In a convincing 108-95 road win over Cleveland last night, the Warriors had three players combine for 78 points, 21 rebounds, 22 assists and nine three-pointers. That type of production is hardly commonplace from any trio, but it’s not shocking coming from one as esteemed as Golden State’s top-three guys. Steph Curry, David Lee and Andrew Bogut are just that talented and versatile.
Only that Curry and Bogut sat the game out for precautionary reasons and all that production wasn’t theirs. No, Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack teamed with Lee for those monster numbers, leading the Warriors – without Curry, Bogut and Carl Landry and Harrison Barnes – to an away win against a Cavaliers team that was playing its best ball of the season, having won three games in-a-row.
That Golden State is capable of such a resounding win without four of their top seven players is reason to think big. Cleveland is hardly some world-beater and Kyrie Irving wasn’t himself as a result of the flu, but any road win in the NBA is hard to come by, and the Warriors didn’t just beat the Cavs – they pounded them. Golden State shot 53.8% from the field and connected on 11-of-16 tries from beyond the arc, setting a season-high for team assists (32) in the process. They bested Cleveland on the glass and blocked nine shots, too, with a frontcourt comprised of Lee and basic flotsam Andris Biedrins, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green. Even hoop-fanatic favorite Kent Bazemore got in on the act, scoring a career-high nine points in 30 minutes off the pine, leaving Curry and the rest to replace him as the team’s designated bench cheerleader.
The Warriors relied on individual excellence and collective contribution last night, a potent combination that every team strives for an a game-to-game basis. Their leading parts – if different than normal – did their job and then some while normally meager participants Bazemore and Charles Jenkins filled in the gaps for an ultimate team win. This victory stood out for reasons more than a short-handed roster; most notably, Golden State’s balance in terms of reliance on options one, two and three as options six, seven and eight.
Our own Ethan Sherwood Strauss recently argued against the Warriors’ ability to count on individual efforts for wins. After a humbling beat-down at the hands of Miami two weeks ago, he wrote:
“If a team is animated into quality because its pieces click just so, then an injury or two can derail the operation. The Warriors are carried by the collective decent, not the singularly brilliant. When GSW’s coalition of the competent shows up without some of its members, they can look awful.”
He’s right. On a day when LeBron James and the defending-champion Heat are at their best, Golden State won’t be able to withstand an injury to one of their top players. Few teams in the NBA can – those with multiple legitimate superstars like Miami, Oklahoma City and San Antonio or a team-wide amalgam of near-stars like those assembled in Denver and Memphis. The truth is the Warriors are somewhere in between those two extremes, possessing a clear roster pecking order that begins with Curry and Lee and rare depth seen in Sixth Man of the Year candidates Jack and Landry.
And that’s never been more evident than in last night’s short-handed win. Jack has struggled without Curry in the lineup for the most part this season, and Thompson’s been a relative disappointment all year long. But both showed what they’re capable of against Cleveland, and while neither shoulders so much burden when the Warriors are healthy, that they delivered with aplomb when they did is what makes Golden State so unique – their best guys are their best but their middling ones are anything but middling.
The Warriors’ top trio, the one we’d assume put up all those points, rebounds and assists against the Cavaliers, is hardly elite with respect to the rest of the league. They rank somewhere in the middle when comparing teams’ top players, and will remain so even as Curry, Lee and Bogut gain cohesion and comfort from time gleaned finally playing together. Golden State has no LeBron or Durant or even a Wade or Westbrook to complement him, but three borderline All-Stars – when healthy, of course – isn’t a top-end to take for granted. But those guys aren’t what make the Warriors potentially elite; the supporting cast spearheaded by Jack, Thompson and Landry does, with parts like Barnes, Green, Richard Jefferson, Ezeli and Biedrins playing roles and contributing when called upon.
Coming into the season, experts and analysts championed the “sense” and “logic” behind Golden State’s roster in predicting a playoff spot. No transcendant star meant the Warriors would win with quality in numbers. They were wrong and right, because Curry and Lee are playing better than that, while Jack, Landry and the rest are producing at that optimum level.
It makes for a unique composition – a playoff team with no luminaries but two deserving All-Stars and a group of consistently solid contributors behind them. And with Bogut finally back, maybe it makes a playoff series win or two as well.
Follow Jack Winter on Twitter @armstrongwinter.