Warriors second-half storylines to watch as team chases another title

Warriors second-half storylines to watch as team chases another title

Editor's note: Grant Liffmann is the co-host of Warriors Outsiders, which airs on NBC Sports Bay Area 90 minutes before each home game and 60 minutes after every game. Each week, Grant will drop his Outsider Observation on the state of the Dubs.

The Warriors have finally completed the "first half" of the season, and now head into the All-Star break with a two-game lead for first place in the Western Conference.

With injuries during the beginning of the season, some public locker room drama and the reintegration of DeMarcus Cousins, the Warriors have faced their fair share of challenges along the way. But they have won 16 of 18 heading into the break, and players such as Steph Curry have really emphasized how well the team is jelling and how their chemistry is high. 

So with 25 games remaining, it is time to start looking ahead to the rest of the season. We are only about six weeks away from the playoffs, so there are some necessary questions to dive into:

1) Which team will emerge as the biggest threat to the Warriors from the Western Conference? 

If I had told you before the season that at the All-Star break, the Nuggets would have the second best record in the West, LeBron's Lakers would be 10th and that the Sacramento Kings were knocking on the door of the 8th seed, you'd probably ask what I've been smoking. And yet, here we are.

Before the season, and even now, many assumed that the Lakers were going to end up being the stiffest competition for the Warriors in the West, or perhaps the Rockets would regain their form the 2017-18 season to threaten the Warriors. But if I had to pick which team I think will end up in the Western Conference Finals (and therefore be the biggest threat to the Dubs), I'd say it is the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Entering the break, the Thunder have been red hot, flying up the standings to third in the West, trailing the Warriors by 3.5 games. Paul George is playing like an MVP, former MVP Russell Westbrook is yet again averaging a triple-double, Steven Adams has improved every single season, and the depth of the team is better than years prior. Their length and athleticism can be smothering on defense and the best chance of a remedy for the Warriors high-octane offense.

If they can hit their shots from deep, they can be an elite team. Before the season I picked the Thunder to be there, and I'm sticking with that pick.

I'd love to see these two teams play in a seven-game series for the chance to go to the NBA Finals.

2) Which team will emerge as the biggest threat to the Warriors from the Eastern Conference?

If the Warriors were to reach the NBA Finals, there are four teams in the East that could easily represent their conference as the opponent. Entering the season, I chose the Boston Celtics as the greatest threat to the Warriors and the most likely final matchup. But with the unrest and disappointing play from the Celtics, coupled with the power of the other three Eastern contenders, I'm changing my mind.

The Sixers have an elite starting five, the Bucks are a top-5 team on offense and defense, but I'm going with the Toronto Raptors. Kawhi Leonard is playing like a superstar again, Pascal Siakam is an easy-candidate for most-improved player, Kyle Lowry has turned into a pass-first point guard, Serge Ibaka has been reborn, their role players like Danny Green and OG Anunoby have improved their depth, and their additions of Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin are perfect compliments to the team in my opinion.

I see similarities between them and the Thunder, in terms of their length and athleticism on defense. Like the Thunder, they are in need of consistent outside shooting to be an imposing threat.

Having said all that, the Bucks are pretty darn good too ;)

[RELATED: Eastern powers go all-in at the deadline to chase Warriors]

3) What will be the biggest storyline for the Warriors post-All-Star Break? 

The obvious one is staying healthy and getting the appropriate amount of rest for the stars and aging vets. But I think developing chemistry between DeMarcus Cousins and the other All-Stars is very important. Offensively they have already hit a nice rhythm together, though a little more seasoning could never hurt.

However, it is on defense where they could use more time on the court, partly simply because Boogie needs more conditioning and more experience switching out onto smaller guards.

Draymond Green has returned to his impressive Defensive Player of the Year type defensive prowess with Boogie's return, as he as gone back to a "free safety" type role, leading the defense and getting involved in every play. Cousins and Durant still have some chemistry to build in terms of switching and jumping out to defend the three-point line. The team will have 25 games to get their defense in order. 

Oh and one more thing, the greatest storyline of all should be the Warriors pursuit of a third straight NBA title. A lot of the focus will be on free agent speculation, but if everyone were to instead try to focus on the present and in the moment, this could end up being one of the most memorable next four to five months in Warriors history.

So enjoy it.

DeMarcus Cousins: NBA fans have said racial slurs to me multiple times


DeMarcus Cousins: NBA fans have said racial slurs to me multiple times

DeMarcus Cousins says fans have directed racial slurs at him multiple times in his NBA career. 

“Oh, I’ve been called n-----,” the Warriors center told Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes. “And it’s crazy because this has happened to me on a few occasions. I reported it to the league, and, you know, I may have said whatever I said back and I was still punished for it."

Cousins did not identify the cities in which he'd heard racial slurs directed at him. Citing league sources, Haynes reported that one of the cities was Sacramento. The report did not identify which team Cousins was playing for at the time, but the six-time All-Star spent the first six-and-a-half seasons of his career with the Kings. 

The NBA told Cousins to "ignore it," according to Cousins. 

"While it would not be appropriate for us to address any specific conversations we have with individual players, we review all situations involving alleged fan misconduct," the league told Yahoo Sports in a statement. "If we confirm the misconduct, appropriate measures are taken directly with the fan in question." 

On March 11, a Utah Jazz fan taunted Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. Westbrook said the fan and his wife "told me to get down on my knees like you 'used to,'" and believed the comments were racial. 

On March 12, Westbrook ultimately was fined $25,000 "for directing profanity and threatening language" at the fan, whom the Jazz permanently banned from all future events Vivint Smart Home Arena. 

Cousins said he "[didn't] really understand" why Westbrook was fined, noting that NBA players are "the product" and "push this league." He said it's human nature to respond to hateful language, and especially in a highly-charged, competitive environment of an NBA game.

"If you was somewhere walking down the street and somebody says something crazy to you, you’re going to react," Cousins said. "So just because it’s a basketball event doesn’t mean those emotions go out the door or us being a human being goes out the door. It’s the same thing.

"And it makes it even worse because we’re at work. If a dude comes up to you at work and says something crazy, does it change it? And it’s already enough emotions in a basketball game. I wish I had the answer to [resolve this], but something needs to be done because obviously, it’s a bigger issue than they want it to be put it out as.”

Warriors have earned respect with sixth straight 50-win season

Warriors have earned respect with sixth straight 50-win season

OAKLAND – They don’t celebrate 50-win seasons around here. Not anymore. Not when it’s a mere signpost along the way to something worth cherishing.

That’s what 50 wins has become for the Warriors. When they hit No. 50 on Sunday with an indistinct 121-114 victory over the Detroit Pistons, there was but the slightest few moments of reflection.

“Pretty impressive,” coach Steve Kerr said.

“It’s special to be a part of something so great as these last six of seven years have been for us,” Draymond Green said.

Beg pardon? Impressive? Special? For a franchise that reached 50 wins four times in its first five decades in the Bay Area to string together six consecutive such seasons is right out of the late Franklin Mieuli’s wildest fantasy.

Mieuli owned the Warriors for the first 24 years (1962-86) of their Bay Area existence, first in San Francisco and then in Oakland. The Warriors reached 50 wins twice in that span.

Mieuli sold the team to Jim Fitzgerald and Dan Finnane, who owned the Warriors for nine seasons (1986-95), during which there were two 50-win seasons.

The Chris Cohan ownership lasted 15 seasons (1995-2010) and never saw a 50-win season. The most successful team under Cohan was the 2006-07 “We Believe” squad that finished two games over .500 (42-40) – enough to be revered for eternity.

Among the few employees remaining from the Cohan era is Stephen Curry, drafted one year before the current ownership group, led by Joe Lacob and Peter Guber. The Warriors were 25-56 in Curry’s rookie season, 36-46 the following season and 23-43 in his third season. So there was a time . . .

Curry knows, as do the team’s longtime fans, how absurd this turnaround has been.

“It’s surreal, to be honest, when you talk about the history of the organization and how hard it is to win NBA games, win championships and string together year after year after year,” he said. “It takes a collection of talented guys, a commitment to trying to put together the best team possible every year. And that’s the front office, the coaching staff, all the way down.”

The Warriors and their fans have evolved from the years of praying for the playoffs to the annual expectation of championship parade. They once hoped for satisfactory. They now anticipate excellence.

“When I came here, I think there was a 23-win season the year before that,” said Green, who was drafted in 2012, three seasons after Curry. “The next year was my rookie year and we made the playoffs and we won (47) games. To have the run that we’re currently having, it’s a special thing.

“But in saying that, we get the opportunity to do it with a special group of guys, a special organization, a special coaching staff, a special ownership group, a special front office. It’s more about the people that you come work with every day. That’s what makes runs like this possible. That’s what makes runs like this sustainable.”

[RELATED: Kerr's message after Mavericks loss]

The Warriors were 51-31 in Mark Jackson’s final season as coach. They’ve since won 67, 73, 67, 58. Here in Year 5, they are at 50 – and counting.

Which is why, in part, Kerr says he didn’t sweat that putrid performance the Warriors laid down Saturday in a 35-point loss to Dallas at Oracle.

“It’s hard for anybody to understand what these guys go through physically, emotionally and spiritually, trying to defend the crown, trying to win the title, trying to stay on top of the mountain,” Kerr said. “It’s hard. And last night they had nothing. They had nothing in the tank.

“The great thing about this team . . . is they always bounce back because they have so much pride. What they have accomplished – this team has the best record over the last four seasons (265-63) as any four-year run in the history of the NBA. What they have done is just remarkable. Last night was tough, but it’s really tough to do what they have done, too. We’re going to give them a pass and we are going to move on.”

Understand, 50 wins guarantees nothing in the postseason. The NBA graveyard is replete with headstones marking the first-round demise of 50-win teams. In the first of their six 50-win seasons, 2013-14, the Warriors were such a team, ousted in seven by the hated Clippers.

[RELATED: KD, Kerr on six-shot night]

Here’s the one thing a succession of 50-win seasons can assure: Respect. That’s something the Warriors had to earn.

“I have a true appreciation for what we’ve been able to do,” Curry said. “But I want to continue this for as long as we can.”