If we’re going to start paying attention to how the Cleveland Cavaliers are yawning, stretching and stumbling out of the blocks for the 2017-18 NBA season, it’s also worth casting a similarly jaundiced eye to the left coast. The Golden State Warriors — picked everywhere to run roughshod over the NBA, even while sleepwalking, after stomping their way to last year’s title — are now a positively pedestrian 4-3 after a 115-107 defeat at the hands of the Detroit Pistons on Sunday night.
The champs got 84 points on 50 shots from the All-NBA trio of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. They notched 29 assists on 44 made field goals. They led by as many as 14 points in the third quarter. And yet, the best team in the NBA managed to lose, thanks in part to a persistent commitment to doing head coach Steve Kerr’s least-favorite thing: just throwing the ball all over the court. (Well, maybe it’s his second least-favorite these days.)
As has been a problem at points throughout Kerr’s tenure in the Bay Area, Golden State got extremely loose with the ball against the Pistons, with players coming up several inches (and sometimes much more than that) off-target on all manner of feeds throughout the game:
The Warriors don't even have to be *much* better. They just have to not throw amazingly sloppy passes. https://t.co/Hvn1duqv25
The bigger problems, though, came when those misfires happened in the middle of the floor and in the run of play, allowing Stan Van Gundy’s club to pick up easy buckets on the break or attack a scrambled defense:
… and, if they could throw fewer ones inbounds that lead to live-ball runouts, that'd be great, too. https://t.co/vXfUFqxVQu
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) October 30, 2017
All told, the Warriors committed 26 turnovers on Sunday — their highest total in nearly three years — contributing directly to 31 Pistons points. That’s been par for the course through the first two weeks of the season.
Golden State has committed 16 or more turnovers in all seven of its games. Depending on whose numbers you look at, the champs have either the second- or fourth-highest turnover rate in the NBA. They’re giving up more than 22 points per game off turnovers, third-most in the league.
That’s how you can lose despite shooting 57 percent from the floor as a team, despite producing nearly 113 points per 100 possessions on the offensive end, and despite playing at home against an opponent on the second half of a back-to-back. That’s how you can wind up barely above .500 when turning in hands-down the NBA’s most efficient offense: by ostensibly throwing the game away. From Anthony Slater of The Athletic:
“This has nothing to do with trying to be unselfish,” coach Steve Kerr said. “This has to do with a complete lack of focus, fundamentals. We’re throwing the ball all over the place. Some passes are just hitting guys in the shoes, even when they’re not turnovers. It’s focus and execution.” […]
“At some point the ball just has to matter, the game just has to matter for us to win,” he said. “Teams are coming after us every single night and we know that. We’re getting everybody’s best shot. If you don’t match that type of energy and play with some intelligence and play with some discipline, you’re not going to win.”
Even the Warriors’ wins this season have come less as a result of crisp play than of cranking up their overwhelming talent to a point where their opposition can’t hang. They dug a 15-point first-half hole against the Pelicans, only to come storming back behind a hail of 3-pointers, before nearly giving that lead up in the fourth quarter. They gave up 17 offensive rebounds to the Raptors, and trailed by five with two minutes to go before Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry combined for 10 straight to end the game.
They gave up 77 points in the first half against Washington and trailed by as many as 18 after intermission before Durant spearheaded a comeback win. And on Sunday, they squandered multiple opportunities to put down the Pistons — who, by the way, are now 5-2, tops in the Eastern Conference, and getting really solid play from a number of sources — and gave up mammoth third- and fourth-quarter runs to put themselves in enough trouble that even their firepower couldn’t lift them out in time.
“We finally started caring when there were six minutes left, and we immediately cut it to three,” Kerr said after the loss, according to Tim Bontemps of The Washington Post. “But the right team won. Karma was in the right place tonight. They deserved that […] They outplayed us, they out-hustled us. We didn’t deserve to win that game by showing effort in the last six minutes, so the right thing happened.”
The right thing happened because the wrong things — self-inflicted wounds, death by 1,000 paper cuts — keep happening for the Warriors, who have finished each of the last three seasons ranked among the NBA’s four stingiest defenses, but who enter Monday’s play a woeful 26th in the league in points allowed per possession, one spot ahead of the similarly slumping Cavs. Cleveland, at least, can point to an offseason roster overhaul and season-opening injuries that have already produced multiple lineup changes in the season’s first two weeks. The Warriors brought back everyone of consequence from last year’s team, entering this season expected to rampage with the benefit of a full year of continuity after the addition of Durant … only to start throwing sparks right out of the gate.
After the game, Draymond Green spoke of throwing passes to places where his teammates “should be,” rather than where they are, an issue that should resolve once the team lifts itself out of the fog of an abbreviated preseason that included an extended trip to China. Durant said the team “had great intentions, but passes were just not on target.” Curry claims the Warriors are “really close to being ourselves,” if they can just take care of the little things.
That’s surely true — the Warriors’ offense still looks appropriately panic-inducing for opponents, and titles aren’t lost in October, especially for defending champions featuring healthy, in-their-prime All-NBA talents who complement one another as well as Golden State’s do. You can understand a team that’s played deep into June for three straight years, and that stampeded through the postseason last year with nary a reason to break a sweat, feeling like it’s not exactly worth cranking up the effort until the winter’s gone and the postseason’s on the horizon.
“Not throwing the ball away 20 times a game” isn’t a little thing, though, and unlike years past, the Warriors have yet to respond to several straight games of sloppiness by locking in and annihilating an opponent. Golden State’s got a golden opportunity to do just that on Monday, taking on a Los Angeles Clippers team that has become one of its favorite punching bags over the last few seasons, and that has started its first post-Chris Paul season better than expected thanks to excellent play from All-Star power forward Blake Griffin. Maybe the Dubs tighten up and paste the Clips, reminding Doc Rivers and company of the pecking order in the West and putting us all on notice that a season-opening fortnight of playtime is over.
We know that performance is in there, just waiting to come out. Until it does, though — until the Warriors wake up from their season-starting slumber — they’re going to keep getting reminders that just rolling out the ball and walking onto the floor isn’t going to be enough, even for a collection of talent this decorated and celebrated.
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