They’re heavy favorites, should be heavy favorites and know they should be heavy favorites.
That’s quite a trifecta the Golden State Warriors have going for them as the NBA’s second season (aka the playoffs) tips off Saturday.
This isn’t to say the Warriors are unbeatable. They were thought to be unbeatable a year ago, entering the postseason with a 73-win head of steam, and we all know how that turned out.
Still, there’s a palpable sense things are different this time around. As Stephen Curry expressed from the podium Wednesday night.
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“We’re chasing something,” Curry said after the Warriors finished 67-15, their third straight season with the NBA’s best record. “We’re not protecting anything this year.”
We’re chasing something. We’re not protecting anything this year.
I seriously doubt Golden State’s status as super-duper heavy favorites is what torpedoed them in last year’s Finals. The 3-1 collapse was more attributable to LeBron James’ supreme will, Kyrie Irving’s clutch shooting, Draymond Green’s Game 5 suspension and the lack of consistent, reliable scoring besides Curry and Klay Thompson.
Twelve months later, the Warriors are in much stronger position to lock up their second NBA title in three years.
Rather than the strain of eclipsing Michael Jordan’s Bulls and living up to the Greatest Team Ever billing, Golden State secured the No. 1 seed with little discomfort. They rested key players in the final two weeks, following the pivotal March 29 win at San Antonio, and are “just kind of easing into it” (coach Steve Kerr’s words) heading into the first-round series against Portland.
“It’s more subdued this year, more business-like,” Kerr said in comparing last year to this one. “It’s similar to two years ago in terms of the way the season ended. We had the 1 seed locked up for the last week or two, two seasons ago, and we were kind of able to decide how we wanted to go into the postseason.
“The difference now, we’ve been doing this for a few years, and (in 2015) it was brand new. There was a freshness about it. This year it’s more business-like. It’s ‘All right, we’ve been through this. We know where we are. Let’s make sure we’re prepared.’ ”
When Kevin Durant sprained his MCL on Feb. 28, the chief concerns were that the Warriors would struggle without him (nope) and that he’d be unable to return for the regular season (nope again).
I guess I don’t make him worse after all.
Kevin Durant, on Stephen Curry
Instead, Golden State played some of its best basketball without Durant, winning 14 in a row while smothering MVP candidates James Harden (5-of-20 shooting, 24 points), Russell Westbrook (4 of 16, 15 points) and Kawhi Leonard (7 of 20, 19 points) on the defensive end.
At the same time, Curry regained his shooting mojo and dynamic floor game. During Durant’s 19-game absence, the two-time MVP averaged 26.9 points, 7.8 assists, and 4.8 rebounds – numbers that compare to his otherworldly 2015-16 season.
If there were any concerns, it was how Curry and Durant would mesh once Durant returned. This is not a trivial matter. Most of Golden State’s early-season wobbliness, particularly in close games, stemmed from the simple fact that both superstars prefer to have the ball in their hands on pick-and-rolls.
If there were any concerns, it was how Curry and Durant would mesh once Durant returned.
Could this be an issue in the playoffs, where the scores presumably will be tighter? It could. Which is perhaps why the Warriors took the unusual step of having Curry and Durant engage in a spirited shooting contest following a recent practice. (Curry edged Durant by one 3-pointer, out of some 200 attempts.)
It’s also why Durant went out of his way to crack, “I guess I don’t make him worse after all” following his first game back, one in which Curry scored 29 points.
Thanks in part to the seedings, I can’t see the Warriors being challenged until a potential Western Conference finals matchup against the Spurs. In the Finals, Cleveland (despite recent results) remains a serious threat. So are the surprising Boston Celtics, which beat Golden State at Oracle Arena by double digits.
But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves. As the NBA playoffs begin their two-month odyssey, it’s the Warriors and everyone else.
Odds & ends
▪ Everyone makes the NBA playoffs, right? Tell that to Tyler Johnson and his Miami Heat teammates, who fell excruciatingly short.
Johnson was instrumental in Miami’s climb from 11-30 to 41-41. The second-year guard from Fresno State averaged 13.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists, highlighted by a clutch 24-point effort in Monday’s 124-121 win over Cleveland that knocked the Cavs from the No. 1 seed.
That four-year, $50 million contract that Johnson signed during the offseason? So far he’s been worth every nickel.
10,444 career points for Nets center Brook Lopez, No. 1 in franchise history
▪ Congrats to Brook Lopez on becoming the all-time leading scorer in Brooklyn Nets franchise history. His 10,444 career points pushed Buck Johnson to second place.
Lopez has spent his entire nine-year career with the Nets. Only twice have his teams reached the playoffs, and they’ve never advanced past the first round.
We can only hope the former Memorial High star gets the heck out of there via a trade.
▪ The Nets essentially rigged the Eastern Conference playoff race by benching six regulars (including Lopez and Jeremy Lin) in their final game against the Chicago Bulls.
Inexcusable for a 20-62 outfit, but it did ensure a playoff berth for certain Bulls center named Robin Lopez, who happens to be Brook’s twin brother.
Not that Brook wanted any part of that capitulation.
“Absolutely,” Brook replied when he asked if he wanted to play in Wednesday’s 112-73 blowout. “Ruin Robin’s season? It’s like a dream.”
Ah, brotherly love.