Warriors

Durant injury leaves Warriors just like everybody else

Durant injury leaves Warriors just like everybody else

And with that, the Golden State Warriors are now just like everybody else.
 
Let that rattle around your head for awhile. Just. Like. Everybody. Else.
 
The Warriors haven’t been like everybody else for three years now, but with Kevin Durant’s knee going from worrisome to catastrophic in a matter of hours, they are exactly like everybody else now. They don’t get to walk on a floor and make people look forward to the next game any more.
 
They are now one of a select number of very good teams, with San Antonio and Houston and Cleveland and Boston and Washington and maybe one or two others. That will last apparently for six to eight weeks, give or take a week for reckless diagnosis or medical setbacks, while Durant heals from his collision with Zaza Pachulia in the second minute of the team’s loss at Washington, and that could mean anything from the end of the regular season to the first and second round of the playoffs.
 
In other words, it could mean an amazing triumph or a crash-and-burn, or anything inbetween. This is the unknown, right upside the head.
 
And since it is unlikely that the Warriors will go full fetal, we are about to see the level of their competitive character – in success or failure, in June or May.
 
We have seen it before, mind you. In 2013, when they broke through the zinc ceiling, we saw how they could play defense after decades of claiming it was against California law. In 2014, when they learned how hard it is to be a good team. In 2015, when they applied it to become one of the best teams in NBA history (because 83 wins in 103 games and a parade don’t lie). In 2016, when they won more regular season games than anyone else and came within five horrific minutes at the end of Game 7 of the Finals to repeating.
 
All these were lessons learned, good and bad. They deserved what they got, whether it was glory or gall, and they went to school on it all.
 
So now, without Durant for an undetermined yet worrisome amount of time, they will demonstrate how they apply all this knowledge, and how they learn to do without Durant what they did with him.
 
Only now they lose the margin of error that Durant gave them. While most of the other contenders shopped earnestly for four months looking to strengthen here and tweak there, the Warriors had a full pantry and didn’t shop at all. Their big acquisition is Matt Barnes, who they frantically signed Tuesday night to replace Durant.
 
In short, they have a four-game lead on San Antonio for the top seed in the West, but they spotted the field four months of roster improvements.
 
Now they can ill afford the stretches of shooting misery like the one Stephen Curry is currently enduring. Now they can ill afford Draymond Green speaking his mind so freely to people who take away games. They need health and purpose and an understanding that the turning-it-on-and-off thing they can do is no longer applicable to their situation.
 
They are not doomed, not by any means. Only a fool would claim otherwise, and fools come shrink-wrapped by the gross at Costco.
 
But they are now as San Antonio would be without Kawhi Leonard, or Houston without James Harden, or Cleveland without (and we’ll give you your choice here) LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, or Boston without Isaiah Thomas, or Washington without Bradley Beal AND John Wall, though not worse off than Toronto without DeMar DeRozan, since Kyle Lowry is already gone until the playoffs after wrist surgery.
 
They are Just Like Everybody Else. Well, Everybody Else Who Matters This Time Of Year. There is a parade up for grabs again, and lots of hands are reaching for it – rather than just the two hands we know best.

Steph Curry goes cold, gets locked up by Raptors' aggressive game plan

Steph Curry goes cold, gets locked up by Raptors' aggressive game plan

OAKLAND – Knocked down by the Raptors last month in Toronto and again Wednesday night in Oakland, the Warriors would like nothing more than to come back for a third chance soon as possible.

That can’t happen before May 30, when Game 1 of the NBA Finals is scheduled.

“I know if that were to happen,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after his team was blown out of Oracle Arena, 113-93, “we would be ready to play.”

Meanwhile, they have to recover and study and analyze the events of Wednesday night. There were several troubling signals, including low defensive intensity and mental errors at both ends, though none was more evident and enlightening than the defense the Raptors threw at Stephen Curry.

After watching Curry dribble, shoot and splash his way through defenses this season, it was striking to see him running into roadblocks and thickets of arms and hands, led by a rugged and redoubtable defender named Fred VanVleet.

Curry entered the game averaging 30.1 points per game, shooting 51.3 percent overall, and 50 percent from beyond the arc. He totaled 10 points, a season-low in games for which he was healthy throughout, on 3-of-12 shooting, 2-of-8 from deep.

“We just tried to make them uncomfortable, make them make plays they’re not used to making,” Van Vleet said. "Every team has their main guys, multiple playmakers, and we try to take it out of the playmakers’ hands and make others make all the plays. That was our game plan going in. We did a great job executing it."

VanVleet, who usually comes off the bench in the role of sixth man, started at point guard due to lineup change necessitated when Kawhi Leonard was ruled out before tipoff. Curry normally gets to cook Kyle Lowry, an All-Star offensive force but a mediocre defender vastly inferior to VanVleet in both pluck and technique.

With VanVleet in junkyard-dog mentality, Curry seemed to spend the evening searching for enough room to move, much less fire an uncontested shot.

“I didn’t really have rhythm,” Curry conceded, “for whatever reason.”

[RELATED: Steph Curry says Warriors would beat Shaq's Lakers that had three-peat]

Though VanVleet was the primary defender, he had help. Even when Curry was coming off screens, there wasn’t much room. He had a couple open looks, but any good defender knows any shooter harassed all night tends to miss even when we he gets some space.

“There are only two ways to guard Stephen,” said Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin, who conducted the postgame news conference because head coach Nick Nurse left immediately for a family matter. “The No. 1 way is to pray that he misses. No. 2 is to get a body on him and do not give him any open looks.”

Curry’s previous success against the Raptors – he was averaging 29.8 points against them for his career, his highest average against any opponent – has been largely a matter of taking advantage of Lowry, with VanVleet getting some spot duty.

The Raptors, however, may have found something with VanVleet in the starting lineup. One game does not a Steph Stopper make, but he clearly is an upgrade over the usual Raptors defenders.

This variation of man-to-man defense is especially effective given the frequent and assertive help from Toronto’s assembly line of lengthy wings.

Asked whether Curry’s poor performance was a result of Raptors defense or simply an off night, Kerr pointed to both.

“It’s always a combination,” Kerr said. “I’m sure we’ll look at the tape and we’ll see some shots that Steph would normally hit and we’ll also see excellent defense. Fred VanVleet picked him up full court and did a good job of getting into him.

“But it’s always a combination.”

[RELATED: Warriors' blowout loss to Raptors deserves long look in the mirror]

The combination worked exceptionally well for the Raptors. They gave Curry something to think about. They gave the Warriors something to think about.

They may have given a few other NBA teams something to consider.

A lot went wrong for the Warriors in this game, particularly their defensive lethargy. But if they see the Raptors again in May, VanVleet will have a nice audition video for the role of defending Curry.

Which doesn’t mean the Raptors would get the same results.

Warriors' blowout loss to Raptors deserves long look in the mirror

Warriors' blowout loss to Raptors deserves long look in the mirror

OAKLAND -- If you believe the Golden State Warriors are truly invulnerable, then Wednesday’s 113-93 muzzling at the hands of the Toronto Raptors was a fairly revolting performance all around, but hardly worth the worry.
 
Of course, there is the other possibility – that Toronto is really difficult for Golden State to play with or without Kawhi Leonard, which creates its own set of worries come money-in-the-pot time.
 
Either way, one of the most anticipated pre-Christmas games of the season ended up a flatline special. Leonard did not play and the Raptors were better than they were two weeks ago in Toronto, which is surely an anomaly. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green did play and the Warriors looked far worse, which is equally improbable.
 
Now it could be that the waxing crescent of the moon was just getting some of its own back after Curry decided to mock its role in the history of space exploration. But more likely, the Raptors just showed their undisputed quality; they hammered two of the best teams in the Western Conference (combined record, 36-18, 21-4 at home) by 44 points on back-to-back nights on the road without their best player.
 
Head coach Steve Kerr saw all of that and went to the place that ought to scare everyone involved with the defending champions – that there may be a new version of themselves in the argument.
 
“We’re now in a place where we’re defending a title,” Kerr said, “in a place where we’re defending a mantle that we’ve had for several years. It’s a different vibe than when you’re on the climb like Toronto is, like Milwaukee is, like we were a few years ago. It’s harder to get up for each game, and there are certain nights when you can just feel it. If you’ve played in this league or coached or followed it, sometimes you can just feel it.”

[RELATED: Steph Curry says Warriors would beat Shaq's Lakers that had three-peat]
 
He stayed for a few more questions, but in practical terms he had dropped the mic already. The Warriors have been served notice by the Raptors that their expertise in championship runs is being challenged by Toronto’s youth and hunger . . . and, if you want to be less granular, you can include Milwaukee and Philadelphia as well.
 
But motivation alone does not bell the cat, as people who puts bells on cats will tell you. The Warriors spent the first half Wednesday deciding whether it was worth it to them to play defense, and by the time they decided to give it a try, they were, in Kerr’s words, “swimming upstream.”
 
And offensively, they struggled to get their usual raft full of open looks. Fred Van Vleet defended Curry into near-invisibility and Klay Thompson never found a comfort level against an ever-changing set of defenders, predominantly Kyle Lowry. The Warriors committed 19 turnovers, were outrebounded at both ends (credit Raptors Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Jonas Valanciunas before he got hurt for that level of control), and in general found that most of their possessions were a thorough grind.
 
That explains Toronto, but the Warriors . . . well, their lack of energy speaks to the reality that not every game we think is a measure of their mettle is viewed with the same gravity by the players themselves. And it isn’t just being the hunted – they’ve been that for three consecutive seasons. It’s that they find urgency to be optional more often than they used to.
 
If there is a silver lining for Golden State, it is Kerr’s rhetorical attempt to steel his players’ spines.

“I would think we would have the edge (if the two teams reached the NBA Finals) in that they’ve kicked our butts twice,” he said, laying the task of motivation directly at the players’ locker stalls. He has made his view clear that the Warriors let this happen Wednesday night, and now they have given a team the kind of life they took for granted in 2015, when everything was energy and carbonation and fun and free chips from the dealer.
 
That should work, if only because the Warriors aren’t done yet. But they now see themselves as they once were, and teams emulating their path to glory. Toronto is but  the best of the teams who can inspire that kind of nostalgia – the kind that could end up burning them in the end if they don’t recognize it for what it is.
 
A direct challenge from their own history.