by Jim Turvey
The Warriors are so deep and well balanced, that there seems to be a different key player for the Warriors against each of the NBA’s contenders. Let’s take a look at each of the contenders, and who the Warriors would need to step up in a potential playoff match up.
Oklahoma City Thunder – Unlike the Warriors, the Thunder live and die with their two (assuming Westbrook returns as the same type of player) super stars. In addition to being wildly entertaining, the three games between these two teams so far this season have seen entirely different results for the Thunder’s main man, Kevin Durant. In the first two games of the season, Durant was relatively human, scoring 45 points on 12 of 35 from the floor. However, the most recent game between the two saw the Slim Reaper out in full force. Durant went NBA Jam-mode on the Warriors, dropping 54 points on 28 shots, and looking completely unstoppable. He did this even with the Warriors’ best wing defender, Andre Iguodala, healthy after missing the second match up between these two teams. Durant is going to have games like this, and in a seven game series, he’s bound to win the Thunder at least a game or two. The reason Andre Iguodala is the most important player when these two teams meet is that if he can wear down Durant during what would likely be a seven-game series, the effects would almost certainly begin to show towards the end of the series. Iguodala won’t be able to shut down Durant by himself, but his ability to wear him down would be important if the two were to meet up in the playoffs (which would be awesome)
San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs and Warriors obviously met in last year’s Conference semifinals. In last year’s series, Harrison Barnes used the big stage to celebrate a coming out party. With David Lee limited due to injury, Harrison Barnes stepped into the starting lineup, and thrived in the role of nominal power forward. He averaged 17 points and seven rebounds, while playing over 40 minutes a game. Hopefully, if the two meet again this year, the Warriors will be fully healthy, but if Mark Jackson is able to use the knowledge of Barnes’ ability at the four to thrive against the Spurs once again, that could potentially be key. So far this season, the Warriors have lost a pair of two-point games to the Spurs (one with Curry sitting out), and Harrison Barnes has only five points combined. However, we all know the playoffs are a different story, and hopefully if these two teams meet in the playoffs the Warriors can flip the script from last year.
Portland Trailblazers – The Warriors and Trailblazers met again on Sunday, in a match up of two teams that currently have the top four most prolific three-point shooters in the NBA (Curry, Thompson, Lillard, and Matthews in that order). As such, the three-point shooting of those four will obviously be important, and no one shoots, or makes, the three more frequently than Steph Curry. Curry dropped 38 points on five-of-eight shooting from beyond the arc on Sunday, and it’s no surprise that when he struggled in the first match up, the Warriors lost. Much was made of the Bogut and Freeland’s scuffle that supposedly inspired the Blazers to victory. What is lost in that narrative, however, is the fact that Curry went two-of-nine from behind the arc in the game. I personally don’t think that these two teams will meet in the playoffs, as a result of both ending up in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff bracket, but there’s plenty of season left to go, and a playoff match up with the top four three-point shooters in the league, with games alternating between the Oracle and Rip City would be pretty awesome.
Los Angeles Clippers – Andrew Bogut was once again front-and-center in a Warriors-Clippers game last night. While Bogut often makes the SportsCenter cut of the game when he’s tussling with the opposition, his double-double (14 points and 17 rebounds in just 28 minutes), three blocks, and 22-footer were enough for him to be the most important player for the Warriors last night. This is nothing new for Bogut, as he has averaged 13.7 points and 12.3 rebounds per game against the Clippers this year. While many neutral fans would give the Clippers frontcourt of Griffin and Jordan the edge over the Warriors’ Lee and Bogut, that hasn’t necessarily been the case so far this season. As Ethan Strauss and Zach Lowe have both pointed out, Bogut is also a master of the little (some would say borderline illegal) things as well. Last night Bogut’s sneakiness got caught a few times, but with Bogut, the beauty of his stealth is that so much goes unnoticed even when the viewer (or referee) is looking for it. If these two teams meet in the playoffs (and according to Hollinger’s playoff odds, the Clippers and Warriors are projected to do so), Bogut will almost certainly play a huge role in deciding the series. Oh, and he’ll almost certainly start a fight of some sort.
Houston Rockets – The Rockets have had the Warriors’ number so far this season, winning the two match ups, and limiting the Warriors to eight combined three pointers made in the two games. As such, Klay Thompson (a combined 1-11 from three against the Rockets this year) would have to turn it around should the two meet in the playoffs. Given that the Rockets are an above average team defending the three, but certainly not spectacular, look for Curry, Thompson, and the Warriors’ three-point corps to heat up if these two teams meet in the playoffs.
Minnesota Timberwolves – The T’Wolves may seem like a surprising team to include on this list on Western Conference juggernauts, but their point differential (+4.7) is actually good for fifth in the Western Conference, and their inability to win close games (usually something that evens out over the course of an 82-game season) has been the only factor keeping them out of the playoffs. The Warriors and T’Wolves will likely not match up unless both teams get hot, allowing the Warriors to move up to the top half of the standings, and the Wolves to make the playoffs, or unless both teams win their first round match ups, but it’s worth a look anyways. David Lee is somewhat of a poor man’s Kevin Love; Love hits the boards harder, and has more range, but Lee is no slouch at grabbing rebounds, or shooting in the mid-range. Similar to Durant, Love is going to get his, but if the Warriors want to beat the T’Wolves they have to feed David Lee on the offensive side to get him as engaged as possible on the defensive end. The Love-Lee battle (or the “Lovely” battle) would be a fun one to watch should these teams match up in the postseason.
Miami Heat – One final, optimistic team breakdown. It’s no surprise that if one player were to show up twice on this list it would be the Warriors’ best player – their first All-Star starter since Latrell Sprewell, and the man who rejuvenated the franchise. Steph Curry would undoubtedly be the most important player in any potential dethroning of the Heat. The Heat have struggled at times against outstanding point guards, and Curry’s 36 points in the Warriors January 2nd victory over the Heat exemplify that. The Heat are stacked at the two, three, and four position, but the one is a position they struggle to create offense from, as well as struggle to defend. This would allow Curry to exert himself almost exclusively on the offensive side of the ball (let’s pretend he doesn’t do that anyways…), and attempt to single-handedly torch the Heat. A match up with the Heat is obviously a long way down the road, but Warriors’ fans should feel good that Curry could well be the necessary key in taking down the back-to-back champs.