TORONTO — An often forgotten fact: the Golden State Warriors earned their way into the highest echelon of the NBA’s collective consciousness by playing defence.
The most dangerous offensive team in the game could stop you, too.
So far this season they have played next to none. And why bother? When you have Kevin Durant as your second option, defence can rightly seem optional.
It’s more fun to rip on Drake courtside and get buckets.
"When you have that much firepower on the offensive end, you’re always like, ‘All right, we can score, we’ll be all right,’" says Draymond Green, the anchor of the Warriors always switching, one-size fits all defence that for one quarter was the difference in Golden State’s 127-121 win over the Toronto Raptors. "But the further you get down the line the less that works."
The wrestling match between the easy buckets mentality their offence can’t help but breed and the need to buckle down without the ball will likely define the Warriors season.
For those wondering if bolting on yet another offensive-minded perimeter player to the league’s best perimeter-based attack was going to suck all the drama out of the NBA for the near future, the Warriors so far, so shaky defence looks like a massive glitch in their otherwise foolproof plan to take over the basketball universe.
But for one night — Drake Night — they served the Raptors, and maybe the rest of the NBA, notice that they have more tricks in their bag than an unlimited number of open shots.
That the Warriors tripped up the Raptors on Wednesday was at least a little predictable given Toronto was playing on the second night of a back-to-back that began with a tough loss in Cleveland.
The Raptors should be commended for their scrappiness. The Warriors lamented for their carelessness. "There’s a lot to be happy about and a lot to work on too," said head coach Steve Kerr.
But it was how his Warriors earned the result that is relevant. After allowing the Raptors to score 38 points on 58 per cent shooting in the first quarter to take a 38-34 lead with an impressive display of smarts and ball movement, the Warriors slammed the car door on the Raptors’ fingers.
One moment Toronto could get any shot they wanted, the next it was big brothers against little brothers with the Raptors getting noogied.
Over a stretch of 12 minutes, the Raptors were held to 5-of-24 shooting while coughing up six turnovers. In an instant, the Warriors turned into a swarming, hustling, switching spider and Toronto was powerless. And then Durant (30 points on 21 shots) or Steph Curry (35 points on 19 shots) would drop a three or score in transition.
Trailing by four with six minutes left in the half, the Raptors scored just two points — a pair of DeMar DeRozan free throws — over the next five and a half minutes.
The Raptors were helpless. The Warriors looked untouchable.
"I think it was amazing," said Green, who remains the workingman’s heart-and-soul guy on a team loaded with surgeons, architects and dentists. "Defensively and offensively it was amazing."
The offence everyone saw coming, but whether the Warriors can defend is the question.
It seems so long ago, but the year the Warriors won the NBA title in 2015 they weren’t just the Splash Brothers, they had the best defensive rating in the NBA.
Last year they set the NBA on fire. They won 73 games. They started the season with a 24-game winning streak. They were a rock-and-roll show; a circus and travelling basketball revival act wrapped into one. Curry was reinventing the game on the fly.
It was something to behold.
Reaching those heights again simply can’t be easy but that’s the standard the Warriors (9-2) have set for themselves, which is why even a solid road win against a solid Eastern Conference team can’t simply be enjoyed.
"We’ve shown spurts where we can roll off four or five stops in a row and open up games," said Curry. "But for 48 minutes we’re not there yet. We know that; we understand we have a lot to work on when it comes to communication and being in sync, one through five … that’s the part of our performance night-in and night-out we want to shore up. We know it’s 11 games into the season, but we can’t keep saying that, over and over again and end up in March and be the same team. We have some work to do."
The Warriors team that arrived in Toronto is, so far, a little different than they’ve been in past years, and not only because they added Durant in a league-shaking free agency move comparable to Shaquille O’Neal leaving Orlando for Los Angeles or James moving back and forth between Cleveland and Miami.
They remain the league’s most lethal offensive machine, scoring 115 points per 100 possessions, but defence? They’re still figuring that out.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Warriors were the 17th-rated defensive team in the NBA entering Wednesday’s action. In their last game before arriving in Toronto they allowed the lowly Phoenix Suns to score 120 points and shoot 51 per cent. The Warriors won by 13, but still.
“History shows you have to be good at both ends,” said Kerr. “All the championship teams of the last 10 or 15 years are top-10 both offence and defence. We’re doing fine offensively. Defensively we’re middle of the pack. We can get a lot better and we will, I’m confident of that. “
But after two years as the NBA’s ‘It’ team, capturing a title, setting the record for most wins and then blowing a 3-1 lead to Cleveland in a heart-wrenching final this past June, Kerr is content to take a longer view for now.
“I don’t think it’s fair to expect the antenna be up constantly for three straight years,” said Kerr. “We’re going to let our guard down some nights, that’s just human nature. But it’s my job to keep their guards up and make sure we’re developing good habits as the season goes on and so that we’re getting into the spring we’re playing at a much higher level defensively. “
It’s their offensive potential that has everyone salivating. They’re already virtually unstoppable and marksman Klay Thompson (15 points on 15 shots; 3-of-11 from 3) came into Wednesday shooting just 31 per cent from deep. There is room to improve.
"Offensively I think we’re OK, but nowhere near where we’re going to be," said Green. "But you look up and we’re averaging 30-something assists … But I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface of where we’re going to be."
The signs are impressive. The Warriors shot 50.6 per cent from the floor and counted 35 assists – the fifth straight time on a five-game win streak they’ve made at least half of their shots and accumulated at least 30 assists, the first team to do that since the Chicago Bulls in 1990.
But the Warriors’ second-quarter clampdown didn’t last. The antenna didn’t stay up. They let the Raptors up off the mat in the second half. After opening up a 19-point lead in the third quarter, the Warriors allowed the Raptors to cut it to five with 1:15 left on a driving baseline dunk by Raptors rookie Pascal Siakam.
The Warriors didn’t take long to reassert themselves, however. They did it defensively too, not that you have to play much when you have Durant and Curry taking turns finishing off possessions down the stretch.
Golden State still has a long way to go to be as dominant as its talent says it can be. After seemingly having dusted the game away after opening up an 18-point lead with four minutes left, the Warriors surrendered a 16-4 run punctuated by a Terrence Ross triple that cut their lead to six with 1:07 left.
But they prevailed.
In the end, the difference was one quarter of smothering defence when the Warriors played like their old selves. With an offence like theirs, that’s all they need most nights.
But if they’re going to get where they want to go, the Warriors are going to need it more often.