Two straight convincing losses to the Memphis Grizzlies forced the Golden State Warriors into what head coach Steve Kerr called a "moment of truth" prior to Monday's Game 4 of their Western Conference Semifinals series. Their performance showed that the best team of the NBA's regular season is still very much in contention for the title.
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Playing with renewed confidence and resolve, the Warriors used an unorthodox defensive plan and much-improved offensive execution to build a 17-point halftime lead and grab a 101-84 blowout win at FedEx Forum. They now return home to Oracle Arena for Wednesday's Game 5 with regained homecourt advantage and a 2-2 tie with the Grizzlies. After making all the right adjustments, Golden State has put the pressure back on Memphis to keep pace in this very competitive series.
The biggest reason for the Warriors' improvement arguably came from a shift in defensive scheme. While undersized power forward Draymond Green continued to cover Marc Gasol, center Andrew Bogut was moved off Zach Randolph and onto wing Tony Allen, a curious decision only if you assess it as part of a standard man-to-man defense. In practice, Bogut played well off Allen to allow him any jumper he wanted and served as a rover, one-man zone, and regular double-team participant.
Neither a shooter nor a ballhandler, Allen hit an early mid-range jumper but followed it up with three straight misses from beyond the arc over the first six minutes, or one more 3-pointer than he had attempted in any game this season. With wing Harrison Barnes playing surprisingly stout defense on Randolph and Bogut disrupting plays in myriad ways after two ineffectual games, the Warriors managed to keep the Grizzlies away from their best options.
It took a little more time for the high-powered Golden State offense to get going, but the team played with much greater confidence and resolve than they showed in Games 2 and 3. Green came out very aggressive and put up eight of the team's first 10 points and 11 first-quarter points in all, shooting 4-of-6 from the field to match his total field goals from the previous two games combined. A team that had forced many jumpers instead worked to get the best looks possible, with MVP Stephen Curry playing a facilitator's role early and not taking his first shot until the 3:30 mark (a made mid-range jumper off a Bogut assist). The success slowly built until the Warriors went on a 7-0 run over the quarter's final minute — culminating in a very long 3 from Curry — to finish with a 28-20 lead:
They continued that fine form in the second half thanks in part to strong play from the bench. Andre Iguodala finally punished the Grizzlies' decision to allow him open shots with two 3-pointers, and David Lee contributed solid minutes at both ends after entering the rotation to replace the injured Marreese Speights.
Yet it was Curry who took over the game, looking every bit a deserving MVP as he scored 21 points (8-of-14 FG, 2-of-5 3FG) and put up four assists before the break. Curry occasionally looked hyperactive and had some questionable turnovers, but he did so with the intent to make plays instead of the combination of rushed and hesitant decisions that typified the two losses. Although Golden State was not without mistakes on the night, their sense of purpose helped them to stay in control even as the game became a little sloppy in the second quarter. As such, they still shot 24-of-46 from the field and 6-of-16 from deep for 61 points.
Meanwhile, Memphis failed to execute with consistency and looked uncomfortable themselves. Allen's near-negation caused head coach Dave Joerger to turn to Jeff Green for 14 first-half minutes (to Allen's 11), which theoretically gave the Grizzlies more offensive balance but effectively allowed the Warriors to exercise fluidity at both ends. After two excellent games in his return from facial fractures, Mike Conley was held in check by Klay Thompson and had trouble controlling the flow of the game.
Curiously, Gasol (5-of-14 FG in the first half), Randolph, and others missed makeable shots in the paint as the team shot just 19-of-49 from the field. A squad known for scoring in the lane could not manufacture many more points (2-of-10 from deep and 4-of-5 from the line despite entering the bonus with 7:11 remaining in the second). Not surprisingly, the Warriors entered the half with a 61-44 lead and full control of the proceedings.
Any hope of a comeback was snuffed out fairly early in the third. Gasol and Randolph combined for three free throws in the opening minute, but the Grizzlies scored just four more points over the next six-plus minutes as the Warriors went on an 11-4 run. The lead eventually got up to 26 before Gasol helped key a mild late-period run featuring a small lineup with Green at power forward. Nevertheless, the Warriors still entered the fourth up 82-64. Memphis never got the deficit lower than 16 points in the final period, and the final few minutes were straight-up garbage time.
This performance showed why so many, including the Warriors themselves, were not panicked after falling behind 2-1. Golden State has both the highest ceiling of any team in the postseason and a season's worth of proof that they can reach it. Kerr's bold decision to goad Allen into outside jumpers — a ploy most often associated with his mentor Gregg Popovich during the San Antonio Spurs' four-game sweep of the Grizzlies in the 2013 conference finals (and explained here by our Dan Devine) — paid off in many ways, from the immediate lack of flow found in the Memphis offense to the fact that Joerger could only get away with playing the best perimeter defender in the series for 16 minutes.
However, the Warriors succeeded in Game 4 for reasons not explained by individual tactical decisions. They brought tremendous focus to their first moment of real adversity this season and looked as capable as ever. The best team in the league and the Most Valuable Player looked very deserving of those titles:
Naturally, the series is far from over. The Grizzlies have fewer options for adjustments than the Warriors, but they are a battle-tested group with a clear identity and the ability to play much better than they did on Monday. It's fair to expect better from them than 37.5 percent shooting from the field and a 4-of-18 showing from 3-point range. A lot of that necessary improvement may need to start with Conley, who struggled to 4-of-15 shooting and a general lack of impact at both ends, and Allen, who needs to find some way to contribute (perhaps as a screener) if Kerr neglects to guard him again. The Grizzlies are known for the interior play of Gasol and Randolph, but these two were arguably the top performers in their wins.
For their part, the Warriors need to avoid complacency and the idea that all their problems have been fixed. Golden State avoided its first three-game losing streak of the season with this win, but the challenges of the regular season are far different than those of a seven-game series in which familiarity necessitates constant fine-tuning. Wednesday's pivotal Game 5 is their new biggest night of the season.
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