Critics are ringing the alarm bells for the Golden State Warriors, who are merely 1.5 games ahead of the field for the best record in the league, 3.3 points ahead of their closest pursuers in scoring differential, first in offensive rating and fourth in defensive rating in the NBA.
They’ve lost two of their past seven, however, including a home stunner against the Memphis Grizzlies in which they blew a 24-point third quarter lead before losing in overtime. Coach Steve Kerr has had to endure questions about the team’s 0-5 record against San Antonio, Cleveland, Houston and Memphis, though, it’s obvious that the Grizzlies were included in that list in an arbitrary fashion, designed just to make the team’s so-called “crisis” seem worse.
Why put Memphis in there but not the L.A. Clippers or the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Utah Jazz or the Toronto Raptors or the Boston Celtics? If you want to argue that the Warriors have an issue against elite teams, then have at it, as long as you realize that even including the Rockets in the company of the Cavaliers and the Spurs is a stretch and that the real sample size of elite losses is two–one of them on opening night and the other on the road on Christmas, in which the Warriors led by 14 midway through the fourth quarter.
Those two most recent losses, at Cleveland and versus Memphis both have the them of big blown leads in common and that’s the better, more honest conversation surrounding the Warriors these days. Do they have a problem in clutch situations?
Well yes and no.
They’re actually 9-3 in “clutch” situations this season, defined by NBA.com as games where the margin is five points or fewer and with five minutes or less remaining. That’s pretty good, right? That .750 winning percentage is second-best in the NBA, behind the Cavs who are 14-2 in clutch situations. It doesn’t quite tell the whole story, however.
Their offensive rating drops to 17th in clutch situations at just 105.6, compared to 113.4 overall. Their defensive rating declines to 16th at 105.2 compared to 102.0 overall. And remember, we can’t dismiss these numbers as “garbage time” minutiae. These are specifically close-and-late situations we’re dissecting.
What is fair to question is how many times the Warriors have under-performed in fourth quarters to turn blowouts into close games they’ve had to sweat out, and no less an authority on the topic than Draymond Green has noticed, explaining in the postmortem of the Grizzlies loss that it’s a habit the team has to break.
“We have to be better executing in the fourth quarter,” Green said. “Our fourth quarter has been atrocious. Everyone only notices in losses, [but] I actually pay attention to things when you win, also.”
Green continued, “I’m actually happy we lost today, because there are some things we need to correct in order to win a championship. … I want to see us get better each and every time we step on the floor, and I don’t feel like that’s been happening for things we need to get better at.”
In fact, Green would know better than anyone how deceptive the Warriors record is. He’s come up with several huge defensive plays late to help pull out wins at Milwaukee, at Detroit and against the New Orleans Pelicans. If anything all those narrow wins have built up his Defensive Player of the Year case.
It’s been a different story on the offensive end though, for Green and his star teammates. He’s shooting only 36.4 percent in clutch situations. Klay Thompson’s at 37.5 percent, and just 3-of-11 on three-pointers.
Kevin Durant’s been miserable, shooting 28 percent and just 1-of-11 from downtown, and video of Green lecturing Durant –who eschewed a possible two-for-one opportunity late in regulation against Memphis with the Warriors hanging on to a two-point lead, deciding to settle for a three in isolation instead of running a pick-and-roll– made the rounds, as proof of the team’s struggles in clutch situations.
The one Warrior who’s been okay in the clutch so far this season has been Stephen Curry, who’s shooting 47.1 percent and has taken the most shots, but even he’s made just a third of his threes.
Still, the Warriors would be wise to use him as their first option in those situations with Durant as a Plan B instead of the other way around. When push comes to shove, Curry’s still the one who has more floor vision and more range on his shot.
The bottom line is that the Warriors were fantastic in clutch situations last year, 30-4 with a 38.6 net rating, far and away the best in the league. However, that was 34 games they had to sweat out over an 82 game regular season, and that took its toll.
Perhaps the real takeaway here is that these Warriors have had to play just 12 close games and 50 “clutch” minutes all year. They haven’t been very good in those situations, but it’s a tiny sample size, barely more than one full game’s worth of minutes. For better or for worse, the results of their games have been determined well before the final buzzer, and even though the numbers aren’t pretty, they’ve been pretty successful even when they’ve had to grind it out, by hook or by crook.
As always with the Warriors, even when it doesn’t look like they’re all that good, it’s all relative in the context of a perfect ideal we hold them to. It’s unfair, but it’s what they signed up for.