Another home game, another Eastern Conference opponent with a non-winning record. Another reason to be scared. Here come the Philadelphia 76ers, heading into Oakland to play the Golden State Warriors on Monday.
How can this be? How can the Warriors (30-21) be concerned about this seemingly non-threatening Philadelphia ballclub?
Based on Golden State’s very recent history—over the past month—any team with a mediocre record or worse is a frightening opponent. And the 76ers, with their unornamented lineup of role players, qualify as a terrorizing adversary for a plummeting Golden State squad that is a mere two games from being out of the postseason picture altogether.
After a performance against the Phoenix Suns on Saturday (a 122-109 loss) in which they flamed out, the Warriors are 6-8 in their last 14 contests. This poor stretch has included home losses to the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Washington Wizards and the Charlotte Bobcats—all sub-.500 teams. After some national attention (or hype), the Dubs find themselves closer to a downward spiral than a deep playoff run. They currently sit in the precarious eighth spot out West.
Can the Warriors right their ship? What do they need to do to again reach that level of high-quality consistency?
Unfortunately, as is usually the case, there isn’t just one issue to pinpoint. Nearly everyone on the team is blameworthy. But what are the main areas to focus on? Which problems stand out during this recent poor stretch?
Here are five key concerns for the Warriors heading into their game against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Injuries. They are as much a part of the game as the basketballs and referees are. So it’s no surprise that the Warriors have had their share of ailments throughout the first half of the season.
Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Jermaine O’Neal, among others, all missed games earlier in the season. Now both Andrew Bogut (shoulder) and David Lee (shoulder, hip) have been affected by the injury bug. Bogut has missed the Warriors’ last two games, while Lee has sat out three of the last four. The void left by the Warriors’ big men is huge, both physically and mentally.
Lee has been the consistent offensive and rebounding stalwart he’s always been, averaging nearly 19 points and 10 rebounds per game this season. Bogut has been a force defensively, averaging two blocks a game while pulling down 10.7 boards. Filling in one man’s shoes is hard enough; but compensating for both players’ production—and presence—is not an easy task.
Fortunately for Golden State, the loss of Bogut and Lee was timed nicely with the return of backup center Jermaine O’Neal, who had missed the Dubs’ last 26 games nursing a right wrist injury. Even though at his age, 35, O’Neal is certainly not Bogut’s equivalent on the defensive end, his mere presence in the key is enough to body up against Philadelphia’s Spencer Hawes.
The veteran Sixer center is averaging over 13 points and eight boards this season. His offensive game includes a modest outside jump shot, one that will extend O’Neal from underneath the basket. This will require Golden State’s forwards, Iguodala and Draymond Green, to provide weak-side support in the rebounding department.
Hopefully, O’Neal and Green can more than make up for the loss of Bogut and Lee on offense. O’Neal is a huge upgrade in that he has a more well-rounded offensive game and, most importantly, is not afraid to get to the free-throw line, where he shoots 77 percent—compared to Bogut’s 35 percent from the stripe.
Look for the Warriors to win the matchup between O’Neal and Hawes; however, the key will be whether the Sixers can out-hustle and out-run the rest of the Dubs’ frontcourt.
The real issue with Andrew Bogut and David Lee’s absence is the impact on the Warriors’ bench. With O’Neal and Green thrust into the starting lineup, the Dubs’ second unit is that much thinner.
Golden State’s second unit features only three valuable contributors: Harrison Barnes, Marreese Speights and Jordan Crawford. Beyond that, the rest of the bench is filled with garbage men. Can the Dubs rely on such a shallow bench to push the team over the hump when the starters are struggling? Who will step up to provide a meaningful contribution?
The Warriors hope that Saturday is evidence that Barnes can lead the team’s second unit effectively. Barnes had a great game against Phoenix, putting up 23 points in 36 minutes. It was his second-highest total coming off the bench this season and first 20-point game since December 13, against Houston.
Barnes has generally struggled in his sophomore season, averaging just over 10 points a game on only 41.2 percent shooting from the field. But that’s not to say he has been terrible. Simply put, he just hasn’t been as productive off the bench as the Dubs had anticipated he would be coming off a promising rookie season. However, Barnes has seemingly not adapted to his role as the sixth man, unable to provide that dominant supplementary performance leading the team’s second unit. Maybe Saturday flipped the switch.
With Bogut and Lee out of the lineup, coach Mark Jackson is forced to mix and match his rotation with starters and bench players, something that he hasn’t done frequently for the majority of the season. Could playing with other starters help Barnes’ comfort level, given he started 81 games last season?
The Warriors will need some productivity from their bench to counter the Sixers’ attack. Barnes should be able to continue his aggressiveness against a weaker Philadelphia squad.
One of the key factors in Golden State’s inconsistent performance this season has been Andre Iguodala’s poor health. The offseason acquisition was supposed to solidify the team’s starting five by adding some well-rounded versatility on offense and defense. And the Warriors proved that adding Iguodala made them one of the most dangerous lineups in the league—when he’s healthy.
Unfortunately, Iguodala has scarcely been at full strength this season, nursing a hamstring injury during November and December. When he did come back, the Dubs went on a 10-game win streak; but he clearly was not at 100 percent.
And it shows.
Though he was not brought in to become a dominant scoring threat, everyone in the league is aware of his capabilities offensively. He has flashed his abilities, dropping 32 against his former Sixers team back in November. However, Iguodala’s offensive game has waned quite a bit in the past month. He is averaging 7.5 points in his last 12 games. Worse, without the explosiveness of his legs, he is unable to help facilitate the offense. After averaging over six assists before his hamstring injury, he has dished out fewer than 3.4 per game since returning to the lineup.
It’s a little interesting that the Warriors didn’t let him rest another week or so before bringing him back into the fold. His overall season numbers are still great (48 percent from the field, 39 percent from beyond the arc), but he’s just not a threat on the offensive end, which is a terrible situation given that Andrew Bogut is already a non-factor offensively.
Right now, with Iguodala at less than full speed, the Warriors are essentially playing with half of their starting unit at full health. With Jermaine O’Neal in the starting lineup, the Warriors do possess someone who can be trusted on the block and in the paint, so maybe Iguodala’s ineffectiveness will benefit O’Neal’s inside game. But Iguodala has to find a way to be more instrumental at both ends of the floor, particularly against an athletic, young 76ers team.
One area that will improve with Jermaine O’Neal in the starting lineup is the team’s free-throw efficiency. And frequency.
As a team well-known for shooting outside jumpers, it’s no surprise that Golden State does not visit the free-throw line that often. The Dubs rank 21st in free-throw attempts per game but are 23rd in free-throw percentage, in large part due to Andrew Bogut’s horrendous 34.6 percent. Though Bogut is probably the last option on offense when he’s on the court, he certainly shies away from even breathing on the ball and getting contact, as he average only 1.1 free throw attempts per game.
O’Neal, on the other hand, is not afraid to get fouled, and when he does, the Dubs know that he can hit his freebies. That is a good asset to have, and something that goes a long way toward affecting the outcome of a close game. Philadelphia averages 21.8 personal fouls per game, the 22nd-highest number in the league. If O’Neal can take advantage of Spencer Hawes, keeping Philly’s center in foul trouble, the Warriors have a chance at equalizing the battle of frontcourts.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, ranks 28th in the league in free-throw percentage; so any area in which the Warriors can gain the upper hand—especially considering they are playing short-handed—will help Golden State come out on top against this Sixers squad.
The 76ers are a youthful team, one that plays a lot of small ball and tries to run up and down the court with their stable of wing players.
Evan Turner, Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten, James Anderson and Hollis Thompson all play more than 15 minutes a game, providing a healthy rotation of fast-paced basketball. The guard-heavy lineup can prove to be dangerous for the Warriors, whose main weakness on the defensive end is on the perimeter. Stephen Curry is regarded as a minus defender, and while Klay Thompson’s defense is adequate, the Warriors as a team have trouble against smaller backcourts—as proved by the Phoenix Suns’ Goran Dragic pouring in 34 points against Golden State on Saturday.
Fortunately for the Dubs, the Sixers do not possess a true outside threat, as Philadelphia currently ranks 29th in the NBA in three-point percentage (31.6). But with the Warriors interior defense thinned out with the absence of Andrew Bogut, Philly should attack the basket more and attempt to get to the free-throw line often. Without Bogut to clog up the paint, and with Philadelphia ranked ninth in the league in offensive rebounds, the Sixers will drive the line often and without fear.
If the 76ers are going to win this game, it’ll be because of the aggressiveness of their guards, not from the perimeter but rather in the paint.
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