Golden State Warriors Now Officially Dark-Horse Contenders

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2013

OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 22:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts after the Warriors made a basket against the San Antonio Spurs at Oracle Arena on February 22, 2013 in Oakland, California. The Warriors are wearing new short-sleeved uniforms for the first time.     The Warriors won the game in overtime. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Coming off of an impressive overtime victory over the NBA's best team, the Golden State Warriors may have officially declared themselves darkhorse contenders.

I mean, at this point, what the Dubs have done can no longer be considered a fluke. Based on what is now a 55-game sample, it's clear that Golden State can score with anyone. Their offense has rated as the league's ninth most efficient this season, and their defense had been nearly as good until a wicked six-game skid that saw them allow 117.5 points per game.

Overall, though, the Warriors have undergone a massive transformation after rating as the NBA's worst rebounding team and fourth-worst defensive outfit a year ago.

Huge wins over good teams helps bolster Golden State's case as a sneakily dangerous club.

On Nov. 3, the Warriors knocked off the L.A. Clippers in Los Angeles, the first of three victories the Dubs would log against Chris Paul and Co. this year. They beat the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclay's Center on Dec. 7 and then stole a signature victory against the Miami Heat in South Beach less than a week later.

The Thunder came to Oakland on Jan. 23 and left losers. And finally, the Warriors snapped a ridiculously long 16-game losing streak against San Antonio by prevailing 107-101 on Feb. 22.

The game against the Spurs provides some good indicators of what helps make the Warriors a threat to any team. By holding San Antonio under 40 percent from the field, Golden State showed it could buckle down on D when necessary. And Jarrett Jack's 30 points and 10 assists off the bench proved that the Warriors aren't just a top-heavy group of shooters.

Don't be mistaken, though; the Dubs are where they are because of David Lee (who pulled down 22 boards against the Spurs) and Stephen Curry. Behind those two stars, the rest of the roster generally fills roles and falls in line.

Curry, in particular, is representative of a Warriors team that still goes largely unmentioned in discussions of the West's best. Probably the most notable All-Star snub, Golden State's point guard has matured into a complete offensive player. In addition to one of the league's prettiest and most effective perimeter strokes—Curry shoots 44 percent from three—No. 30 has added a slick handle and an array of floaters in the lane.

Contenders need stars, and the Warriors have one in Curry.

Oddly, the absence of another star-quality player is one of the biggest reasons the Warriors should be considered a darkhorse contender. Andrew Bogut had missed 42 games because of a slow recovery following offseason ankle surgery, and now he's out indefinitely with back spasms.

If he were at full health, his elite defense and rebounding would essentially make the Warriors legitimate contenders. With him out, they're comfortably back under the radar.

It sounds crazy to argue that Golden State is good enough to challenge the league's elite teams in a seven-game series, but just look at who they've already beaten this year.

Hoping for a title might be pushing things, but keep this in mind: If the current standings hold up, the Warriors will enter the playoffs as the sixth seed. Their third-seeded opponent, the Clippers, who Golden State has beaten three out of four times this year, know better than anyone how tough the Dubs can be.

Keep sleeping on the Warriors at your own peril. It's a borderline certainty that they'll visit the postseason for just the second time in 20 years this season.

What they do with that playoff berth could end up sending shockwaves through the league.

*All stats accurate through games played Feb. 23, 2013

**Stats via ESPN.com and NBA.com unless otherwise indicated