The Golden State Warriors are just 18-23 after 41 games, and a full four games behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the Western Conference at the halfway mark. Clearly, they have their work cut out for them if they are going to make the playoffs.
But the Warriors are playing some pretty good basketball right now. They've won five of their last seven, and are in the midst of a stretch that has them playing nine of their next 10 games at home.
I had the privilege of attending the Warriors' afternoon practice session earlier this week, where I was able to talk one-on-one with point guard Stephen Curry, and sit in on interviews with head coach Kieth Smart and swingman Reggie Williams.
The three of them made several points about what the team needs to do down the stretch, and I have decided to go ahead and pick out 10 things in particular that I thought were the most important.
So from the Warriors themselves, here are 10 keys for Golden State's second half playoff push.
It's no secret that the Warriors are not a very good defensive team. And when he was asked what the team has to do defensively going forward, Coach Smart stressed the need for improvement.
"I know we can get better," he said, "and that we can probably become better. And that’s going to eventually happen as we continue to develop. You change from one way of thinking to another way of thinking."
He also conceded that there are going to be some nights in which they "meet up with someone who’s just going to be tough to handle," but he still thinks they can improve.
Indeed, the Warriors can sure as heck score. But stopping their opponents from scoring is another matter entirely. They allow an average of 106.2 points per game, the fourth highest total in the league. Their point differential currently stands at -3.4, so even just a couple of keys defensive plays and/or stops could make a world of difference. And probably more wins as well.
In discussing overall defense, Smart didn't shy away from narrowing down what they need to do better more than anything else: rebound.
"The rebounding part is the most important part of your defense," he said, "and as we’ve rebounded the ball better, we’ve been able to take care of business."
I for one thought that the addition of David Lee would hugely improve the team's overall rebounding numbers. And while Lee has done his part, the rebounding numbers have seen just slight improvement from last year.
In 2009-2010, the Warriors were dead last in the NBA in rebounding, averaging a mere 38.4 rebounds. That figure has increased to just 40.6 this year.
But here's the kicker: Golden State's opponents grab 45.2 rebounds per game, the highest such total in the NBA.
If that number doesn't come down, the Warriors are likely not going to be playing in the postseason.
Indeed, as far as Lee is concerned, Smart did go into specifics
As a defensive presence, David Lee gets a bad wrap. The general sense is that he is more or less powerless to stop opposing power forwards, and that he's not much of a defensive presence in the paint at all.
But Smart was decidedly more optimistic.
"He’s doing some good things defensively," said Smart, and cited the fact that he played well against New Jersey's Brook Lopez. He then said, "I think it’s about consistently defending power forwards to where he’s the advantage guy, where he’s making sure he’s sending the guy where he needs to send him."
However, Smart later admitted, "Sometimes the matchups won’t allow a player to dominate."
On balance, I got the notion that Smart realizes Lee is a work in progress defensively. The Warriors are obviously a much better team with Lee, but it seems unlikely that they're going to be a playoff team if his defense doesn't steadily improve as the season winds down.
When asked about turnovers, Smart offered up a kind of Basketball 101 explanation.
"We have to limit our turnovers," he said. Simple as that.
Nonetheless, he is absolutely correct. The Warriors are one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to turning the ball over, as they average 14.6 turnovers per game. That puts them in the same company as the Sacramento Kings and the Toronto Raptors, which is obviously not good.
The Warriors committed a season-low six turnovers on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day against the New Jersey Nets, which led to just 12 points. If you were to, say, double those totals, the Warriors probably lose.
Simple math, right?
Reggie Williams was the subject of a lot of talk after practice.
One of the things Smart said about Williams is that he wants him to look to be aggressive at all times. Smart said he tells Williams, "''You can do whatever you need to do to be a threat for us, to make plays for yourself or to make plays for other people.'"
When the man himself was asked later on whether playing the point earlier in the season took something away from his game, he did admit that he was focused on making plays for others, and that he "probably didn't look at the basket."
Because Williams is by far the Warriors' best scoring threat off the bench, it's obvious that he needs to know what's expected of him. And it would appear that this is becoming much clearer as the season moves along. If it can get to the point where the Warriors really aren't losing anything when Williams comes in to replace Dorell Wright, Curry, or even Monta, they'll be in good shape.
By the way, Marcus Thompson of the Oakland Tribune published a really good piece on Williams the other day. I'd check it out.
In his first year as a head coach in the NBA, there is one thing that is ever on Smart's mind: adjustments. After all, he's a first time coach presiding over a group of players that are still very much learning how to play together. And that means there's plenty of work to do.
"They’ve done a good job with dealing with me in making some adjustments," he said. "We can have a script that says this is exactly how it will work, but our personnel is not at the level yet where we can say, ‘This is our customary standard.’"
If I'm deciphering all this correctly, it almost seems like Smart was suggesting that the Warriors are still trying to find themselves as a basketball team. If this is so, then being just five games under .500 is pretty good. And if they do find themselves, they could take off.
The Warriors are in the middle of a stretch right now that will likely play a huge role in how the rest of the season pans out. They're 3-1 so far on a stretch of games that has them playing 13 of 14 at home. Compared to March, when only five of their 18 games are at home, this is huge.
"I don’t think there’s many points in the season where you can look at a stretch of the schedule and feel like you can win every game," said Stephen Curry.
A lot of this has to do with Oracle Arena. "It may not be sold out every night," he said, "but the energy that [the fans] bring is far better than any place I’ve seen in the league."
I for one think he is correct. When the Warriors are rolling, Oracle can be perhaps the toughest place for opposing players to play in the entire league. If the Warriors can get a little 2007 magic going, good things will happen.
Staying healthy obviously isn't a mindset kind of thing, as injuries are going to happen no matter what's going on upstairs.
But being healthy, as Curry pointed out, can be huge for a team's mentality.
"You don’t have to worry about who’s playing, who’s not, who’s making the trip, all that kind of stuff when you’re blessed with good health," he said.
If you're the glass-half-full type, you might say that the Warriors got their injury troubles out of the way early, as Curry, David Lee, Andris Biedrins and others have missed time with injuries.
If the team has to deal with any more significant injuries down the stretch, they're probably going to come up short.
One of the things Curry admitted is that the Warriors have had trouble closing out opponents.
"We play close until the end of games" he said. "I think as of late we’re trying to figure out a way of how to finish games."
I assumed that he was talking about the games against the Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Warriors had halftime leads in all three, but proceeded to get badly outplayed in the second half.
If the Warriors hold on to those three games, they're an impressive 8-1 in January, and that much closer to .500.
Obviously, the Warriors aren't going to be able to win all of these games, but it will definitely help if they manage to bag a couple of them.
When I asked Curry what he thought was the most important thing for the Warriors down the stretch, he didn't hesitate.
"Consistency," he said.
He would then go on to elaborate by saying, "Just to have that consistency night in and night out where everybody is playing up to their potential, I mean, guys are going to have their off nights, but for us it’s sticking with our rotation and playing as consistent as possible."
To be sure, the Warriors have been largely inconsistent ever since getting out to a 6-2 start. A lot of that obviously has to do with injuries to key players (including Curry himself). But the team has also had two losing streaks of five or more games, and they obviously can't afford to have any more of those.
The Warriors do have an advantage right now in that they're probably as healthy as they've been since the start of the season, and their recent play on the floor would certainly seem to indicate that they are not only capable of playing consistently, but winning consistently as well.
And above all else, that's what it's going to take in order to make the playoffs.