Chris Ryan: With about nine minutes left in the third quarter and the Spurs holding on to a slipping six-point lead over the Warriors, Stephen Curry raced up the court off an Andrew Bogut rebound. Curry is not a normal point guard, so the normal rules of playing the position don't apply to him. This of course, is part of the fun of watching Stephen Curry over the last couple of weeks. He played like ... Stephen Curry, showing off a skill set so unique, on a pair of ankles so brittle, it felt like you were watching some endangered species. Like you sat down in your living room and boom, what in the shit, there was an Iberian lynx.
After All-Star forward David Lee went down with a torn hip flexor, it appeared this Golden State Warriors team was toast. The Nuggets were dealing with their own injured star, Danilo Gallinari, but the team’s depth and impressive second half of the regular season still put them as the odds-on favorite to win the series. Yet by replacing Lee’s production with a combination of Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Carl Landry (and by riding Stephen Curry’s hot hand), Golden State roared back from a 1-0 series deficit to beat the Nuggets in six games and become the best story of the first round.
As was the case with the Nuggets, most are assuming that without Lee, Golden State’s matchup against the Spurs — a superior regular-season team inching closer to full strength thanks to the extra rest they received by making short work of the Lakers — will be the end of the road for the Warriors. But a funny thing might have happened for Golden State when Lee went down — they might have gotten better.
David Lee is a punch line, mostly because of his poor defense, but his ability to do just about everything on offense has made him a core part of a Warriors team that has won by scoring like hell, surviving on defense, and cleaning the glass. Now he’s gone for the season, the bad-luck victim of a hip flexor just 29 minutes into his very first NBA playoff game. The Warriors might be fine without him, and even improve on defense, but they’ll have to do so venturing into borderline unknown territory with lineup combinations that haven’t worked in tiny sample sizes. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Golden State will have to carve out an entirely new identity on the fly, a task even more difficult because of another injury everyone's forgotten about.
Stephen Curry just wrapped one of the most scintillating two-game stretches you’ll ever see, slicing up Indiana and New York on back-to-back nights for 92 points on 32-of-48 shooting — including an insane 18-of-23 from 3-point range. He’s on pace for perhaps the greatest 3-point shooting season in NBA history, and he combines that high-volume accuracy with a wonderful arsenal of creative, flippy, and spinny interior shots. When Curry is on, he’s one of the league’s half-dozen most entertaining players, and he transforms the Warriors into a must-watch.
But it’s time to worry that games like Curry’s 54-point explosion last night in New York are becoming almost emblematic of this Golden State season — a fun, score-first bonanza the Warriors ultimately lose because they cannot stop anyone on the other end. Their defense, an important early-season story line, has fallen apart. The Warriors are 7-10 in their last 17 games, and have allowed 109 points per 100 possessions in that stretch, a mark that would rank dead last in the league. After hanging around the top 10 in that category, and then just below that range, the Warriors have fallen into a four-way tie with the Lakers, Nets, and Mavericks that spans spots nos. 16-19. They’ve been outscored for the season, and they are 12-15 in their last 27 games.
The NBA loves its stars (and so do we), but often, it’s the bit players who are just as essential in defining a team’s identity. Whether it’s a high-profile sixth man, or the guy on the end of the bench, they fit (or don’t) because of how everything else fits. As the great Lester Freamon once said, “All. The Pieces. Matter.” With that in mind, here is the first in a series of profiles looking at the best role players in the NBA.
Carl Landry knew early. The Warriors were opening their season in Phoenix on Halloween night, and with 1:04 left, Landry’s new team had the ball and a one-point lead. Landry had scored 10 of the 20 points in the final quarter, and when it came time for Mark Jackson to draw up what he hoped to be the dagger, it was Landry who’d have the chance to plunge it in.
As Jarrett Jack dribbled near the top of the key, Landry jogged toward him as if to set a screen. Rather than make contact with Jack’s man, Landry kept on moving, Marcin Gortat flashed to the middle to help on the non-existent screen, and Landry was left all alone near the right elbow. Taking the pass from Jack, Landry pulled up from 17 feet and, like that, it was 87-84 with less than a minute to go.
“I’m a bench guy,” Landry says. “You’ve got Steph on the court, who’s a potential All-Star. You’ve got David Lee, who’s an All-Star. For [Coach Jackson] to put the ball in my hands at the end of the game and trust that I can knock down that shot, right then and there I knew it was going to be a fun year.“
The dividing lines are already starting to blur. Across the league teams are threatening to jump or fall from one tier to the other. But as we’ve yet to approach the one-quarter mark of the season, I’m still conceiving of the Western Conference in four tiers:
Tier No. 1: The five teams that should be better than everyone else: Thunder, Grizzlies, Spurs, Lakers, Clippers. The Clippers have lost four of five and the Lakers are doing whatever it is they do at 7-8, but these five should eventually shake out as the five best teams in the conference.