Five games into their latest title chase, the Warriors are simultaneously the league’s most dominant team and something of an afterthought. This rare overlap was on full display Tuesday night: Their comfortable, methodical 106-95 Game 1 victory over the Jazz 1 was largely overshadowed by the Celtics’ thrilling overtime win against the Wizards. On this night, the captivating, unbelievable scoring outburst from a smooth-shooting, lovable point guard happened 3,000 miles from Oracle Arena, as Boston’s Isaiah Thomas poured in 53 points, the most by any player in a playoff game since Allen Iverson in 2003. Stephen Curry spun Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert around in a full circle as he danced his way to a reverse lay-up, and a cushy win, but the two-time MVP and the star-studded Warriors never came close to capturing top billing.
Simply put, Golden State has been a victim of its own defensive success. The most memorable postseason moments demand late-game tension, of course, and the Warriors are consistently humbling their opponents well before crunch time. In their first-round sweep over Portland, Golden State notched three blowouts and held at least a two-possession lead for the entire closing stretch of Game 3, the only game that was close at all. Against Utah, the only late-game drama came with 12 seconds left, when deep reserve James Michael McAdoo bricked a three-pointer to ensure that the Jazz covered the double-digit point spread.
There have been challenges: Steve Kerr’s well-being, Kevin Durant’s calf, and a minor leg injury for Curry on Tuesday. But these Warriors haven’t gotten to experience anything approaching the joy of Curry’s record overtime performance against the Blazers in last year’s playoffs or the agony of LeBron James’s championship-winning block because they’re still waiting for their first true test.
What are the chances that the Jazz are up to that task? Based on Game 1, somewhere in the vicinity of “doubtful.” In the first round, Utah outlasted the Clippers in seven games thanks to its depth, length and resolve. But they’re in much deeper waters now, and none of those attributes counts as an advantage against the Warriors.
LA’s aging roster wore down over seven games, with Chris Paul asked to carry too heavy of a load once Blake Griffin was lost to injury. By contrast, Golden State spent most of March and April winning without Durant, and it hardly skipped a beat when Curry received attention from a trainer on the bench during the second half.
The Clippers’ wings, especially JJ Redick, were swallowed up by the Jazz’s wings and both Gordon Hayward and Joe Johnson were consistent sources of offense that created matchup issues. By contrast, the Warriors’ endless parade of wingspan shut down both Hayward (4-of-15 for 12 points) and Johnson (4-of-10 for 11 points) in Game 1.
LA failed to capitalize on Gobert’s knee injury and Hayward’s food poisoning before turning in its lowest first-half scoring output in a lackluster Game 7, which turned out to be its third home loss in the series. By contrast, Golden State was licking its lips after seven consecutive off days, racing out to a 9-0 lead to start the game and then opening the fourth quarter on a hope-crushing 10-0 run.
“This is the best time of the year,” Draymond Green told reporters. “Every game matters. Every single possession matters. I love to play that way. When you’re just out there playing [in the regular season] and it doesn’t mean anything, whether you’re good or bad doesn’t matter, that’s kind of boring to me. But every possession matters in the playoffs. Every little detail. I love playing that way, the stakes are higher. You’re chasing a championship.”
While much of the recent postseason discussion has centered on offensive fireworks—Thomas’s brilliant night, Cleveland’s awesome attack, Houston’s barrage against San Antonio—Green is leading the best defense in the playoffs by a wide margin. He kept pushing, challenging, contesting, swatting, tipping and hounding Tuesday. When Green stripped Trey Lyles midway through the fourth quarter, Gobert decided he had seen enough, shoving Green into the courtside seats to stop a fast break opportunity and draw a flagrant foul. Through Tuesday, Golden State had the No. 1 defensive rating at 97.1, a full 5.5 points better than any of the other seven remaining playoff teams. What’s more, the Warriors have done it against the Blazers and Jazz, two of the NBA’s top 12 offenses during the regular season.
Boston, Cleveland, Houston and others can cause serious problems for their opponents by combining superstar scoring talents with reliable complementary three-point shooting. The Warriors can do that too, of course, but their personnel can also wreck an opponent’s offensive plans. “One of the things about Golden State is how quick they think,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder lamented, after his team committed 13 turnovers and found itself trailing by 20+ points in the fourth quarter.
While the Warriors could have done a better job limiting the quality of the perimeter looks conceded to Hayward and Johnson, they did turn both into one-dimensional jump-shooters. Hayward made only one field goal in the paint, a tough and somewhat wild finish over JaVale McGee. Johnson, newly promoted to the starting lineup for round two, didn’t make a shot from inside 18 feet. Together they attempted just two free throw attempts after averaging more than eight combined against the Clippers. With Golden State getting easy buckets running off of turnovers and with the Splash Brothers always threatening to blow a game open from beyond the arc, this outside-only offense for Utah’s main scoring weapons is a losing formula, guaranteed.
Mounting direct challenges to Green is far easier said than done, though, because he’s pairing his off-the-charts energy with disciplined play. Through five games, Green has more blocks (19) than fouls (15), a ratio that would make Tim Duncan proud. More importantly, he’s avoided the completely unnecessary lapses of focus that came back to bite the Warriors in last year’s Finals. Although it might seem silly to celebrate the fact that Green hasn’t been hit with a technical foul in the postseason, much less a flagrant foul, his ability to maintain his composure is arguably Golden State’s most important variable, other than the health of its stars.
As the basketball world rightfully sang Thomas’s praises—marveling at his poise following the death of his sister and savoring his back-and-forth trash-talking exchanges with Washington’s Markieff Morris—it was easy to overlook Green playing it cool. After Gobert’s shove sent him into the seats, Green avoided retaliating with words or action, telling reporters later that he had encouraged the referees not to review the play so that the game could continue. “Life goes on,” he said dismissively, when asked about Gobert’s flagrant foul. “It really doesn’t matter to me.”
Moments after decrying the “boring” regular season, the outspoken Green had purposefully been as boring as he gets. The man who couldn’t stop playing with fire during the 2016 playoffs and throughout a rocky summer had no interest in unnecessarily lighting a match.
More intriguing match-ups and greater scrutiny are coming, but for now the Warriors should relish their low-key postseason launch and the defensive intensity that’s made it possible. After all, no organization understands better than this one how deeply unfulfilling fame can be without glory.