The Week That Was:
More than anything else, last week serves as a perspective test. Functionally writing off the loss to the Pacers makes sense as they are one of the best teams in the league and a brutal matchup for the Warriors. However, the Pacers followed up their Oracle win with losses at Phoenix and Denver sandwiching a narrow overtime win in Sacramento. I do not put too much stock in those subsequent results since we know the Pacers are incredibly good and four road games in six days is quite the undertaking.
After that, the loss to Minnesota could have some lingering effects. The Warriors shot 55.1% from the field and 40.9% from three while having more assists and points off turnovers and still lost to the Wolves. Coach Jackson focused his criticism on the defensive effort saying that there was “not one guy that is doing their job defensively” after Minnesota made half their shots on a Golden State team still sitting at fifth in defensive efficiency. Those kinds of games are problematic, especially at home against an opponent they should handle.
Finally, the team got a win against a strong Portland team that feels more hollow with the proper context. Covering the game, I felt at halftime that the Blazers had not played well and still only trailed by one in a tough building. It only took a few minutes of the second half to remember that Portland was playing the tail end of a back-to-back, their third game in four nights, and their fifth that week when it was Golden State’s third. It still marked a nice rebound game for the Warriors and one of David Lee’s best all-around performances of the season and plenty can be taken away from a good team effort.
The other important news of the week came when Stephen Curry secured a place as an All Star starter. Hearty congratulations to a deserving player. It has been a genuine pleasure to cover Steph’s entire pro career and this should be the first of many All-Star appearances.
The Soapbox: The Expectations Game
Earlier in the week, it seemed like the article in this space was going to focus on how injuries to the top teams have opened the door for healthier squads like the Warriors and Blazers to improve their playoff seed. In fact, the Spurs losing Kawhi Leonard on top of OKC being without Russell Westbrook may have opened the #1 seed unexpectedly.
As the week wore on, I continued to feel less confident that those injuries opened a door for the Warriors. At this juncture, the Spurs are six and a half games ahead of the Dubs with the Thunder a game and a half ahead of San Antonio. Even moving both of those squads down without their full squads would still require the Warriors to play better than they have already. After Sunday’s game, David Lee talked about how home losses to Denver and Minnesota stung because they were games the team should win and he nailed the issue. The challenge in becoming an elite team in the stacked Western Conference comes from the understanding that the best teams win just about every game they should win and a fair portion of the ones not in their favor. Depending on how you see the game against the Blazers, the last Warriors win clearly in the second column would be the huge road win against Miami the day after New Year’s with a few losses in the first group during that same time. The team has had a nice stretch of quality play but getting into that highest echelon requires the easier wins and the harder ones.
In reality, the problem may be one of expectations more than anything else. The Warriors have the sixth seed in the conference and the fifth-best point differential. While injuries have affected the team throughout the season, that happens to everyone and it could be argued that everyone but Portland and Houston has had to deal with more severe issues than the Dubs over the season as a whole. Being in the 3-6 group for this season would actually mark a huge improvement over last year and potentially mark a new normal for a Golden State franchise that has not reasonably expected playoff berths in at least two decades.
If the Warriors can start to win their share of the tough ones while also taking nearly every game they should win, they still have the time to make bigger moves this season. However, it may be time to appreciate the difference between them and the truly elite.
The Week to Come:
This should be one of the more interesting weeks of the season in terms of potential outcomes. The Washington Wizards have not been able to get over the .500 hump this season but will be sitting one game under their cursed spot when they head into Oracle. John Wall’s athleticism could pose problems for Stephen Curry so it will be a nice test for the new All-Star.
While I readily admit to expecting the Clippers to drop off severely once Chris Paul went down with his shoulder injury, the team has played shockingly well in his absence. Blake Griffin in particular has stepped up so David Lee and whoever else Mark Jackson throws at him will have quite the handful.
Finally, the team has to fly straight to Salt Lake City after the Clippers game to face the Jazz on a back-to-back. Fortunately, that game is against a Utah team that has substantially less talent even though they have played much better since Trey Burke entered the starting lineup.
The Warriors should be favored in all three games but I’m going to predict a 2-1 week because that stands as the most likely overall outcome.