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Can We Accept the Golden State Warriors as Elite Now?

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Can We Accept the Golden State Warriors as Elite Now?
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The Golden State Warriors can wow teams with offense and destroy them with defense.

When the Splash Brothers are soaking wet, Andrew Bogut is swatting everything in sight and their slashers are putting on awe-inspiring aerial displays, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more compelling show in the business.

But even the league's most patient fanbase is ready to swap some of that sizzle for substance.

Despite holding the league's third-best net rating (plus-10.2 points per 100 possessions), the Warriors (5-3) are still searching for that exclamatory statement win to signal their arrival.

Thursday night's home date with the Oklahoma City Thunder (5-2) can provide that punctuation—in front of a national audience (10:30 p.m. ET on TNT) no less.

When the Warriors are clicking on all cylinders, it's hard not to see this two-way machine as capable of hoisting the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy. But it's just as impossible to envision the victims of their near-perfect performances getting to the NBA Finals as anything but paying customers.

The velvet ropes holding the Warriors out of the league's V.I.P. section could be removed tonight. Or, for the fourth time this season, Golden State can fall short in a measuring-stick matchup.

 

Protecting the Oracle...and the Interior

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In ancient mythology, oracles were said to possess infinite wisdom. Apparently, the secrets inside Golden State's home arena have never been shared with the visiting team.

The Warriors carry an unblemished 3-0 mark at home into tonight's game. The three previous visitors have been sent home with a 20-point average margin of defeat. Even that dominant digit fails to capture the true ferocity of Golden State's home beatings, as the Warriors have held at least 27-point leads in all three contests.

They're averaging 30 assists and 112 points at home, marks that would both stand as the league's best if they were stretched out over this entire season so far.

"I like the way we're playing at home," coach Mark Jackson said, via Marcus Thompson II of the Bay Area News Group. "We are taking care of business. We're executing. We're defending."

Defending. What a concept. The Warriors used to be the NBA's flat-earthers, convinced that the hardwood collapsed right around half court.

But these aren't your dad's Dubs—not even your slightly older sibling's version.

For all of the firepower in Jackson's offensive attack—four players are averaging better than 14 points a night—this team's real strength is found at the opposite end of the floor. The Warriors are the league's third-most efficient defense (93.6 points allowed per 100 possessions), thanks in large part to the additions of Andre Iguodala on the wing and a healthy Bogut under the basket.

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Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown, after watching his team surrender 110 points to the Warriors earlier this season, said that it's time for perceptions to change about this team, via Thompson:

They're a very underrated defensive team. ... They're noted for their offense, and they're noted for their barrage of 3-point threats and scorers, but they actually are an excellent defensive team with all the pieces.

While led by Iguodala and Bogut, Golden State's defense is hardly a two-man operation.

Between Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson, Jackson can swarm opposing perimeters with length and athleticism. The second team is overflowing with defensive-minded players, which has limited its offensive output but has also kept the opposition from trimming leads or widening gaps.

Even skinny David Lee has managed to find his way to that end of the floor:

Obviously, defense is a priority for this game. But the Warriors will need to put points on the board to keep pace with the Thunder (101.7 points per 100 possessions) and their superstar scoring duo of Kevin Durant (30.6 points per game) and Russell Westbrook (19.0).

Luckily, all of this defensive focus hasn't diminished Golden State's offensive outbursts.

 

More Than Digging the Long Ball

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Not every team can survive with an outside-in attack—the Warriors are firing 24.9 perimeter shots per game, fifth-most in the league—but not every team has this collection of marksmen.

Six different Golden State snipers are shooting above 42 percent, all of whom are attempting at least one triple per game. The Warriors have two of the league's four shooters attempting at least six threes a night and hitting better than 45 percent of those looks (Curry, 45.3 percent on 7.6 attempts, and Thompson, 47.1 on 6.4).

Yet this no a longer a team that lives and dies by the three-point shot.

All five starters are shooting at least 50 percent from the field, and Lee's hand is as steady as ever in the post (18.0 points on 54.5 percent shooting). Both Curry (54.5 percent) and Iguodala (50.0) are converting at least half of their drives to the basket.

There are so many scoring threats on the floor, and Jackson masterfully uses that to his advantage.

He puts Curry and Thompson in constant motion, racing around screens for clean looks at the cup. From there, it's simply a pick-your-poison proposition for the defense.

Crowd the shooters, and the screener will slip to the basket. Protect against the roll, and the catcher will put the ball on the floor. Guard against the drive, and three-point bombs start dropping.

Do everything right, and Golden State can still punish you with its unselfishness and court vision (64.1 assist percentage, sixth-best in the league).

If this isn't the most complete offense in the league, it's awfully close to making that claim.

The Warriors can score from anywhere on the floor. Perimeter shooting, slashing, mid-range jumpers, low-post scoring—all of it is in Golden State's bag.

But that bag will have to find its way to the big stage tonight. It's been a no-show in Golden State's first three Western Conference tests this season.

 

That Elusive "Elite" Label

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For the first time in 2013-14, the Warriors will take a litmus test in front of their home fans. But it's going to take a lot more than a raucous crowd for this team to get a passing grade.

Now, there are some things working in Golden State's favor.

While the Warriors were resting last night, the Thunder were waging war down the coast at the Staples Center. Despite a 33-point, 10-assist effort by Durant, the Thunder fell 111-103 to the Los Angeles Clippers.

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Also, Oklahoma City's starting center Kendrick Perkins is not expected to play tonight, as he's back in his native Texas because of the passing of his grandfather, via ESPN.com. Rookie big man Steven Adams started in Perkins' place last night and finished with just seven points and four rebounds in 21-plus minutes.

But Golden State can't take anything for granted. A struggling Memphis Grizzlies team dispatched the Dubs with a 108-90 rout on Nov. 9, the third Western Conference contender to handle the Warriors already this season.

"We're 0-3 against some of our 'foes' at the top of the Western Conference," reserve big man Jermaine O'Neal said, via Thompson. "So it's important to come out and have a good showing on our home court."

Good showings have seemed like second nature at the Oracle this season, but the Warriors have yet to host a team of this caliber.

Take care of business tonight, and the Warriors can begin the application process of being considered an elite team. But stumble (again) in the face of a championship contender, and suddenly, that second-tier status becomes all too familiar for this franchise.

 

*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

 

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