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Stephen Curry Poised to Take Golden State Warriors into Western Conference Elite

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Stephen Curry Poised to Take Golden State Warriors into Western Conference Elite
USA Today

Stephen Curry is cool with "impossible."

That attitude is evident in the splay-legged, viper-strike threes he drills off screens and in transition. You can also see it in the way he casually yo-yos the ball as he skips into the lane for acrobatic flips and off-balance scoops.

Those shots seem impossible, but Curry doesn't mind.

The Golden State Warriors notched a pivotal 103-88 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night, a meaningful victory that signaled a surge for both Curry and the Dubs might be just around the corner. Perhaps it now occurs to you that Curry is slated to start the All-Star Game, and his team is comfortably entrenched in playoff position.

In many ways, it might seem impossible for Curry and the Warriors to be much more than they already are.

But, again, Curry is cool with "impossible."

 

Defense!

In the win over Portland, the Dubs ratcheted up their defensive intensity against a worn-out team. They blitzed ball-handlers above the arc with a surprising fury, one likely related to the team-wide frustration with the way they'd been defending since a 10-game winning streak came to an end earlier this month.

The Dubs attacked Damian Lillard and Mo Williams, harassing them into rough shooting nights and keeping the Blazers from getting into the free-wheeling drive-and-kick sets they prefer in the half court.

It was a performance that showed the Warriors knew the reason behind their recent slump. Contrary to the way most national outlets like to describe the Dubs—as a flashy, high-scoring offense—this is a team built to win on defense.

After the game, Curry spoke about the Warriors getting back to what they've done well for most of the year, per the Associated Press (via ESPN): "We understand that's been one of our problems—just letting teams kind of cake walk around on the offensive end doing whatever they want to do early in the game."

Nobody was cakewalking in this one.

Portland shot just 33.7 percent from the field on the night and registered 14 turnovers against 16 assists. The Dubs made everything difficult for the Blazers, a team that boasts the league's top ranking in offensive efficiency.

Aside from attacking on the perimeter, Golden State got tough inside.

David Lee, rightly maligned for most of the past three years for his defensive disinterest, did a fantastic job on LaMarcus Aldridge, holding the star forward to just 10 points on 2-of-14 shooting. On most nights, Lee won't have nearly that level of success against a player as skilled as Aldridge.

But the Warriors worked to make sure Lee wasn't on an island against him, and that's something they can and should do much more effectively going forward.

Andrew Bogut injected his tone-setting aggression on D, shoving Aldridge after the whistle in the third quarter—perhaps just letting him know it wasn't going to get any easier down the stretch.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Against the Blazers, the Warriors played like the defensive team they know they can be. Frankly, they played like the defensive team they'd been up until about three weeks ago. Maybe success relaxed them a bit, or perhaps they just took a while to recover from the hangover of a brutally long East Coast swing from Dec. 29 to Jan. 8.

Whatever the case, the Dubs attacked Portland like a team eager to remind finesse opponents of their No. 5 rating in defensive efficiency. When Golden State defends with purpose (and even a little anger), it becomes a legitimate championship threat.

It seems the Warriors remembered that against the Blazers. If they keep it in mind going forward, watch out.

 

Heating Up

Great defense offers an added bonus for the Warriors on the other end: It frees up Curry to attack beleaguered opponents.

Despite the volume numbers and All-Star accolades, Curry is actually shooting the ball worse this year than he has at any point in his career. Both his three-point and overall field-goal percentages are at all-time lows.

But he went off for 38 points on 13-of-23 shooting against the Blazers because his team helped create optimal conditions for him to succeed.

All year, Curry has missed the kinds of open shots he buried in seasons past. The reason: fatigue. Defenses have blitzed and doubled Curry on every touch this season, bumped him away from the ball and generally made every half-court possession an exhausting, hellish experience.

By defending with such tenacity, the Dubs created transition opportunities that made scoring much easier for Curry. Everyone knows the Dubs' point guard is a nightmare when things get scattered. He's liable to pull up from 30 feet if he's open (and sometimes when he's not), and his vastly improved skills as a penetrator make him much more dangerous in the lane than he's ever been.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

But when defenses are set (and designed to completely wear Curry out), scoring gets tough. Because the Warriors took it to the Blazers on D, they were free to attack a team on its heels. That allowed Curry some space to move.

Obviously, it's easier to find scoring chances against the porous defense of a tired Blazers team. But what the Warriors did on defense is replicable going forward. It's a matter of staying committed to getting stops and forcing the ball up the floor immediately. If they focus on doing those things (and they've proved in the past they can), Curry will continue to get better looks.

Plus, there's a basic regression argument to make for Curry.

Great shooters like him don't just miss open shots forever. He's bound to convert good scoring chances with more regularity in the future. Dubs fans know he's missed plenty of uncontested triples this season, something that hasn't ever happened before.

Toss in a rotation that's finally starting to make more sense—Draymond Green was the first man off the bench, a delight to viewers who've been clamoring for more minutes for the gritty, do-it-all forward—and you've got yet another reason to believe Curry's fatigue-induced misses might soon be a thing of the past.

 

Sticking Together

Nobody on the Warriors has more reason to be frustrated than Harrison Barnes. The second-year forward has taken a massive step back since his playoff breakout a year ago, and he's stuck in a shot-creating role on the second unit for which he's simply not suited.

Even after scoring just six points in 27 minutes,  he remained as enthusiastic, positive and devoted to improving as anyone:

These Warriors are a tight bunch, which is yet another reason to expect them to continue growing as Curry pulls his offensive game to new heights.

I mean, how many birthday wishes like this do you see for brand-new additions to a team?

The Dubs understand what they have to do in order to maximize Curry's skills; they've got to stick together, commit to defending and work to create chances in the open floor. This is clearly a tight group, which means getting on the same page isn't a problem.

 

New Old Ceiling

The Warriors have slipped in and out of the "legitimate contender" conversation all season long. When the year started, they were on the outside looking in because of injury concerns and the sneaking suspicion that their success last season was something of a fluke.

Then, the victories mounted and a 10-game winning streak led to league-wide notice.

A mid-January swoon raised doubts again, though.

Nothing's certain, and we have to keep in mind the Blazers were fighting fatigue on the back end of a back-to-back set on Sunday. But the Warriors played brilliantly, showing signs of how good they can be against a very strong opponent.

If they remain committed to defending with the kind of tenacity they showed against Portland, Curry will get better looks. And if Curry gets better looks, he's going to improve on his already excellent numbers.

In short, the Dubs can be better than they've been this year. Considering the overall success they've had to this point, that might seem impossible.

Then again, we know how Curry and his teammates feel about "impossible."

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