OAKLAND, Calif.—The Western Conference is so loaded with powerful teams that these playoffs were supposed to be quite the gauntlet for the Warriors, and they may yet be. But at the moment, it’s hard to ignore how favorably the postseason is starting to shape up for Golden State. Even when the Warriors are idle, good things happen for them. They had a week off after dispatching New Orleans in four games in the first round, and in that time the defending champion Spurs were eliminated by the Clippers, which is good news in itself. Los Angeles was wounded in the process, which although no one ever hopes for opponents to be injured, could work to their advantage as well. Clipper point guard Chris Paulsuffered a left hamstring strain that will surely nag at him for the rest of the playoffs.
Not only that, but assuming the Warriors reach the Western Conference finals—and that seemed like a safe assumption after their rather ho-hum dismantling of the Memphis Grizzlies, 101–86 in Game 1 on Sunday—they will face either the Clippers or Houston, against whom they have a combined 7–1 record. It would be premature to pencil them into the NBA Finals just yet, but the Western Conference minefield they expected to walk through seems like it’s already had a few bombs defused.
The Warriors have to like what they’re seeing when they survey the field, but you’ll never get them to admit it, of course. “We’ve thought that from the beginning,” forward Draymond Green said when asked if it was getting easier to envision winning the West. “It’s not that other teams have injuries or someone’s eliminated. We feel like we can beat anyone. That’s been our mind-set the entire year and it’s not going to change.”
[daily_cut.NBA]But come on, the scary Spurs, the team widely considered to be the most capable of derailing the Warriors on the way to the Finals, are gone, and the two teams on the other side of the Western Conference bracket seem quite beatable. Golden State has to have at least noticed, right? “There are less question marks, obviously, when you look around the brackets and it’s down to four teams in the West,” point guard Stephen Curry said. “That’s the challenge, is to not get ahead of ourselves. There’s a great team in the Memphis Grizzlies that we have to take care of right now. Just trying to stay in the moment, that’s the biggest thing for us.”
Curry was trying his best to stay in the moment on Sunday after the game, even though he was aware that the announcement of the MVP winner was likely to come on Monday. Shortly after he left the arena, Monte Poole of CSNBayArea.com reported that Curry will be named the winner and Houston’s James Harden finished second. “In the middle of a playoff series it’s hard to separate yourself and think about what may or may not happen,” Curry said before that report surfaced. “Obviously I know what the situation is. If I get a call tomorrow I’ll definitely be happy. There will be a lot of people that can be proud of that moment as well, and we’ll enjoy it.”
It would be hard to blame Curry and the Warriors if they started to think about all the good things that might lie ahead, both because of developments elsewhere in the West and because Memphis—and granted, it was only Game 1—looks like it might not keep them busy for long. That’s partly because Memphis point guard Mike Conley, in yet another stroke of good fortune for the Warriors, missed Game 1 and could be sidelined longer as he recovers from surgery to repair two facial fractures he suffered in the first round. To say Memphis missed him would be an understatement. Nick Calathes, who started in Conley’s place, missed all four of his shots and went scoreless. The Grizzlies even played without a traditional point guard for a stretch. “It was hard, because that’s not the way we practiced,” center Marc Gasol said. The Grizzlies have already been reduced to desperate measures.
Golden State showed a bit of rust after the lengthy layoff with 15 turnovers on Sunday, but overall, the series opener played out essentially the way the Warriors thought—and the Grizzlies feared—it would. Curry did some crazy wonderful things with the ball on the way to 22 points and seven assists and Memphis could neither contain nor match Golden State’s three-point shooting. The Warriors, 13 for 28 from beyond the arc, made more threes than the Grizzlies (3 for 12) attempted.
That’s a 30-point disparity, which Memphis couldn’t make up by going to its strength, the inside scoring of big men Gasol and Zach Randolph. Three-point shooting just isn’t a major component of the Grizzlies’ offensive game. That made it extremely difficult for them to match the Warriors’ firepower in Game 1, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change as the series progresses. “That’s who we are,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. “We play through our bigs. We just have to keep doing what we do.” In this series, doing what they do doesn’t seem like it’s going to be enough.
Memphis did accomplish one objective, getting Andrew Bogut and Green, the Warriors’ main interior defenders, into foul trouble. But the Grizzlies couldn’t make it work to their advantage. Green picked up his fourth foul with 5:37 left in the third quarter and Bogut committed his fourth 23 seconds later, with the Warriors leading 74-59. Thanks to some effective relief work from backup center Festus Ezeli and David Lee, a forgotten man in the postseason up to this point, Golden State never faltered. When Green returned nearly 10 minutes of playing time later, Golden State’s lead was 89-73 and Memphis never made much of a game of it after that.
It was increasingly clear that an effective Conley is the only chance the Grizzlies have of making this a competitive series. He warmed up before Game 1, but after talking with Joerger, the mutual decision was made to keep him out. “I’m not a doctor, but he wasn’t comfortable playing, and I wasn’t comfortable saying ‘You should play (even though) you’re head is throbbing like the top of a thermometer that got too hot,’” Joerger said.
The Grizzlies can only hope that Conley’s health improves enough to take the floor for Game 2 on Tuesday night. That would finally be a stroke of good fortune for someone other than Golden State. So far in this postseason, the Warriors haven’t had to choose between being lucky and good. They have been both.