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The State of the Warriors Is Good

Golden State finally has its signature victory of the regular season in a beatdown of the defending champs. Here’s what changed between Christmas and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It didn’t take long for the Warriors to send the Cavs a message on Monday. Their 126–91 victory was essentially won by technical knockout in the first half: A 15-point Golden State lead at the end of the first quarter ballooned to 29 points at halftime, when the Warriors were up 78–49. It was the type of performance everyone expected when they signed Kevin Durant, an all-out offensive assault that left the opposing team little time to breathe, much less punch back. After blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in their 109–108 loss to the Cavs on Christmas Day, the Warriors made any questions about their inability to execute in crunch time irrelevant.

There were a million differences between the games on Christmas Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Draymond Green picked up two early first-quarter fouls in the former and Kyrie Irving picked up two in the latter, throwing off their team’s respective rotations. The Cavs were also integrating the newly acquired Kyle Korver into the mix, and Kevin Love left the game at halftime due to soreness in his lower back. The first game was in Cleveland, while the second was in Golden State, in what was the last of a five-game West Coast trip for the Cavs. Maybe most importantly, the Warriors shot 44.1 percent from 3 at home and 30.0 percent from 3 on the road. Variance swamps everything, especially with two teams who launch so many shots from behind the 3-point arc.

Nevertheless, Steve Kerr did make several interesting tweaks to his team’s strategy between the two games, almost all of which paid off handsomely on Monday. If the Cavs and the Warriors end up meeting for the third consecutive time in the NBA Finals, both coaching staffs will pore over the film from this game looking to figure out what went right for Golden State, and what possible adjustments Cleveland can make to counter. Here are five takeaways from the Warriors’ 126–91 beating of the Cavs, and what they can tell us about Golden State as it moves into the second half of the season:

1. Steph Curry Has Been Unleashed

Steph hasn’t been playing like himself this season. He’s shooting much worse on pull-up jumpers, and he hasn’t been playing with the same type of reckless abandon that defined his second MVP season. It’s hard to justify taking as many YOLO 3s when you are playing with the best one-on-one scorer in the league. Everything came to a head on Christmas, when he had 15 points on 4-of-11 shooting and handed out as many turnovers (three) as assists (three), spending most of the fourth quarter as a decoy. He couldn’t stay in front of Kyrie, and Kerr took him out in the final seconds to make a defensive substitution.

After the game, Curry told the media that he wanted the opportunity to run pick-and-rolls. According to the tracking numbers at NBA.com, Curry averaged 6.7 possessions per game as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll last season, compared to only 4.8 possessions per game this season. Taking Curry off the ball played into the hands of the Cavs’ bump-and-grind defensive strategy, as they had more license to be physical with him and knock him off his spots when he wasn’t directly involved in the offense. Curry’s numbers have increased slightly over the past nine games, and he was way more aggressive in his second game against the Cavs.

He set the tone in the first play of the game, taking the ball right at Kyrie and scoring on a beautiful lefty floater off the glass. Curry had the ball in his hands a lot more this time around, with 20 points on 7-of-20 shooting and 11 assists compared with only three turnovers. He took more 3s on Monday (12) than he had field goal attempts on Christmas. He came around screens looking to score, and he found a good balance between shooting off the dribble and driving the ball. Instead of settling for the 3 when Love was switched on him, like he did in the final seconds of Game 7, Curry went right around the Cleveland big man, collapsing the defense and kicking the ball out for an open 3.

Curry is going to give up points against the Cavs. For as much as he has improved on that side of the ball over the years, he’s still the weak link on the Warriors defense, the one perimeter player whom they don’t want switched on LeBron James. When the Cavs use Curry’s man to screen LeBron, it forces the Warriors to scramble, creating a crack that can be exploited by quick ball movement. J.R. Smith’s injury allowed Steph to be somewhat hidden in this game, as his replacement (Iman Shumpert) isn’t nearly as active or effective as an off-ball threat. A healthy Cavs team is going to try to wear Steph down on defense; the key for the Warriors is to let him make up the difference on the other end of the floor.

2. We’ll Be Seeing Less Point Durant, but That’s Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

There’s only one basketball, so time with the ball in your hands is a zero-sum game. If Steph is playing with it more, someone else is playing with it less. Durant took seven fewer shots in the Warriors’ second game against the Cavs than he took in their first, and he didn’t attempt a single free throw, compared to 12 attempts on Christmas. In the fourth quarter of their first meeting, the offense bogged down as Durant went one-on-one over and over again, in what looked like a repeat of his days in Oklahoma City. The ball stopped moving and the team became stagnant; the Warriors didn’t look like the Warriors. Just because he can score pretty easily in isolations doesn’t mean it’s always the best idea.

Durant scored 21 points on 9-for-16 shooting on Monday, but he got his offense in a much more varied way. He was getting out and running in transition, handling the ball in the pick-and-roll, and coming off screens and firing without hesitation like he was Klay Thompson. Durant may take fewer catch-and-shoot jumpers than either Thompson or Curry, but he might just be the Warriors’ most effective option in that scenario. It’s almost impossible for the Cavs to defend a mobile 7-footer who is taller and longer than anyone in their rotation, while Durant’s length and quick trigger made his shot unblockable.

Just as important as Durant’s different role was the distribution of his minutes. Durant played a little over a minute without Curry on Monday, compared to just under six minutes on Christmas. Instead of letting him run point with the second unit, Kerr took Durant and Curry out of the game together at the start of the second quarter, playing a more democratic lineup with the offense running through Thompson, Draymond Green, and Shaun Livingston. When one of the Warriors’ two superstars is in for the entire game, no one else on the roster gets the chance to be a featured player. They suck up all of the oxygen in the offense. Both Green and Livingston flourished in bigger roles against the Cavs, with Green racking up a triple-double (11 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists) and Livingston getting 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting, compared to only 2 points on 0-for-2 shooting on Christmas.

Playing Durant and Curry together more also allowed Kerr to try a new lineup with Curry at the 1, Durant at the 4, and JaVale McGee at the 5. Prior to Monday’s game, Curry and Durant rarely played together without Draymond on the floor. Playing the two of them with an elite roll man like McGee and two other 3-point-shooting wings completely compromises the opposing defense, and that was the group that blew the game open with a 10–1 run in the first quarter.

3. Andre Iguodala Was Aggressive, and the Team Needs More Where That Came From

The Cavs don’t guard Iguodala. Paying him no respect is the only way the Cavs can keep their big men on the floor when the Warriors go small. Take a look at the individual matchups in this sequence at the end of the first quarter. The Warriors are playing Durant at the 4, while the Cavs are playing Love and Channing Frye together. They want to keep LeBron on Durant, which means one of their big men has to guard one of the Warriors’ three perimeter players. They aren’t going to put Love on one of the Splash Brothers, so by process of elimination, that leaves him on Iguodala. Love has to rotate over to help on the pick-and-roll between Curry and McGee, and Korver isn’t leaving Thompson open in the corner, so there’s no one within 10 feet of Iguodala when he catches the ball.

With that much space to work with, Iguodala should regularly kill the Cavs. He’s averaging only 5.9 points per game this season, but he’s too important to take off the floor. He’s the Warriors’ best perimeter defender, and he’s also one of their best passers, leading the NBA with an eye-popping 5.08–1 assist-to-turnover ratio. While careless turnovers have been an Achilles’ heel for the Warriors, Iguodala rarely makes the wrong decision with the ball. His Achilles’ heel, ironically, is one that no other Warrior seems to have an problem with: He often passes up open shots. When he’s hitting from the perimeter, forcing the defense to guard him at the 3-point line, the Warriors truly become unguardable. He is shooting 49.7 percent from the field in their wins this season, and 33.3 percent in their losses.

4. Golden State Stuck With Its Big Men

The Lineup of Death didn’t make an appearance Monday. The Warriors kept one of their three traditional big men — Zaza Pachulia, David West, and McGee — in for all but four minutes of the game. In contrast, they played Draymond at the 5 for 13 minutes on Christmas, including the final six minutes of the fourth quarter. They have destroyed the rest of the league with small-ball lineups over the past few seasons, but the Cavs seem to have found the antidote for them. With LeBron at the 4 and Tristan Thompson at the 5, the Cavs can play two frontcourt players who can comfortably switch screens on defense, and they’ve dominated smaller Warriors lineups on the offensive glass.

The Warriors miniaturized as the past two Finals progressed, and it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t do something similar if their backs were against the wall versus Cleveland for a third time. However, the way all three of their centers played on Monday had to be encouraging for Kerr. JaVale was great as a roll man, West had his moments as a passer, and Zaza was huge on the boards, with 13 rebounds in 21 minutes. The key for both teams’ big men in this matchup is how they handle the pick-and-roll, as the opposing team is going to hunt them down to try to get them isolated on one of their stars. The Warriors were very aggressive in switching against the Cavs, with Zaza repeatedly ending up on LeBron, and the gamble paid off.

The strategy seemed to be that they would live with LeBron going one-on-one, rather than letting him get everyone else involved. LeBron had two assists and six turnovers, and the Cavs shot only 26.5 percent from 3. James will figure out how to attack the switch over the course of a seven-game series should they meet again in June, but the Warriors’ strategy worked on Monday.

5. And They Won the Turnover Battle

Sometimes it really is that simple. The Warriors have more talent than anyone else in the NBA, including the Cavs, so if they don’t give up extra possessions, they are probably going to win the game.

They did a much better job of taking care of the ball this time around, with fewer sloppy passes at the top of the key that resulted in easy run-outs for the Cavs the other way. On the other end of the floor, they were more aggressive in the passing lanes, particularly in their pick-and-roll coverages, which allowed them to turn over the Cavs more and gave them easy shots in transition. It was a self-reinforcing cycle, since more Cavs turnovers prevented them from having as many opportunities on the offensive boards. When the Warriors take care of the little stuff, everything else takes care of itself.