; Golden State had no answer for Blake Griffin and Los Angeles not one for Curry, as Chris Paul and David Lee uncharacteristically struggled for the game’s majority.
But there’s ample time to study x’s and o’s, every opportunity to dig deep into a saturated box score. For now this is about the Warriors being who we thought they were for the last two months and not who we did the last five years – a bonafide playoff team.
Postseason experience, success, and failure is only achieved by earning it. The stigma that a team must endure growing pains before winning sustained playoff success is tired and cliched, but that makes it no less true. Only the 2008 Celtics come to mind of a squad thrown together in haste winning a championship their first year together, even superteams like the LeBron-era Heat crawling in the playoffs before they walk. The Oklahoma City Thunder, too, famously lost in the first round of their initial postseason go-round; today the major parts of that same group are the league’s presumptive title-favorite.
So to expect Golden State to enjoy unprecedented postseason success this Spring is setting yourself up for disappointment. It’s entirely possible the Warriors win a first round series as is, and who knows what they’ll look like with a healthy Andrew Bogut in the lineup. But they’re not challenging OKC, San Antonio, and these very Clippers for the Western Conference crown this season. Know that now.
But also know Golden State already has the gumption, chutzpah, and winning endurance needed to be anything more than playoff prey to the league’s very best. They showed it Saturday in New Orleans while staring four consecutive losses in the face and refusing to blink, and again Monday afternoon in Oakland when Paul, Griffin, and the – dare we say rival? – Clippers rode a 12-0 run to open the fourth quarter ahead 80-73. Not even some questionable officiating would hold the Warriors back today, as Curry and Lee braved foul trouble to will their team back to a penultimate lead and take the season-series from LAC three games to one.
Watching Lee in particular was a study in frustrated NBA know-how. On countless occasions in the second half was Golden State’s potential All-Star on the wrong side of 50/50 calls and no-calls. Even after his phantom fifth personal foul with just over nine minutes remaining, though, Lee refused to let it affect him. He channeled his obvious but measured displeasure with the referees into his play, playing exceptional, foul-less individual and team defense and setting countless screens to free Golden State’s three-guard lineup for buckets.
Then there’s Curry, undeterred by four early fouls of his own, leading the Warriors’ fourth quarter charge with 16 points and three assists, including a quartet of game-changing three-pointers. While Golden State’s home TV announcers lauded the surreal late-game abilities of Paul, it was Curry who steered his team to victory when the game was on the line. Simply put, it was an All-Star worthy performance whether the coaches bestow him that honor or not.
Expectedly led by their two best, recently absent, potential All-Star players, the Warriors glass is suddenly half-full again. Shot-making, defensive communication, and some well-timed Clippers misses certainly helped their cause, but Golden State won this game and perhaps even saved their season because they repeatedly refused this organization’s old company line.
Lee, Curry, and company played with the passionate poise and unobstructed conviction of a team that’s been through the throes of playoff basketball before. They haven’t, of course, but after today there’s little doubt they will be, and even greater reason to believe they could thrive once they are.
Follow Jack Winter on Twitter @armstrongwinter.