It’s hard to beat a team when you can’t even find the basketball. That’s the perplexing problem the Golden State Warriors impose on their opponent. You may think you’ve found it, but then the Warriors start playing their confidence tricks with it, shuffling it around with their croupiers’ hands to so many spots that it gives you neck pain trying to follow it. You want to knock them out of the NBA playoffs? You better find a way to stop the deal. Otherwise, get a cervical collar.
The NBA playoffs are more intoxicating when the Warriors are in contention, and you know they’re in contention when Charles Barkley starts complaining about their “little girly” basketball again. In the 2½ seasons the Warriors spent injured and irrelevant, you almost forgot what their pretty flow looked like — the slipped traps, the behind-the-back bounces on the back cuts and the thunderbolts into the post. They bring a fundamental market correction to this postseason: They have reestablished the utter tyranny of a great passing game.
“It’s so fun,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said after that fabulously entertaining 117-116 victory over the supple Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Sunday. “We’re just thrilled to be back in the playoffs, back in the hunt, back in the mix. The feeling of energy and nerves and juice and noise from the crowd on the road. The last three years have been really boring. … This was not boring.”
No, it’s not boring. It’s never boring when the Warriors disprove Barkley’s maxims about teams needing a big despot on the floor, a “bus driver” instead of “bus riders.” The Warriors are the ultimate bus riders, so much so that there wasn’t a power forward on the floor in the final minutes against Memphis; they somehow finished off the Grizzlies with all guards and wings. Almost anyone in their shifting cast of players is liable to move from a back seat to the front seat in a given stretch, so you better pay as much attention to Gary Payton II as to Stephen Curry. That capering, shifty Jordan Poole’s 31 points came off the bench. The bench.
It’s not just the splash shooters who make Golden State such “a passer’s paradise,” as Draymond Green put it. No question the stunning development of Poole has broadened the floor and meant even more distention for panting defenses. Still, that’s not the totality of the problem. The problem is how the ball never stalls — and neither do their feet. At this point in the playoffs, the Warriors are No. 1 in points per game, No. 1 in offensive efficiency and No. 1 in assists. At 117.8 points and 29 assists per game, they get a higher percentage of their points off the hands of someone else, via assists, than any other team.
But they’re also the unrivaled leaders in collective movement and playmaking without the ball — No. 1 in points on cuts and No. 1 in points off screens.
“The floor, the space … even if you were not the one going to be finishing, that’s when the reaction from the defense starts,” Curry explained last week during their victorious series over the Denver Nuggets. “And we have so many shooters and playmakers out there. … That’s where all the flow starts to happen and where all the good open shots — we love to play that way, and it’s demoralizing for a defense.”
During timeouts, Curry said, he looks down at the other end of the floor, and what he sees in the opponent’s huddle is concern and coaches “trying to figure something out.” The other team has “to worry about so many different things, it makes the game a little easier.”
They have to worry about pick and rolls with Green setting screens. They have to worry about Andrew Wiggins slashing and Klay Thompson splashing, about whether Curry and Poole are going to spot up or drive. “It checks a lot of boxes on the list of what would you want for a potent offensive lineup,” Curry observed.
The Warriors are credited with innovation in their small ball, but actually it all comes not from some visionary evolution but from Kerr’s ability to instill a deeply traditional basketball quality: unselfishness. Anyone wondering how he has been able to do that should attend to some remarks he made during a conversation at Harvard Law School in April.
“I think the biggest lesson I learned is that culture is way more important than scheme,” Kerr told the audience. “I would say coaching is maybe 25 to 30 percent strategy. Everything else is about communication and what your players feel when they come into the building every day.”
What they feel is the pleasure of collaboration. Kerr has an extravagant luxury: He can go 12 players deep, without worrying that someone is unhappy with his role or that the ball will get stuck. Kerr has bred a tenor in their locker room in which no one seems to worry about his seat on the bus. After sitting for a month because of a foot injury, Curry meekly accepted his limited minutes as a reserve at the beginning of the postseason. Poole in turn accepted it when Kerr told him Payton was starting against Memphis. And Kevon Looney has performed whatever utility is asked of him: He started 80 regular season games, but someone had to head to the bench when Curry entered the starting lineup again.
Looney handled it like “a grown-up,” Kerr said appreciatively of Looney. “He represents kind of our backbone.”
That ethos mattered when Green was ejected at the end of the first half against Memphis, a loss that by all rights should have doomed them, especially playing on the road, and especially because Green is their closest thing to a bus driver. Instead, the Warriors simply recoalesced around their supporting cast.
As Curry said last week: “The essence of the team is role-playing. It’s not like you have eight guys that you’re going to play. We do have 12, 13 guys that you could throw out there and understand how we play and can bring some energy.”
How they play is an endless sleight of hand that leaves the audience gasping and the defense always hunting for the ball. There is no stat, whether assists or secondary assists, that fully captures their blend of flexibility and flair — or their strange power, which is not about force but about something far more overwhelming: the power of cooperation.