SAN FRANCISCO – Perhaps the Golden State Warriors can summon the energy, cohesion and ruthlessness to downright embarrass an opponent one time in a playoff series, just to show they’re capable.
Either that or they’re discovering some vintage Warriors juice just in time for June.
It feels like a different level of retro Warriors than the image of Golden State at its best – relentless defense, opportunistic and timely offense, then running away and hiding at the first opportunity.
Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks experienced that firsthand in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. The Warriors blitzed the newcomers, 112-87 in a way that felt new, yet oddly familiar.
They aren’t the most desperate of the final four, a title that belongs to the Miami Heat. But because of the two-year absence from this stage, they’re probably the right mix of grateful and hungry.
And if the opponent was anyone besides this resilient, stubborn bunch, the series could effectively be over already.
It wasn’t a barrage of triples from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, better offense against good defense, but a focused and intentional effort without the malaise or potential for an in-game letdown.
There were certainly moments reminiscent of championship runs past: Curry wildly tossing a pass to no one before Draymond Green captured it while Curry relocated and let off a triple that set Chase Center into a roar only Oracle could match. But it wasn’t the general tone here.
The Warriors displayed this clinical approach in the playoff opener against the Denver Nuggets and MVP Nikola Jokic, then annihilated the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 3 of the semifinal series. Wednesday, they didn’t let the upset-minded Mavericks get a whiff of belief about coming into Chase Center to steal a game.
It was a reminder the Warriors were the second-ranked team defensively during the regular season, and hellish when the main cogs are healthy. The Mavericks shot just 23% from three and 36% overall. With Doncic being such a deliberate player, the quantity of shots won’t be plentiful, and if they don’t make the quality looks, the Warriors will be marching on sooner rather than later.
As for Doncic, he’ll be seeing visions of Andrew Wiggins in his dreams – bumping him up the floor, fighting over screens, tiring him out.
“I think it’s very important to try to make him work,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “Any great player in the league, you’re just trying to limit the damage they do. I think Wiggs picking him up, trying to make him exert some energy was definitely helpful. “
Wiggins is often hard to read off the floor, not very expressive and only unleashing a smile for a short while before returning back to a resting position. On it, that demeanor has to be frustrating for a player like Doncic who loves to get under the skin of his defenders – he of the subtle satisfaction when unleashing a step-back jumper or wheeling inside of a leaping defender for twisting layups.
He had none of that, scoring just two points in the third after an 18-point first half that kept the Mavericks within striking distance. Jalen Brunson (14 points) and Spencer Dinwiddie (17 points) didn’t play terribly, but if Doncic doesn’t play to his astronomical averages, it doesn’t seem like the Mavericks have much of a chance in this series.
“It started with Andrew,” Thompson said. “He was moving them puppies tonight. I just think our ball pressure and our help defense was spectacular tonight. “
It wasn’t just that Wiggins solely dedicated himself to the cause of shadowing Doncic. If you’re a believer in the Warriors sprinkling the magic of their culture around anyone and transforming it even the most demure of competitors, Wiggins is confirmation.
His offensive skills were as evident as his natural defensive gifts, but his decision-making was always a question – how could he function in big-time, high-stakes competition? In the opener, he made the timely shots in the first half while Curry and Thompson meandered through, rushing their shots and almost behaving as if the Mavericks were wearing Memphis Grizzlies uniforms. Wiggins took the torch, scoring 15 of his 19 until his teammates joined the party.
“Wiggs is understanding the nuances of what winning basketball is,” said Curry when asked how Wiggins has evolved since being acquired in February 2020, in a trade for D’Angelo Russell and a first-round pick that became Jonathan Kuminga. “Just how to key in on the little things in terms of consistent effort from the defense, taking those one-on-one challenges, being aggressive on the offensive end.
He understands that this time, in terms of a playoff run requires, to win games and the joy that comes with it. It’s not like he’s out there scoring 30 every night. It’s the other things that help you win and the joy that you get out of it. “
Curry missed his first five 3-point attempts in the first half, but unleashed a mini-run in the third when they pressed the lead to 22. Thompson struggled just as mightily, but the beauty of this team, as it always has been, was the strength of its defense aided by spirit-breaking shotmaking.
Jordan Poole attacked a lane that no longer featured Steven Adams or Jaren Jackson Jr., playing in a series that seems more tailored to his offensive gifts than the last one. Dallas will certainly try to get him in actions on Doncic as the series moves on, but Poole got the first word Wednesday, with 19 points.
Curry led the Warriors with 21 and 12 rebounds, his first playoff game leading the team in the latter category since the 2019 NBA Finals. It showed just how versatile and, at times, miscast this team has been over the years.
They wouldn’t be confused for intimidating grinders on defense, but the game-plan execution was breathtaking at times. On one first-quarter play, Green zoned up on Dinwiddie’s right side to prevent a drive but pointed to the weakside corner, knowing a skip pass would lead to an open triple for Dorian Finney-Smith.
As the pass made its way towards Finney-Smith, Green pounced. He deftly slid around a screen set to free Finney-Smith, rose up and blocked his attempt out of bounds. Not only was Green there, but Curry got a piece of the ball, as well.
They weren’t on a string, they were of one mind.
“Everybody sorts of leans on Draymond,” Kerr said. “Draymond sets the tone for us. We had a good defensive night. But we can’t let our guard down. “
They said all the right things after, being respectful of the power of Doncic as they would any superstar on the other side. Even if this isn’t every night, it seems clear the Warriors are intent on making the best of this chance, leaning on anyone to do anything if the game calls for it.