A popular narrative surrounding the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors coming into the season, one fueled mostly by Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, was that “luck” had a lot to do with their title because they didn’t suffer any important injuries and they didn’t have to face the teams that might have been the trickiest matchups for them in the playoffs. Heck, not only did they not have to play the Clippers or the San Antonio Spurs, but the starting point guards of all four teams they went through in the postseason were either out or compromised by injuries.
The “lucky” theme is an interesting one because there’s long been a school of thought in the analytical community that, regardless of sport, and regardless of the quality or lack thereof concerning a team or an individual player, that “clutch-ness” is largely a myth and how people do in close-and-late situations comes down to a coin flip. Luck, in other words. It’s why statisticians have long pointed to scoring differential as the proper measure of a team rather than won-loss record, and countless studies have shown that it’s a better predictor of future results.
Lucky teams win lots of close games, the saying goes. Good teams win lots of blowouts.
I bring this up because the Warriors, 19-0 and counting, have been both dominant and fortunate according to this theory. Their scoring differential of 15.4 leads the league, obviously, but they’ve been involved in far more close games late than that margin suggests. Don’t be fooled by some of these lopsided final scores, where the Warriors have pulled away with dagger threes, free throws or overtime domination. The Dubs have already been involved in seven games, including Monday night’s at Utah, that could’ve gone one way or the other, including four in a row in a week stretch against Brooklyn, Toronto, at the Clips and then back home for Chicago.
Would critics be lining up around the corner if the team was 12-7 right now, with two of those losses coming to the Clippers? It’s certainly possible, in an alternate reality. If the “coin-flip” theory is accurate, it’s already come up “heads” for the Warriors seven times in a row, which has a 1/128 chance of happening with an actual coin.
The stats tell us there may be a bit more to this than chance. The Warriors lead the league in net rating, which currently stands at 16.7, 113.7 offensively and 97.0 defensively. It’s almost double that of the Spurs, their closest pursuer. A fascinating thing happens when you look at clutch situations, however, defined by NBA.com as a five-point margin or fewer with five minutes or less remaining. In 33 clutch minutes this season the Warriors’ net rating rockets up to an absurd 50.0, 122.2 offensively and a stifling 72.1 defensively. They’ve gotten hotter when it’s mattered and their opponents have gone ice cold.
In clutch situations the Warriors assist on a higher percentage of their field goals, they take better care of the ball, they play faster, they rebound better (especially on the offensive end) and hold opponents to a 27.9 effective field goal percentage, which is sub-Kobe on the arctic bricklaying scale.
Was that luck? All seven times?
What makes the Warriors a tough nut to crack is even when you have them down late, they’re better at the ultimate catch-up weapon, the three-pointer, than anyone else is. Not only do they have the league’s most renowned practitioner of the long-ball in Stephen Curry, but a veritable horde of marksmen alongside him in Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Leandro Barbosa, et al.
In consecutive games they got 4-of-5 from downtown efforts out of Brandon Rush and Ian Clark. They have eight fellows on the roster who’ve rung up at least 10 threes already, and Barnes’s 38.9 percentage from deep is the worst among them. Even Shaun Livingston, who didn’t make a single three-pointer last year, canned one against the Jazz in the fourth quarter.
Was that luck?
All I know is this “out-play the Warriors down the stretch” stratagem foes are employing doesn’t seem to be working very well. I suggest the “give them a sound thumping using your human octopus” approach the Spurs used last April.
The Warriors will host the Clippers one more time in the regular season, on Mar. 23. They’ll probably have lost a game or three by then, but we’ll have to wait and see. If anyone at Oracle has the slightest sense of humor though they’ll play this ditty during pregame introductions, if for no other reason than to witness the spectacle of an NBA game starting with some technical free throws prior to the opening tip.