The Golden State Warriors looked in crisis just four days ago. After a second straight blowout victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, it's safe to say that the best team of the NBA's regular season is still one of the league's obvious championship contenders.
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Despite a rough start, the Warriors bounced back with several big-time three-pointers from MVP Stephen Curry and dominated the Grizzlies in the second half for a 98-78 win in Wednesday's pivotal Game 5 at Oracle Arena. While the Warriors were not perfect offensively, this was the closest approximation of their 67-win campaign that we've seen so far this postseason, with an impressive first half becoming an overwhelming third quarter in which the visitors looked overmatched. Memphis was at the disadvantage of lacking defensive ace Tony Allen, out with a hamstring injury, but this result looked dependent on much more than his absence. The Warriors, heavily favored prior to losing two games, were better in nearly every respect.
However, that was not the case for the opening few minutes of the first quarter. In a reversal of Game 4, when the Warriors goaded Allen into shooting jumpers to disrupt the flow of the offense, the Grizzlies came out with a focus on quick ball movement to get good shots for their greatest threats. Zach Randolph, their first option in the early-going of every game of this series, scored nine of their first 11 points on his way to 11 first-quarter points on 5-of-7 shooting (plus seven boards, three offensive). After being covered by the undersized Harrison Barnes (with additional help from center Andrew Bogut) in the previous game, Randolph drew a mix of those two and Draymond Green. He embraced the variety with a succession of lay-ins, jumpers, and even a three-pointer, proving that he presents the most difficult cover for the Warriors in this series. The Grizzlies scored 21 points by the 4:50 mark of the first and appeared set to push the Warriors to the limit.
That success proved to be short-lived. After missing a number of open looks in the opening minutes, Curry rescued the Warriors with his now-standard ability to make high-risk three-pointers look rational. The MVP knocked down three triples in a quarter-closing 16-2 run to give the Warriors an improbable 26-25 lead. It's hard to say that this was due to especially good offense — Golden State turned it over seven times in the quarter and looked fairly out of sorts even when shots went in. Yet Curry is remarkable in part because he hit shots that would get any other player pulled from the game. There's no real analysis that can explain why this works. He's just good enough to turn the idea of a quality process on its head.
The Warriors' ability to control the second quarter made a little more sense, because they married that shot-making with more excellent defense. Randolph took only two field goals in the period (missing both) as the Grizzlies began to depend more heavily on center Marc Gasol, who shot only 3-of-11 from the field in the first half with several missed (and contested) lay-ups. They had few other options — Jeff Green was a relative non-factor as Allen's replacement in the starting lineup, and 38-year-old Vince Carter was most impactful as an offensive rebounder. The only perimeter play with a respectable line was Mike Conley (3-of-5 FG for nine points), but he struggled to get Memphis into good shots as Klay Thompson made him look uncomfortable for the second game in a row. Conley's inspiring Game 2 will not lose its glow with time, but now that it's a week in the past it's easier to see that the Grizzlies point guard is dealing with several injuries. He has not been able to control pace and flow with consistency in past these two losses.
It's arguable that the Warriors lacked their own ideal tempo control, but the ability to hit tough three-pointers covers up a lot of mistakes. Again, the process was far from great, but the Warriors made the necessary shots as Curry, Harrison Barnes (10 points on 2-of-3 3FG), and even Andre Iguodala excelled from the perimeter. It's hard to say what caused the turnaround, but it was most likely a combination of better luck and greater comfort due to the absence of Allen. Despite poor shooting from Thompson (2-of-8 FG) and Draymond Green (0-of-3 3FG), the Warriors entered the halftime break having shot 9-of-17 from beyond the arc. Those 27 points were the biggest reason for their 49-41 lead.
Jeff Green managed to cut the deficit to six points several minutes into the second half, but that ended up as a footnote to the dominance to come. The Grizzlies matched their second-quarter output with 16 third-quarter points (including six in the final 6:28) as Randolph became even more of a non-factor and no one stepped up to fill his role. Worse yet, the Warriors turned several turnovers into easy buckets at the other end thanks to the quick hands of Curry (six steals on the night) and others. As they did many times in the regular season, Golden State turned the third quarter into a romp with crisp ball movement (usually ending up in a good shot, if not a make) and swarming defense to frustrate any attempt at a comeback. Memphis never got the margin into single digits over the final 17:31, and the result was in such little doubt that Curry played all of 94 seconds in the fourth quarter.
The great fear for the Grizzlies in this series was that they could not score enough to keep pace with the Warriors, and that's exactly what's taken place in the past two games. The 162 combined points represents their worst consecutive two-game output of the season, and their 36 percent shooting in the paint in Game 5 is their worst mark of the season (with Game 4 right behind it). Paint scoring has been a struggle for many teams against the Warriors this season, but the Grizzlies were able to survive in their two wins by making mid-range jumpers. Those shots went down early on Wednesday, but they were almost nonexistent thereafter. This incarnation of Memphis has never been much of an outside shooting team — they were 4-of-15 in this one — and it's not clear how else they're going to score against Golden State moving forward.
We know that the Warriors will continue to shoot three-pointers no matter if they fall or not. They did in Game 5 as the Warriors shot 14-of-30 from deep with strong ratios from Curry (6-of-13), Thompson (3-of-4), Barnes (3-of-5), and most surprisingly Iguodala (2-of-3 and 7-of-10 from the field for 16 points). At the same time, it's hard to say that the offense was stellar. Head coach Steve Kerr acknowledged as much after the game:
Kerr on W’s offense in this series: “I don’t think we’ve really hit our stride at that end of the floor.”
— Erik Malinowski (@erikmal) May 14, 2015
He's right — 17 turnovers is pretty bad, even if many of them were of the dead-ball variety, and there were many curious decisions that ended up positively just because of incredible shots. But the amazing thing about the Warriors is that they don't need a perfect performance to dominate. Draymond Green can be an offensive positive when he misses all five of his threes because he can dish out nine assists. Barnes can cover for Thompson during a brief shooting slump by becoming more attack-minded. David Lee has been thrust into the rotation to fill in for the injured Marreese Speights, but that's fine because he was in the All-Star Game two seasons ago. No other team has so many options.
The Grizzlies absolutely can win Friday's Game 6 at home to force a decisive Game 7, but they increasingly look like a side that has played every card it has. It's possible that certain players will rise to the occasion. The trouble, though, is that the Warriors don't have to stretch quite so much to reach that level.
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