Warriors

Warriors

Editor's note: Grant Liffmann (@grantliffmann) 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.

Back in mid-February, the Warriors entered the All-Star break with a 41-16 record, having won 16 of their last 18 games. With just 25 games remaining following the break, I broke down some second-half storylines to monitor as the Warriors' chase for another NBA championship resumed.

Let's follow up and check in on those three storylines as the regular season comes to a close.

1. Biggest threats in the West 

When I answered this question in February, I identified the Oklahoma City Thunder as the team that could meet the Warriors in the Western Conference finals. The Thunder were red hot entering the break, having risen all the way to the No. 3 seed in the West. Paul George was tearing up the league and positioning himself in the MVP race, and the team's depth was looking dangerous.

However, it appears the Thunder weren't the team that I imagined. 

OKC recently lost 14 of 21 games before hitting its recent three-game winning streak. In doing so, the Thunder have plummeted to the cellar of the Western Conference playoff standings and are fighting to remain out of the No. 8 seed in order to avoid playing the Warriors in the first round.

 

Currently, they are sixth, with the Clippers and Spurs only a half game behind them. Paul George's MVP campaign lost steam as his play fell off down the stretch, and Russell Westbrook's shooting woes have taken a toll on the team. 

The team that has emerged yet again as the biggest threat to the Warriors in the West is Houston. The Rockets have played very well after the break and risen to the No. 3 seed in the standings, and they even have the opportunity to pass the Denver Nuggets and become the No. 2 seed. The stars are aligning for a potential Western Conference finals rematch that many have been begging to see.

2. Biggest threats in the East

Following the All-Star break, I chose the Toronto Raptors as the biggest threat to the Warriors (should they reach the NBA Finals) and my opinion is unchanged. The Milwaukee Bucks still hold the throne as the top seed in the East, but the Raptors have been on their heels throughout the season and will finish in the second spot.

The addition of Marc Gasol has been a perfect match for Toronto, and their length and athleticism makes them dangerous. The Bucks are a very good team -- and I would not hesitate to say they are just as good as the Raptors -- but in a head-to-head matchup, I could see the Raptors' playoff experience and ability to defend the Greek Freak boosting them to a series win. 

Should the Warriors make it out of the West and face either the Raptors or Bucks, I would not be surprised if the Finals ended up being close to an evenly matched series and perhaps going to six or seven games. However in the end, if the Warriors are to remain healthy, their immense talent should leave them to a third consecutive title.

Speaking of remaining healthy ...

3. Biggest end-of-season storyline

As I wrote before, the obvious answer is the team's overall health. The last two seasons, the Warriors entered the playoffs dealing with both Steph Curry and Kevin Durant missing significant time and sitting out first-round games due to rehab. This season, the Warriors likely will enter the playoffs with a healthy, rested roster (knock on wood for these final two meaningless games).

But to go along with the overall health of the team, I also found the integration of DeMarcus Cousins, and the offensive and defensive chemistry that goes with it, to be a major post-All-Star break storyline.

[RELATED: Scenarios for Warriors' first-round playoff opponent]

As the Warriors went into the break, it was their explosive offense that carried them. However, their defense seemed uninspired and lacked the necessary focus. Following the break, though, it was the offense that felt stale and lifeless. It was expected that the Warriors would face some highs and lows with Cousins' integration into the lineup, but it was clear the team needed to refocus and start building the right habits and chemistry down the stretch.

 

And they have.

The Warriors have won seven of their last eight games and tightened up their defense to be one of the NBA's best defensive teams over that stretch. Their offense now is humming again, racking up large assist totals and shooting the ball at elite levels.

The Warriors are perhaps playing the most complete team basketball of the season, and it's coming at the best time.