West contenders keep getting better, but still fall short of the Warriors
OAKLAND -- It’s hardly a secret that life isn’t fair in the Western Conference. It’s not fair that the west side of the NBA standings is so stacked that some playoff-worthy teams will sit at home this spring watching less-deserving Eastern cupcakes in the playoffs. It’s utterly unjust that the Warriors, so far the best team in the West – and therefore, in the league – might well be rewarded with a first-round playoff matchup against the Thunder, a team that will be seeded far lower than its level of talent.
Oklahoma City is 2.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the West largely because of early season injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Now that their stars are healthy, they’ll have little trouble making up that ground. Whoever has the misfortune of drawing them in the first round will have to deal with a title contender right off the bat, one that improved its already talented roster on Monday by acquiring shooting guard Dion Waiters from Cleveland without giving up any rotation players. Incorporating the shot-happy Waiters into their lineup as the third or fourth scoring option won’t be simple, but he does give OKC some needed punch at shooting guard. Oklahoma City appears well-armed for battle in the West.
None of which seems to make any difference to the Warriors, who at 27-5 appear not to have a care in the world. As if to emphasize that other teams’ moves are irrelevant to them, they thumped the Thunder 117-91 at Oracle Arena on Monday as Oklahoma City was finalizing the Waiters trade. The Thunder (17-18) will look significantly different the next time the teams meet, but it might not matter, because the Warriors have quickly taken on the calm, confident air of an elite team. The rout of the Thunder sent the same message that they have sent to the rest of the league, good teams and bad -- Give us your best shot. Bring it on.
“We want to play everybody at full strength, we really do,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said before Monday's game. “We are trying to prepare for what comes later on. We want to see everybody’s best shot and that will give us a better idea of where we stand and what we need to work on. I’m happy that Durant is playing tonight and is healthy.”
The last time the teams met, Durant dropped 30 points on the Warriors in the first half before being sidelined with an ankle injury. Monday was a different story, with the Thunder’s alpha dog shooting 3-of-16 and finishing with 14 points. Westbrook wasn’t much better, with 22 points on 5-of-21 shooting. “Our defense is really good, but we got a little lucky that they just had a rough shooting night,” Kerr said.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks saw it differently. “We didn’t have an off night,” he said. “They outplayed us. They made us not play well. They’re the best team in basketball. They’re a great team. They guard and pass. We have to make sure we’re locked in defensively. You can’t have one slip-up. If you have a slip-up, they’re going to score.”
Durant and Westbook’s offensive problems were probably no coincidence. The Warriors rank No. 1 in defensive efficiency (96.5 per 100 possessions) and No. 4 in offensive efficiency (108.6). That’s a championship-level combination, but they don’t often use the C-word. “It’s too early to start talking about a championship,” said forward Draymond Green. “Too much season left. It’s better to focus on the smaller steps.” Kerr has clearly gotten his message across well. “We talk all the time about what’s possible,” he said. “But I don’t use that word, championship, very often. I think we’re better off concentrating on the process, paying attention to details. If we do that, it will take us where we want to go.”
The Warriors haven’t just been winning, they’ve been dominating. Nineteen of their 27 wins have been by double digits, and eight of those have been by 20 points or more. Monday night was more of the usual formula. Stephen Curry was brilliant -- forget his shooting, just watching him dribble is worth the price of admission -- with 19 points, nine rebounds, six assists and, importantly for a player whose occasional carelessness with the ball is one of his few flaws, just two turnovers. “He’s just incredible to watch,” Kerr said. “I’ve never seen anyone with his skill set. He’s made some unbelievable plays and he’s made a conscious effort to cut back on some of the crazier ones.”
Like Curry, the rest of the Warriors just did what they do. Despite foul trouble, shooting guard Klay Thompson was efficient, scoring 19 points in 19 minutes. Green was his typically feisty self, with 11 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. The resurgent Harrison Barnes hit all five of this three-point attempts. The second unit, led by Andre Iguodala and Justin Holiday, an unlikely D-League discovery, didn’t just hold the starters’ lead, they extended it.
So, let the other Western teams continue to strengthen themselves. Let Dallas add Rajon Rondo, let Houston bring in Josh Smith, let the Thunder acquire Waiters. The Warriors, suddenly the model of stability, have their own ace in the hole with center Andrew Bogut, who is still on the shelf with knee problems with no timetable for his return. Asked about Bogut’s status after practice on Sunday, Kerr indicated there was no change. “Whatever I said three days ago, write that again,” he said. The Warriors can afford to let him sit as long as necessary, and whenever he does return, Bogut’s interior defense, rebounding and passing should help them reach an even higher gear, which is scary. Someone asked Kerr what he thought the demolition of the Thunder said to the rest of the league about his team. “You’ll have to ask the rest of the league,” he said. He was smiling when he said it, because he doesn’t need validation from other teams to know he has something special. “We’re pretty good,” he said, in an understatement. The Warriors are a lot better than pretty good, and they know it.