Commentary: Sandbagging Warriors Still the Ones to Beat

The San Jose Mercury News
Monday, April 16, 2018

Oakland, Calif. — For seven months, we watched the Golden State Warriors jog through the 2017-18 NBA season.

At times they kicked it into a higher gear, sure — a few quarters here, a few games there — but on the whole, we saw a team that was disinterested, unengaged and generally bored by the whole concept of a regular season.

The Warriors took ’er easy all the way to the finish line this campaign, stalling and then coasting through the final month.

The explanations behind the far-less-than-stellar play all season (which still resulted in 58 wins, third-best in the NBA) were bizarre and ever-changing: the Warriors were both tired and conserving energy, confident and yet concerned.

So heading into Saturday’s playoff opener against the San Antonio Spurs, no one really knew what to expect from the Warriors

Could the Warriors “flip” the proverbial switch? Would we see “the Warriors” in their full, domineering glory now that the “real season” was starting?

It only took a few possessions for a verdict to be rendered: The Warriors knew exactly where the switch was, and they had no problem flipping it as often as they wanted.

The Warriors’ Game 1 performance was both commonplace and incredible. It was a complete domination of the Spurs — the kind they’ve handed out so many times over the last four years — but at the same time, it was a big, in-your-face reminder that the Warriors can do that.

These guys had been holding out on us — save for a few games in December and one in February — since October! They sandbagged us.

And given the way they played on Saturday, they might have sandbagged the entire league.

“We know what it takes this time of year in order to win,” Draymond Green said on Saturday. “We wanted to get back to that, regardless of what everyone is saying: ‘The Warriors have lost it, they are not together, they can’t win without Steph (Curry), they’re not the same team.’ ... I think a lot of people tend to forget what we’re capable of. We know, and we’re going to show that.”

They certainly showed it in Game 1. All of those naysayers Green alluded to — real or not — can’t come back this morning with the same hot take because, on Saturday, the Warriors left perhaps the greatest coach in NBA history gobsmacked and, save for a small stretch in the second quarter, did whatever they wanted to the Spurs at Oracle Arena.

“They had more grunt. They had more physicality,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after the game. “We looked like deer in the headlights.”

“I think we focused in on just trying to win every possession on the defensive side of the ball,” Kevin Durant said.

For this Warriors team, success — at least against the vast majority of playoff teams — is that simple. All they had to do was care.

The Warriors’ defense was nearly impeccable from the onset. That was the “championship-level” effort the Warriors failed to display over the last month without Curry in the lineup. Warriors coach Steve Kerr started JaVale McGee at center and Andre Iguodala at point guard in surprise moves — he put his best defensive team on the floor to start — that worked to perfection.

Golden State dictated the terms of engagement with the Spurs from the opening tip. San Antonio shot 40 percent from the floor in Game 1, made only 32 field goals, and was dominated on the glass. If not for a few miracle 3-pointers, Rudy Gay’s play off the bench and the kind of mercy only great friends (Popovich and Kerr) can understand, the Warriors would have won the contest by 40.

Game 1 performances aren’t supposed to matter much — NBA history has told us to read into them at your own peril — but against the behest of the basketball gods, I’d advocate that you remember Saturday’s. In 48 minutes, the Warriors re-established a dominance that they spent the better part of seven months avoiding.

San Antonio will try to adjust before tonight’s Game 2, but the Warriors looked so much better than them on Saturday, I have a hard time believing that the Spurs stand much of a chance to win a game in this series. Any Spurs victory will likely be hand-delivered by a Warriors team that takes its foot off the pedal. (Don’t put it past them; they’ve gotten really good at that this season.)

Kerr said last month that the Warriors can beat anyone in the league, even without Curry in the lineup. At the time, it rightly raised eyebrows.

Those eyebrows aren’t up anymore. And if they are, they’re raised for a different reason. Without their best player — the NBA’s one-man offensive revolution — the Warriors turned in a performance that could, indeed, beat any team in the league.

If the Warriors can make that kind of effort a habit, perhaps this postseason won’t be so difficult for them after all.