LOS ANGELES — The commentary captured Draymond Green’s expected bluntness. It also illustrated how much the Golden State Warriors have morphed from competing for championships, to the Draft lottery and a Play-In Tournament in only a three season span.
“It better put some pressure on us. We can’t keep missing the playoffs,” Green said. “We missed for two years in a row now. So I can give a damn about making it into the playoffs. That is never my goal. When you get into the playoffs, you’re trying to compete for a championship.”
It’s far too early to proclaim the Warriors as championship worthy. Securing a 121-114 season-opening win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday at Staples Center does not suddenly mean the Warriors can beat the Lakers in the Western Conference finals, let alone hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. As the Warriors can attest during their five consecutive Finals runs (2015-19), they fully understand their three Finals wins and two Finals losses never reflect what they do on opening night.
Therefore, expect LeBron James (34 points) and Anthony Davis (33) to receive much more support from Russell Westbrook (eight points on 4-of-13 shooting, four assists, four fouls and four turnovers) and the team’s role players. Therefore, expect the Warriors to navigate some adversity, too.
“We have a long ways to go,” Green said. “That requires a hell of a process. That requires sacrifice. That requires a different level of focus and different level of dedication in order to do that. Any team has to be willing to put that in, in order to win a championship.
“You don’t win a championship because you think the pieces fit. You don’t just win a championship because you have the talent. You have to make that [stuff] work. Do I think we have a good chance to be a really good team? Absolutely. But to say we can win a championship? We’re so far away from that.”
After sharing those honest words following the team’s morning shootaround, however, Green saw the Warriors have moved incrementally closer toward having the necessary championship identity.
Unlike during their dynasty years, the Warriors could not lean on Kevin Durant (since he currently plays for the Brooklyn Nets) and they could not rely on Klay Thompson (since he has continued rehabbing his right Achilles tendon that kept him sidelined all of last season). But just like during their dynasty years, the Warriors showed they can have a “Strength in Numbers” identity in which dependable role players significantly bolster their depth.
“I mentioned to the group the other day that it just feels like five or six years ago when we had guys up and down the roster that can play,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We have guys injured who can play. I think we’re really deep.”
So even if the Warriors don’t have their All-Star (Thompson), their second-year center (James Wiseman) or their rookie forward (Jonathan Kuminga), they still managed to do something that became too difficult to pull off consistently last season.
Unlike last season — when they hovered just below or above .500 — the Warriors did not need Stephen Curry to play at his absolute best just so they could lose in the Play-In Tournament.
Curry finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, but it also came on a poor shooting clip (5 for 21) and miscues (four turnovers). But that became an after thought considering Jordan Poole (20 points), Damion Lee (15), Andre Iguodala (12), Nemanja Bjelica (15) and Andrew Wiggins (12) all cracked double figures. So when Curry and Green sat on the bench to open the fourth quarter, Poole, Bjelica, Iguodala, Lee and Otto Porter Jr. still opened with a 14-7 run. Nearly six minutes later, Wiggins nailed a 3-pointer for a 115-103 lead with 2:36 left, a basket that Kerr considered to be “the shot of the game.”
“It means a lot to know you can make the right play,” Curry said. “You see the attention with a double team or triple team. You get rid of it. And everybody is either a threat to shoot or will make the right play. If everybody buys into the fact that we don’t know who it’s going to be every night and who it’s going to be their game, but everybody will contribute to that style, it should be a good season.”
This development has not surprised the Warriors. They won 15 of their last 20 games last season and eight of their nine in May for reasons beyond Curry’s brilliance.
They like Kevon Looney’s consistency as a rebounder and defender. They became encouraged with Wiggins’ comfort level with being a complementary player instead of the No. 1 option as he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves. They became pleased with Poole’s growth as an aggressive scorer and a willing defender. They became impressed with Juan Toscano-Anderson’s scrappiness. They have liked Lee’s unyielding hustle.
And after the Warriors were ousted from the Play-In Tournament, they found ways to upgrade their roster on the margins. They re-signed a familiar player that helped them during their championship runs (Iguodala). They acquired a player that can give them additional outside shooting (Porter Jr.). They signed a frontcourt player that has impressed with both his passing and post presence (Bjelica).
Therefore it does not seem a stretch to say the Warriors should become a playoff threat even before Thompson’s expected return in January or even if Curry experiences the occasional shooting slump.
“It’s a huge lift,” Green said of the Warriors’ ability to complement Curry. “We relied on him so much. We’re still going to rely on him a lot. But when he can have a night like he had tonight and not get it going and we still come out with a win, that’s great. We still did everything else. He still continued to draw the double, make the right play and rebound the ball. He did everything he needed to do to help us win, expect what we’re accustomed of him doing, which is making shots. But that’ll happen.”
Those qualities might not be enough to thrust the Warriors immediately back into championship contention. But on the same day Green envisioned a challenging journey en route to an NBA title, Green saw encouraging signs that the road should not be as bumpy.
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