On Sunday afternoon, the revamped Cleveland Cavaliers destroyed the Boston Celtics in a game that exposed how much energy means in an NBA regular season. After the departures of dreadful on and off court players like Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, and Derrick Rose, renewed vigor was the hero of the day. George HIll was a defensive plus, Rodney Hood was a instant scorer along with Jordan Clarkson off the bench. LeBron James was back to himself and the rest of the Cavs aligned as the Boston Celtics that’s been struggling for weeks fell apart. But this piece is supposed to be about the Golden State Warriors. So let’s swap Hood, Clarkson, Cedi Osman, and Larry Nance for Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, JaVale McGee, and Patrick McCaw, why not?
In games against the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, and Phoenix Suns, the completely depleted and somewhat embarrassed Warriors have come back to life, if only slightly and against weak competition. For these Warriors, it has never been about who they play but about how they play. And increasingly so, no teams present a consistent challenge to the defending champions that forces them to alter their mental energy before and during games. There’s no reason to play up to opponents going balls to the wall in a February game when you have proved year after year you have decimated these franchises in games that matter much more, in front of an audience so pressure-packed every single dribble takes up more energy than an entire regular season game.
To judge a team on their performance before an All-Star break, in Year 4 of a dynasty, is akin to the professor wanting you to pull all-nighters for a midterm exam that counts for just 20% of your grade when you know you’ll ace the Finals. The Cavs fought off this type of malaise by blowing it all up. Granted, the circumstances are a little different but the mental fatigue and breakdown remain consistent. They flipped all the malcontent for anyone new, providing a honeymoon stage that can vault LeBron James right back into the NBA Finals.
The Warriors are not even close to that extreme. Instead, their solutions are internal. They sent Patrick McCaw down to the G-League to regain rhythm and game reps, two things not duplicable or tangible to track at the NBA level. The much-maligned bench spearheaded by Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston have refocused and found legs they were reserving come April. Steve Kerr is fighting boredom by allowing his players to run the huddle and draw up plays during timeouts. And of course, an opponent like the Phoenix Suns certainly will do everything in their power to jumpstart the struggling Warriors role players. If Omri Casspi is making semi-contested 3s on a quick release, Nick Young is jacking up made 3s in transition after forced turnovers, Patrick McCaw confidently slashing and finishing at the rim, and the old vets just moving quicker in help defense, then you are starting to see the makings of a team that was supposed to not only be the most talented in the NBA but the deepest.
Slowly but surely, in a game that is far more marathon that it is a sprint, the Warriors are warming up for the stretch run. And as the other franchise that looked nearly ready to fall apart appears ready to reach the Finals for their fourth straight time. The team in the Western Conference looks ready to do the same. The NBA season is becoming more and more of an exhibition. And the fourth chapter in what is a presumed dead rivalry is back on its way yet again.