The NBA playoffs have a way of forcing a team to confront who they are in a much more visceral way than any other team sport. Just look at LeBron James’ journey with the Miami Heat over the last two years, and you’ll get a good idea of what I mean by this.
From veteran teams trying to make one last run to the next generation of players making the jump from “nice young team” to championship contenders, the grind of the postseason lets teams know exactly where they stand by exposing their flaws on the biggest stage of basketball.
The first five games of the playoffs have brought an identity-forging experience for the Golden State Warriors, and regardless of what happens in Game 6 and beyond, Mark Jackson’s team will have a much more defined sense of self going into next year’s campaign.
Should the Warriors close out the series tonight against the Denver Nuggets at Oracle Arena, the Bay Area will swell up with pride at their accomplishment – as they should – but the odds of Golden State advancing past the next round are fairly low. Because of this harsh reality, the measuring stick for this team shouldn’t be based on how far they can go in these playoffs, it’s more about how they get there.
Here’s what we know moving forward:
Stephen Curry is the superstar. This team will only go as far as he can take them, and since the postseason started, he’s been one of the best players in the league. To be fair, it’s not as if this happened overnight. People woke up to the fact that Curry is an elite talent after he dropped 54 points in Madison Square Garden back in late-February.
What he’ll have to adjust to for the rest of this season (and the rest of his career) is the treatment he gets from opposing teams because of the danger he poses to a defense. We’ve already seen how the Nuggets responded in Game 5 – things got chippy, physical, and a little bit personal as they tried to push Curry around a bit and take him out of his comfort zone. For the most part it worked, as Curry had only six points in the first half, finished the game with 15, and went 1-for-7 from three-point range.
Tonight’s response will be telling, and if the best shooter in the game can learn to harness those frustrations and use them as motivation to take his game to another level, we’ll be lucky enough to witness whatever that may entail. Considering the quality of some of his performances this year, it would be fairly amazing for him to surpass that level of play, but you also get the sense that he’s not a finished product at 25 years old.
One of the best things about this series in regards to the future development of the team has been the play of Andrew Bogut. Bogut is the rugged presence in the middle of the key that the franchise has lacked for so long, and it’s rare for a team to find one player that can act as a cure-all for multiple ills. In this case, those ills would be defense, rebounding, above the rim presence and toughness. While it may have been hard for fans to see the bright side when the seven-footer was sitting on the bench halfway through the season, it’s clear now what Bogut’s value is to this team, so much so that many wondered why he remained on the bench during a critical final stretch in Game 5.
Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes are the two young players on which everything might hinge at this point, and their development will have the biggest effect on the team’s identity moving forward. For anyone that doubts this, simply look at Game 2 when the two combined for 45 points while going 17-for-25 from the field in a 131-117 win in Denver.
Barnes is especially interesting, as his skill set is suited well to a role similar to what Paul Pierce does for the Boston Celtics. He can get to the rim off the dribble, draw fouls, and he has a mid-range jumper that comes in handy when defenses start to sag off of him expecting dribble penetration. If he ever develops a back-t0-the-basket game like Pierce, he’s going to be asked to do a lot more on offense, and the Warriors will be a better team for it.
Thompson is a different case, as he prefers to work the perimeter and counts on his jumper as his biggest strength. If he works on taking his defender to the hoop off the dribble, that jumper will be that much more dangerous, as teams will have to respect his ability to drive, and it will also create opportunities for Curry beyond the arc, as well as big men if he can beat his man and draw a a help defender off of someone like Bogut, Carl Landry, or David Lee.
If Thompson or Barnes can figure these things out on the fly throughout the course of the playoffs this year, fantastic. If not, they have their work cut out for them going into the offseason.
As far as the rest of the team is concerned, the coaching staff has done an impressive job at being honest with each player about their roles. Jarrett Jack is a sixth man that provides can provide instant offense off the bench and seamlessly integrate himself into the starting lineup if it’s called for, and his mid-range game and ability to get to the basket is of great value to a team that loves to shoot threes. Carl Landry is a banger that provides low post offense and relentless effort on the boards, another complementary player to the finesse stylings of Curry, Thompson and the now injured David Lee.
Draymond Green is a hustler, and while his size and skill set on offense aren’t ideal for his position, his defensive acumen is enough to make him a contributor that Mark Jackson can rely on.
Festus Ezeli gives you defense and energy, and anything else is a bonus as he learns the nuances of big man basketball at the NBA level.
Richard Jefferson is a veteran presence that can defend the perimeter and the small forward position in a pinch, and while he’ll never be asked to do much on offense, he’s knowledgeable, and he’ll get easy buckets from time to time on smart cuts to the basket.
And Mark Jackson is the captain of the ship, a coach that gets the most out of his roster by trusting his best players to make plays and preaching the gospel of defense, hustle, and Jesus. And the players have bought in. It’s not often you see a group of professional athletes as close-knit and team-oriented as the Warriors, and that is directly attributable to the head coach and the relationship he has with his young team.
Let’s not forget GM Bob Meyers’ role in all of this, as it’s his vision that is being executed before our very eyes. The foresight he’s displayed in developing a team that can compete not only this year, but for the next few years moving forward, has not been present in the front office of the Warriors in the past.
If there’s a common thread that runs through each aspect of the operation, it’s growth. Meyers is a first-time GM, Jackson is a first-time head coach, and there’s only two players (Lee and Jefferson) over the age of 30 on the roster. As this team continues to grow together, fans will be expecting results, and they’re right to, because that’s how success is measured in professional sports.
But what makes those results rewarding is the process that goes into getting there, and win or lose in Game 6 Thursday night, it’s going to be a joy to watch the Warriors take the next step in the journey that molds them into a championship team.