The Warriors are going to the NBA Finals.
This team could do something greater in the very near future but we should all take some time to appreciate that accomplishment. In a stacked West, the Golden State Warriors finished the regular season with an 11-game lead on the entire conference and then went 12-3 in the Western Conference portion of the playoffs.
Quality depth played a major role in Golden State’s success tonight as it has throughout the season. Houston has lots of talent but relied incredibly heavily on James Harden offensively. Their MVP candidate had three excellent games and two distinctly not great games. The Rockets lost the two he struggled in by 35 and 14 points while the Warriors were able to have other players pick up their stars on atypical nights.
Harrison Barnes played well the entire game but picked up his intensity when Klay Thompson left the floor due to injury in the fourth quarter. With an eight point lead and 9:30 to go, Barnes took Golden State’s next four shots, making three of them. In those two and a half minutes right after their second All-Star left the floor, HB and the Warriors established a more stable lead- the margin never got closer than what it was when Klay got hurt. I asked Barnes after the game how he defines his role on this Warriors team and he said that “the biggest thing I try to go out there and do is be aggressive” and how he needs to contribute in ways other than scoring on many nights. While I have said before that the Warriors could upgrade at Small Forward, Barnes deserves a ton of credit for embracing the responsibilities that come with playing alongside scorers like Steph and Klay, which can be hard in a league full of guys who have been the best player on every team they played on before the pros. In fact, the 2012 draft class of Barnes, Ezeli and Green have all worked hard with that similar frame of mind and still have plenty of room to grow.
Speaking of potential, Festus Ezeli had arguably his best game as a pro, playing as many minutes in Game Five as his last two combined. Tristan Thompson’s success this postseason has revitalized some interest in the offensive rebound as a game changer and Ezeli’s five (three of which came in a one-minute span) produced two huge put-backs. With Andrew Bogut playing only 19 minutes after injuring his hand and Marreese Speights still out, the Warriors needed more from Festus and he delivered.
While turnovers at Oracle have been a plot point for a while now, it was the opponents giving the ball up that played a larger role in Game Five. In the presence of Lil B, James Harden put up his number in TO’s (13) and the Warriors scored 31 points on 20 total Rockets giveaways. That +9 margin in points off turnovers and the great offensive rebounding helped provide a buffer in a game where Bogut and Klay combined to play 41 minutes.
One of the determining stretches of Game Five came when Klay picked up his fourth and fifth fouls in rapid succession in the third minutes of the third quarter. While that should be a learning experience for Thompson (both were preventable and unnecessary, especially for someone playing that well), the Warriors never gave up the lead though there were a few near misses.
While we naturally focus on the glamour players and they definitely lived up to their billing in this series, depth can help make the difference. In this series, the Rockets held their own with James Harden on the floor, basically fighting the Warriors to a draw (-0.6 points per 100 possessions). When Harden sat, Golden State outscored Houston by an astonishing 45.9 points per 100 possessions. For Curry, the Warriors were +2.0 (similar to Harden) when he played and a surreal +29.0 when he sat, with the context that a heavy portion of the non-Curry minutes came after Houston amassed that big lead in Game Four.
Having more than a week from the close of the Western Conference Finals to the start of the NBA Finals provides more than ample time to analyze the series that just concluded and the one ahead. It is worth it to take some time to appreciate the remarkable journey so far and appreciate that for the accomplishment it is regardless of what comes next.
A few stray notes from this game:
-According to the NBA’s player tracking, Houston was 0 for 7 in shots defended at the rim by Andrew Bogut in Game Five. Nylon Calculus had Bogut as the #2 rim protector in the league during the regular season and he will play a major role in the Finals against a Cleveland team with dangerous drivers.
-Both teams assisted on more than half of their made field goals in each game of the Western Conference Finals. Golden State’s ball movement under Steve Kerr has been much improved, going from last in the league with 245.8 passes per game in 2013-14 to seventh with 315.8 per gamewhile also leading the NBA in assists per game this season. The Warriors are leading the league in assists per game in the playoffs as well.
-The current Warriors starting five (Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Green and Bogut) played only 51 minutes together last season but outscored opponents by 19.5 points per 100 possessions. This season they were +19.6 in 831 minutes.