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The Warriors’ star limped to the podium. Once Stephen Curry sat down, he let off some steam. The top-seeded Warriors had just beaten the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers in a six-game first-round playoff series through a nearly two-week span. To Curry, though, it lasted seemingly much longer.
“These six games felt like it was two months,” Curry said, “in terms of all the adjustments and the emotional roller coaster.”
A day later, the Warriors returned to their practice facility to prepare for possibly another emotional roller coaster. In less than 48 hours after dispatching the Clippers in six games, the Warriors will play Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets on Sunday at Oracle Arena. Yet, Warriors coach Steve Kerr sauntered to an interview chair, sat down and spoke in an excited tone.
“I’m not worried about the energy because here we are. It’s the playoffs,” Kerr said. “No matter what we do, at max there is six weeks left in the season. At minimum there is a couple of weeks. So we’re near the finish line. So our guys are going to have plenty of motivation and plenty of energy.”
As the Warriors strive to cross that finish line for their fourth NBA championship in five years, they are admittedly wrestling with two realities. They are not mutually exclusive. And yet they appear potentially difficult to navigate.
To what extent will their six-game, first-round series against an overachieving Clippers team prepare the Warriors with sharper focus, smarter adjustments and superior execution against the Rockets?
“We needed that test to understand what it’s going to be like the rest of the way,” Curry said. “So I like the way we responded when it was necessary.”
To what extent did the Warriors’ inconsistency against the Clippers yield potential warning signs against a more talented and more experienced Rockets team? After all, Houston remains intent on rectifying its seven-game playoff series loss to the Warriors in last season’s Western Conference Finals.
“They showed us a lot of things we can work on,” Warriors center Andrew Bogut said of the Clippers. “They showed us some weaknesses. It was a really good series on us to build on in the next round.”
(Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
The Warriors will offer clarity to some of those unanswered questions in Game 1 (Sunday), Game 2 (Tuesday), Game 3 (Saturday), Game 4 (May 6) and perhaps beyond. For now, though, the Warriors admittedly enter their matchup against Houston with a scenario they tried to avoid.
“I’m more worried about the nagging injuries right now,” Kerr said.
The Warriors listed Curry and Klay Thompson as questionable for Game 1 after spraining their right ankles in their close-out game against the Clippers. Draymond Green has also nursed a right hand contusion ever since Game 3 against the Clippers.
The good news? Curry and Thompson still played through their ankle injuries for the rest of Game 6. The Warriors say Green feels fine and have mostly liked his playmaking and defense. The bad news? Curry or Thompson could become limited with their movement. Green could eventually feel more pain if he absorbs more physical contact.
Either way, the Warriors could have escaped these potential problems had they simply closed out their first-round series earlier against the Clippers.
“Obviously it was not ideal in terms of the opportunity we had during Game 5,” Curry said.
It was not ideal when the Warriors squandered a 31-point lead in Game 2, either. During that game, Kevin Durant logged more turnovers (nine) than shots (eight). Clippers guard Lou Williams, who had 36 points, either became unstoppable driving to the basket (13-of-22) or drawing trips to the free-throw line (8-of-10). The Warriors became reckless with turnovers (22) and fouls (31).
Kerr both prodded Durant to play more aggressively, while drawing up more plays for Durant in Games 3 (38), 4 (33), 5 (45) and 6 (50). The Warriors relied more on Thompson and Andre Iguodala to defend Williams during inefficient performances in Game 3 (4-of-11) and 4 (2-of-10). The Warriors also competed harder on the road.
In Game 5, though, the Warriors stalled their momentum. The Warriors’ defensive intensity dropped. Durant’s brilliance camouflaged the Warriors’ stagnant offense. Williams became productive again (33 points on 12-of-19) shooting. The Warriors struggled against Clippers coach Doc Rivers going small with a 6-foot-9, 227-pound JaMychal Green at center over the 7-foot-1, 240-pound Ivica Zubac.
“The Clippers punched us in the mouth and woke us up. It’s not a cake walk in the West,” Warriors reserve forward Kevon Looney said. “Every game is going to be hard. You have to bring that level of focus and preparation every game.”
Meanwhile, the Rockets finished off the Jazz off in five games. Unlike during last year’s playoffs, James Harden has not flamed out and Chris Paul has stayed healthy. Despite the free-agency departures of wingmen Trevor Ariza (Phoenix) and Luc Mbah a Moute (Clippers), Kerr observed that the Rockets’ defense “is basically the same.” After all, the Rockets rely on switch-heavy schemes than man-to-man defense and have ranked 10th in points allowed in the regular season (109.1) and third in the playoffs (97.8).
So after eliminating Utah, the Rockets flew to the Bay Area on Friday so they could practice on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Warriors played the Clippers in Game 6 on Friday, and only had a film session on Saturday.
“I felt weird about it because our team already had been guilty about mentioning Houston before the Clipper series ended. Then they announced what’s Houston’s doing,” Kerr said. “Now the Clippers have two different teams that are insulting them.”
After entering the season as an expected lottery team, the Clippers have thrived off of slights all season. Eventually, the Warriors prevailed, though, with their talent and effort. Will that be enough against the Rockets, though?
While Harden, Paul, P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon are fully rested, Durant (42 minutes), Curry (38), Thompson (38) and Green (37) logged heavy minutes in Game 5 without as much recovery time. Still, the Warriors are mindful of three things.
One, the Warriors have played Durant (34.6 minutes), Thompson (34), Curry (33.8) and Green (31.3) fewer minutes than the Rockets played Harden (36.8) during the regular season. Two, the Warriors are familiar with the Rockets’ schemes after facing them in last year’s Western Conference Finals. Third, the Warriors could have better rhythm in a home environment.
“The pressure is back on them in a way,” Bogut said. “We have a quick turnaround, but the they haven’t played for four or five days. I feel like we can fly right into the series after playing another a game and use that to our advantage.”
(Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
The Warriors also expressed confidence they can take advantage of the positive and negative experiences they went through against the Clippers. The Warriors are not kidding themselves about the differences between the Clippers and Rockets. Yet, the Warriors spotted trends in their first-round matchup against L.A. that could become applicable against Houston.
“They brought out our best,” Kerr said of the Clippers. “Every time we thought, ‘All right, we’ve got this,’ we didn’t have it. So getting through it now it’s easy to say, ‘Yeah, that was good for us. It didn’t feel good for us while it was happening. But they brought out the best in us.”
How so? The Warriors learned the hard way they could not coast through games as they have done in the regular season. They came up with defensive adjustments on Williams in the same way they might have to on Harden. Kerr eventually tightened his rotation and responded to Rivers’ smaller lineup. Durant, Thompson and Curry all had varying success in bailing each other out on offense. The Warriors better handled frustration with the whistles and Patrick Beverley’s defensive peskiness.
“I don’t think we underestimated them,” Warriors reserve Shaun Livingston said. “But we have to be locked in at all times.”
In NBA history, other top-seeded teams benefited from a lower seed making their first-round matchup more difficult than expected. Although his 2008 Celtics team was not defending an NBA title as the Warriors currently are, Rivers argued Boston played better after the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks forced a seven-game first-round series. In what marked Durant’s first NBA playoff appearance with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Lakers believed their six-game first-round series against them in 2010 sharpened their effort to defend their NBA title.
“They made adjustments throughout the series we’ll probably see down the line as far as the way they guard the ball screen and try to sag off certain guys,” Thompson said of the Clippers. “We made great adjustments as the series went on. We’ll be ready for whatever Houston throws at us.”
What adjustments might be in store? Expect the Warriors to throw varying defenders at Harden, including Thompson, Curry, Iguodala and Looney to force difficult shots and absorb any fouls. With the Rockets’ switch-heavy scheme prompting Durant to play mostly in isolation last year, the Warriors will likely strike a balance among Durant, Curry and Thompson to keep them guessing. Despite tightening his rotation, Kerr maintained he will keep all options open to account for matchups and rotation combinations.
“Just everybody in this locker room has been through every type of series,” Durant said. “So we just prepare for anything.”
The Warriors will soon find out if their first-round matchup against the Clippers will better prepare them for Houston. Or perhaps the Warriors’ early post-season hiccups against the Clippers serves as a sneak preview of another emotional roller coaster.
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