With History on the Line, Is It Time for Warriors to Unleash the 'Death Squad'?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2016

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 28:  Andre Iguodala #9, Draymond Green #23 and Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors stand with DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings after the Warriors were called for a technical foul and then a delay of game durig the first half of their game at ORACLE Arena on December 28, 2015 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Last June, facing a 2-1 series deficit against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors did the unthinkable, even by today's standards: They unleashed their aptly named small-ball "Death Squad."

That lineup, an arrangement consisting of Harrison Barnes, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson, didn't start a single game during the regular season. But it was the team's fifth-most used combination overall, and special assistant to the head coach Nick U'Ren convinced his boss, Steve Kerr, to sit starting center Andrew Bogut in favor of the 6'6" Iguodala.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Death Squad saw more than triple the minutes of any other in-house lineup, and the Warriors ran off three consecutive victories to earn their first title in 40 years.

That same team is now after a different piece of history, facing yet another uphill battle. The Warriors are three wins away from breaking the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record of 72 victories, with just three games left to play.

Win out, and that record is theirs. The mission is this simple. The execution is not.

These Warriors have been far from invincible in recent weeks and must be indomitable to boost their best-ever case. So if they're serious about getting 73 victories in the most efficient, and likely, way possible, this pursuit should become the Death Squad's burden to bear.

A Small-Ball Terror

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 12: Klay Thompson #11, Stephen Curry #30 and Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors celebrate a basket against the Phoenix Suns at ORACLE Arena on March 12, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Extended absences from Barnes and Iguodala have curbed the Warriors' use of this terrifying formation. It has appeared in 34 games, totaling a modest 159 minutes of action.

But that's more spin than the group saw through 37 outings last season (102). It is Golden State's third-most used lineup overall, and no combination of players has logged more time in the fourth quarter.

Any team brazen enough to leave a big (or two) in the game when Barnes, Curry, Green, Iguodala and Thompson step on the court gets torched. Those five, together, are unguardable.

They stretch conventional power forwards and centers outside the paint into no man's land, often beyond the three-point line. Green blitzes "fellow" centers with runaway-freight-train speed, and simple ball screens translate into instant offense:

Drop too far back, and this unit, which is collectively shooting better than 55 percent from deep, will carve you up with jump shots. Play up on ball-handlers and/or attack those coming off screens, and any Death Squad member will make a beeline toward the basket.

Hence why the Warriors are a plus-159 in the 159 minutes this billing has played. Their typical starting lineup, by comparison, is also a plus-159...through 528 minutes of burn.

This isn't just about the Death Squad being the best small-ball outfit in the NBA (it is). This is about the Warriors taking further advantage of what is, quite possibly, the best fivesome ever.

Since 2000-01, which is as far back as Basketball-Reference.com's lineup data goes, more than 2,400 five-man assemblies have recorded at least 100 minutes of playing time in a single season. No combination of players has registered a higher net rating than Golden State's amalgam of Barnes, Curry, Green, Iguodala and Thompson:

Limited playing time does make it easier for the Death Squad to uphold its absurd standing. But even when bypassing lineups that have eclipsed 500 minutes of court time, the Warriors' Fab Five still dominates the field.

This group's performance reflects its function. The Death Squad is ready-made to rip opponents out of their element, and that's exactly what it's doing. 

Opponents Fit for Dismantling

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 07:  Tim Duncan #21 and Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs talks while there's a break in the action against the Golden State Warriors during an NBA Basketball game at ORACLE Arena on April 7, 2016 in Oakland, California.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

All three of the Warriors' remaining games pit them against teams that are ill-fit to contend with their small-ball nightmare.

Two of those contests come versus the injury-ravaged Memphis Grizzlies. Even without Marc Gasol and Brandan Wright, they still favor dual-big lineups.

Head coach Dave Joerger has recently taken to starting Chris Andersen and Zach Randolph alongside one another, creating a frontcourt pairing that will bust against the Death Squad's unparalleled versatility.

Sunday's date with the Spurs in San Antonio, the penultimate game of Golden State's regular season, is far more concerning.

Though the Warriors thoroughly beat the Spurs at their own game Thursday night, turning the Death Squad loose for all of five minutes, they can't bank on that happening again. San Antonio is undefeated at home, and head coach Gregg Popovich has no plans to let that streak fall by the wayside, per the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald:

Jeff McDonald @JMcDonald_SAEN

Pop just laid out rest plan going forward. Everyone plays tonight, key guys rest tomorrow in Denver, everyone plays Sunday vs Warriors

Running even just one of Bogut, Festus Ezeli or Anderson Varejao caters to the Spurs' strengths. It gives them a better chance of dictating pace and style—the same pace and style they used to edge the Warriors on March 19.

Investing more minutes in the Death Squad—and undersized lineups in general—demands the Spurs adjust their rotations accordingly or risk seeing one (or both) of LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan regress into defensive putty, as the Dunc'd On podcast's Nate Duncan and Pounding The Rock's Quixem Ramirez pointed out:

Nate Duncan @NateDuncanNBA

Yeah, Tim Duncan guarding any Steph ball screen isn't going to work. GSW finally went to it, easy wide open 3.

Quixem Ramirez @quixem

I've never seen Tim Duncan so out of sorts than tonight. The Warriors are an absolutely terrible matchup for him.

Slotting Boris Diaw, who missed Thursday's tilt with a sore right adductor, at the 5 and Kawhi Leonard at the 4 allows the Spurs to deploy a better Death Squad rival. But they'll be playing Golden State's game if they do. 

And there is no scenario in which that doesn't bode well for the Warriors.


Change for the Sake of History

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Stephen Curry #30 laughs with Andre Iguodala #9 of the Golden State Warriors during the game against the Miami Heat at the American Airlines Arena on February 24, 2016 in Miami, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Shaking up the rotation, perhaps even the starting lineup, shouldn't be a topic of discussion this late into the season. The Warriors have already won 70 games. They've secured home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They could coast into the postseason.

Kerr, in fact, would love to do just that, per Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:

Rusty Simmons @Rusty_SFChron

Steve Kerr said he's "inclined" to rest guys, now that No. 1 seed is locked up, but he's made a pact with players to let them decide.

Resting anyone of value isn't an option. The players can smell 73 wins. They want 73 wins.

"We have three games left," Stephen Curry said, as relayed by Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes. "You all know what we're chasing. You all know what's out there." 

"So to get this far and kind of just tank it and say, 'Aw, never mind," Green added, per ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss. "... Let's face it, we probably will never get to this point again."

Indeed, the odds are against Golden State ever getting here again. And with the stakes this high, it's time for the Death Squad to ride again, in the same capacity as last June, when the Warriors needed what they do now—a steward of perfection. 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and accurate leading into games on April 6, unless otherwise noted.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @danfavale.


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