LOS ANGELES — An undisciplined team is an unnerving proposition for any coach, even one who is sitting pretty atop a talent goldmine.
Golden State, the most super of NBA’s superteams, has been largely underwhelming over the season’s first two weeks, regularly flirting with danger and reverting to its worst habits: poor ball control and complacency. There was a preseason detour to China and a pushed-up start to the season. Their top competition in the West has been late to emerge due to injuries to Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard. And there has been a string of distractions—Donald Trump and mouthguards and Bradley Beal, oh my.
Those are contributing factors, convenient excuses and familiar flaws, but even taken together they didn’t constitute a satisfying explanation for what has held back the Warriors during their so-so start. Why were they just 4-3 entering Monday? How in the world did they have a bottom-five defense? And how could a well-oiled machine that returned all five of its starters and most of its key reserves lead the league in turnovers?
Steve Kerr’s mind drifted back to the 1998 Bulls, an aging group that completed a three-peat, but only after surviving an 8-7 start, a seven-game series against the Pacers in the East finals, and a clbadic Finals in which Michael Jordan squeezed past the Jazz thanks to his infamous push-off and famous jumper.
“That third year, everybody was fried,” Kerr told reporters on Monday, before a road game against the Clippers. “We were having all these team meetings. [This year] feels exactly the same. It’s not easy.” He went on to cite “the emotional and spiritual fatigue” that sets in for champions—the so-called hangover—and admitted that the 2018 Warriors have “a different vibe,” drawing a direct contrast with the 2015 Warriors, who were “bouncing off the walls every night.”
The sober concern looked justified for all of three minutes Monday night: Golden State missed its first three shots, forcing Kerr to call a quick Popovich-like timeout early in the first quarter. Then, suddenly, the carnival returned in all its glory. By the end of the night, Kerr was singing a completely different tune, and for good reason. His Warriors laid waste to the Clippers 141-113 on Monday, simultaneously dumping a division rival and erasing their coach’s trip down memory lane in a 48-minute reminder of their ever-present, but recently-hidden, brilliance.
“That looked like us,” Kerr grinned after the Warriors’ 11th consecutive win over the Clippers, a streak that dates to Christmas 2014. “Tonight was opening night. Training camp is over. We’re back to being us.”
Stephen Curry poured in 31 points and seven three-pointers, so much splash that he received “MVP” chants on the road and sat out the entire fourth quarter of the blowout. Draymond Green locked down Blake Griffin, attacked the paint, and tossed a pretty no-look alley-oop. The Warriors set a new season-high with 37 badists and a new season-low with 12 turnovers, as Kevin Durant scored at will and a parade of cutters cashed in open lay-ups. The Clippers entered Monday with optimistic buzz and the league’s top defense; they departed with burst balloons and a defense that had fallen to tenth.
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The 2018 Warriors might be sweating out a championship hangover, but they still defy any external precedent. This group isn’t the 1998 Bulls, whose core was largely composed of players over 30 and who lost Jordan to his second retirement after clinching the title. Instead, this will probably be the greatest and most efficient offense ever, driven by Durant and Curry, a pair of unselfish and committed megastars who are under 30 and who are now fully acclimated to life with each other.
The Warriors’ thrashing of the Clippers also rendered useless any budding comparisons to the Cavaliers. Yes, both Golden State and Cleveland (3-4) sputtered out of the gate more than expected. Yes, both had defenses that ranked among the league’s worst entering Monday. Yes, both had even dropped games to 2017 East lottery teams on Sunday, with Golden State falling to Detroit and Cleveland losing to New York.
But trying to lump together the two 2017 finalists under the “Contenders slowly easing their way into an 82-game marathon” banner is now, without question, a false equivalence. Cleveland has been dealing with a host of issues that just don’t apply to Golden State: age, chemistry, ill-fitting lineups, injuries and the departure of Kyrie Irving, to name a handful. And no one can be sure what Cleveland will look like once LeBron James flips his switch. The Cavaliers will surely be better than they have been this year—a low bar—but they might not be able to match their 2017 standard, much less close the widening gap with the Warriors.
Indeed, watching Golden State completely undress L.A. was to wish mercy for Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Jeff Green come June.
With an honest-to-goodness rout under their belts, the Warriors dispatched with any panicky rubberneckers looking to make too much of their unfocused October. They also shifted the conversation back to where it’s been for much of Kerr’s record-setting tenure: Will this version of the Warriors be better than previous models?
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Green said, when asked to compare the 2018 Warriors to the 2017 titlists. “You’re talking about a championship team that won the Finals pretty handily. You can’t say this team is anywhere near as good as that team [yet]. Do we have the potential to be better? Absolutely. We have a lot more depth, guys have gotten a lot better individually, we’re more familiar with each other. We’re nowhere near where we’re going to be or where we can be.”
For the record, the Warriors boast a league-leading 118.6 offensive rating that currently exceeds the obscenely high standards set by the franchise in recent years. Their +10.3 net rating isn’t far off last year’s +12.1 mark. Durant and Curry are among the top-five in plus-minus and the top 10 in scoring. Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson all rank among the league’s top 10 in made three-pointers. Golden State is back to besieging the box scores and leaderboards, if it ever relented.
That it was the Clippers who inspired the Warriors’ best performance of the season should come as no surprise. L.A. set the Kerr era into motion with its 2014 first-round series victory over Mark Jackson and Mark Jackson’s funeral suit. L.A. gave Curry his pecking-order target in the form of former point guard Chris Paul. L.A. provided Green with his signature head-to-head match-up in Griffin. And L.A. has served as a reliable punching bag throughout the last three seasons, stoking rivalry talk here and there while getting pummeled by an average of 14.2 points in its last 11 meetings. Kerr’s Warriors have beaten everyone convincingly, but they’ve seemingly made a point to dismantle the Clippers, winning the last six contests by double digits.
These Warriors aren’t crawling to the finish line like the 1998 Bulls or facing existential questions like the Cavaliers. This is a juggernaut that simply needed an opponent with the power—or at least the past history—to capture its full attention and stoke its full might. “We were searching for that feel-good [performance],” Green admitted Monday. “We hadn’t really had it.”
That search is over, and now the back-to-back quest can officially commence.