Though there are examples of accomplished teams getting knocked off early, such as the 2007 Mavericks, 2010 Cavaliers and 2011 Spurs, when a team as dominant as the Warriors gets to the conference finals, they simply don’t suffer massive upsets.
In NBA history, only three 60-win teams have lost in this round to opponents that won at least 10 fewer games in the regular season. If you’re a believer in history repeating itself, however, the particular teams may be very interesting.
The three underdogs who advanced to the Finals in that scenario are the 1986 Rockets over the Lakers, the 1995 Rockets over the Spurs and 2006 Heat over the Pistons. Hmm, two by Houston and the third by a team with a young scoring guard hated for how often he draws free throws, each about 10 years apart.
Are the Warriors susceptible to this eerie pattern of basketball history?
How the Warriors Got Here
The Grizzlies turned out to be the perfect opponent for Golden State. Almost like a perfect training exercise, Memphis pushed the Warriors to their limit while also lacking the punch to actually beat them. The combination of suffocating defense and Mike Conley’s stunning return put the Warriors in a 2-1 series hole, their first real pressure of any kind for this nucleus.
While they did have to close out Denver in 2013, they were the lower seed, and they were playing with house money against the Spurs in the next round, as well as last year against the Clippers considering Andrew Bogut was injured. The Warriors passed the test with flying colors, overcoming that Grizzlies defense by using their splendid offensive chemistry as opposed to resorting to guys trying to win the game on their own.
Bogut’s foul trouble in the face of James Harden’s relentless assault. Houston’s defense, especially with Jason Terry playing in place of Patrick Beverley, won’t have an answer for Golden State’s offense. The only way their offense will sputter is if they have to play multiple non-threats at a time.
Bogut getting in foul trouble might necessitate units with Festus Ezeli alongside Shaun Livingston or Andre Iguodala, which would severely cramp the spacing for Stephen Curry and/or Klay Thompson. Also, the Draymond-Green-at-center lineup may not be the trump card in this series that it has been in the past. Green could reasonably stay on Marc Gasol because a lot of his offense is pick-and-pop and not much above the rim. Dwight Howard is shorter and not a fraction of the shooter that Gasol is, but putting Green on him for stretches could lead to alley-oops in the pick and roll as opposed to open jump shots.
As for offense, Houston does not have a lumbering big such as Omer Asik or Zach Randolph. It’s hard to imagine that small Warriors lineup succeeds in the same manner when Houston can throw Howard, Josh Smith, Terrence Jones, Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer on the floor.
What the Warriors Have to do to Win the Series
Just be themselves. It sounds like a fortune cookie or a cheesy yearbook quote, but these playoffs have shown that the Warriors are by far the best team in the league when playing their brand of ball. Their struggles against Memphis came when the Grizzlies took away their space and got to those 50-50 balls with extra effort.
Critics want Golden State to limit the turnovers or stop with the heat check, off-balance threes, and that’s not conducive to them being successful because that flair is who they are. Those behind-the-back passes and 28-foot threes from Curry are their identity and if they gave them up, they would lose confidence as a whole, as the losses to the Grizzlies showed.
Curry and Thompson were missing their open looks in part because they were pressing rather than just letting it fly. Curry’s back-breaking three from beyond halfcourt in Game 6 was a good reminder that some plays have more impact on the game than the points they put on the scoreboard.
The Rockets certainly looked like a more than worthy foe in the final three games of their series against the Clippers, but having watched the Bulls all year, I’m fairly skeptical of Houston playing like that consistently. Teams that play stretches at less-than-max-effort can dial it up; it’s just not going to be there all the time. Memphis has a fair amount of deficiencies, but their effort was never in question, and that was a huge factor against Golden State, as it forced them to be feel the wear of that mental and physical engagement at all times.
Golden State’s overall talent and propensity for flashy highlights belies how professional they are as a group. The Warriors are more talented and the more consistent team–a hard formula to crack. While the early 2000s were full of upsets in terms of seeding, those Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers that coasted through the regular season were always the favorite. If we throw out those anomalous Lakers teams, the 2012 Spurs and the Nash-D’Antoni Suns (2005 and 2006, ouch) are the only favored seeds to suffer an upset in the Western Conference Finals since the 1995 Spurs lost to the Rockets.
Though the Rockets as a franchise have pulled off this kind of monumental upset before, the Warriors don’t have fatal flaws like those top seeds of prior years. Golden State plays hard, moves the ball, has athleticism all over the floor, defends like crazy and can play any style of game an opponent throws at them. Warriors in 5.