And it's only going to help them later.
Speedy, Statistical Dominance
Every team hopes for a fast start, but the key to Golden State's success this year has been literalizing the cliche. Its first-quarter pace is speedier than anyone else's in the league.
Foes can scout Golden State all they want, and they can expect the first quarter to be played at a dead sprint. But when the Dubs blast off in transition, the velocity is jarring.
Teams just can't keep up.
Golden State owns the highest first-quarter offensive rating and lowest first-quarter defensive rating in the league this year, per NBA.com. The resulting net rating, plus-22.9, is leaps and bounds better than even the formidable San Antonio Spurs, and no other NBA team outscores opponents by even half as many points per 100 possessions in the opening period.
And the Warriors don't bolt down the floor without purpose. They do it to put opponents on their heels, which allows the Dubs to do what they do best: fire off threes against defenses that aren't set.
Golden State shoots 9.6 triples per first quarter, more than any other team tries in any period. They connect on 42.4 percent of those long-range attempts, which is actually lower than their overall season average of 42.7 percent—a fact that shows the Warriors aren't more efficient or accurate in their game-opening assaults, but that they are more deliberate and forceful in seeking out the shots they want.
Remarkably, the Warriors do all this without making many mistakes. Their turnover percentage in the first quarter is just 12.1 percent, second lowest in the league. Overall, the Warriors give the ball away on 15.7 percent of their possessions, so there's some kind of focused ruthlessness at work in the first 12 minutes.
The Dubs want to emotionally cripple opponents early, inspiring a sense of hopelessness.
The goal is making the other team rhetorically ask: How can we compete with this?
So far, nobody can.
Winning the Crowd
Hot starts have also had the effect of whipping Golden State's home fans into a frenzy.
"The energy that they bring is amazing," DeMar DeRozan told Doug Smith of the Toronto Star when the Toronto Raptors visited in November. "We only get a chance to play here once a year so when you see it on TV and then you're in it, I don't think TV does it justice at all, honestly."
There's motivation to bury teams early elsewhere as well.
"Anytime we're on the road, that's the key to success, is getting off to a good start and not letting the home crowd or the energy take off," Stephen Curry told TNT's David Aldridge after scoring 21 of his 46 points in the first quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Ending the game early is obviously a goal for the Warriors, but the scary thing is that even when they don't achieve it right away, they tend to get it done eventually—by shooting a league-high 45.5 percent from deep in second quarters, for example. Or by putting up an NBA season-best 46 points in the third quarter of a blowout win against the Phoenix Suns on Dec. 16.
It's As Much Who as It Is How
The Warriors' early success is mainly personnel driven.
After all, you can't play at a breakneck pace, bury threes at absurd rates, defend doggedly and do it all without turning the ball over unless you have a pretty darn capable collection of talent.
The Warriors have that, of course. And in looking at lineup data, it's abundantly clear that all these dominant first quarters have been possible because the first-unit skill on hand makes it happen.
Virtually every five-man group the Warriors have tried this year has worked, but the most frequently used starting group—Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli—has posted a net rating of plus 16.3 in first quarters, per NBA.com. With Andrew Bogut in place of Ezeli, that number jumps up to plus-17.4.
Both figures are actually lower than the Warriors' overall first-quarter net rating, which seems strange...until you swap in Andre Iguodala for Barnes, at which point the numbers get stupid. The Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Green-Bogut unit generally plays just a few minutes in the latter part of each first quarter, but in limited time, it has outscored opponents by 82.2 points per 100 possessions.
Read that again. It is not a typo.
The reasoning isn't complicated: Bogut, Green and Iguodala are phenomenal passers, which allows Curry and Thompson to feast on open looks as the ball hops around the floor to find them.
Speaking of Curry, it'd be a mistake to overlook his influence on the Warriors' first-quarter brilliance.
Thanks to a new substitution pattern this season, the league's best player logs an average of 11 minutes in every first period, so he's on the floor to impact the numbers for almost the entire duration. And he's uniquely aggressive in hunting long-distance shots while he's out there, hitting 1.9 threes per first quarter, more than he makes in any other.
It's as if, in addition to imposing an unsustainable pace on opponents to send a message early, Curry also signals to them that he can't be ignored for a split second—no matter how far away from the bucket he might be.
This is basically the basketball equivalent of psychological torture.
The Long Game
The Warriors have won plenty of games in the first quarter—shattering spirits and building leads too massive to overcome. In the process, they're setting themselves up to win something bigger.
Curry hasn't even had to play in seven of Golden State's first 26 fourth quarters this year. With teams now resting stars for entire games in hopes of preserving them for contests that matter in May and June, Curry's late-stage kickbacks can't be overlooked.
And now that the pursuit of the 33-game winning streak is over, we should expect Golden State to sit out its best players for whole games in addition to benching them for already-in-the-bag fourth quarters. For a team that played 103 contests between the regular season and playoffs last year, every second of recuperative time is vital.
The Warriors have invented a new brand of switch-flipping—one that comes early in games instead of late. And it's been devastatingly effective.
They destroy you right away so they can rest down the stretch, which is a not-quite-perfect microcosm of their full-season goal. The difference, in the big picture of a repeat title pursuit, is that the Dubs are crushing individual regular-season opponents up front so they have enough energy in reserve to destroy the league's elite in the playoffs.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Accurate through games played Dec. 17.
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