With the clock ticking toward halftime, the Denver Nuggets had done everything in their power to corral an unstoppable machine. Just under three minutes remained in the second period, and the flame-throwing Golden State Warriors offense had just 48 points, leaving it one shy of the home team.
Then Stephen Curry, as he so often does, dribbled into the teeth of the Denver defense, splitting his way through opponents until he was in the midst of a makeshift triple-team. Calmly kicking the ball out to the perimeter, he found an open Kevin Durant, waiting to take a lightly contested spot-up triple as Paul Millsap attempted a hard close-out.
Most teams would treasure that shot—a rise-and-fire jumper from one of the world's deadliest scorers. But the Warriors aren't "most teams."
Instead, Durant threw a quick pump, put the ball on the floor for a single dribble and found Draymond Green, who drove past a scrambling Wilson Chandler (he had just been forced to help against the threat of a Durant attack) and found a wide-open Curry with a skip pass for an easy corner three.
The Nuggets, so compelled to adjust against Golden State's plethora of options, had somehow forgotten about the world's best shooter.
Two days later, the Dubs punished a Miami Heat defense that had found some semblance of success, eventually holding the reigning champions to a season-low 97 points...and still losing by 17.
This time, the threat of a Klay Thompson post-up mimicked the damage typically levied by incessant ball-movement. Golden State's starting 2 is scoring an astounding 1.2 points per possession in the post this season (93.7 percentile), and the sharp uptick from last year's 0.73 PPP (18.9 percentile) is befuddling opponents already bewildered by the dizzying array of offensive weapons.
NBA defenders—and stoppers at every level, for that matter—are taught not to help when they're "one pass away." The rule rings doubly true when they'd be helping off Durant.
And yet, James Johnson was so worried about Josh Richardson (a 6'6" guard, mind you) handling Thompson on the blocks that he brought the double from the top side. The decision was anathema to typical NBA rotations, which ask for second defenders to come from the lowest weak-side position, and led to an easy Durant trey off Thompson's kick-out feed.
The Warriors play with a sense of inevitability. They operate as if the outcome is predetermined, and their hot-shooting habits will always overcome whatever minor flaws happen to affect the offensive juggernaut. Turning the ball over too frequently? Here come some bail-out threes. Shots aren't falling for one of the myriad superstars? Someone else will pick up the slack.
That certitude forces opponents into uncomfortable situations. They're more likely to abandon traditional schemes and forget about key players, because even making the right decisions has a Sisyphean feel to it. The best sequences aren't rewarded with key stops and low point totals; they still feel like harbingers of defeat.
Ostentatious, record-setting numbers have awaited the best efforts of Golden State's early-season opposition.
The Warriors are scoring a whopping 119.1 points per game—7.2 more than the second-place Brooklyn Nets and heretofore uncharted territory for a modern-day offense. Only 29 teams have ever averaged more, and the vast majority come from the pace-crazy days before the NBA-ABA merger or the run-and-gun 1980s. The next-best offense this millennium comes courtesy of last year's Warriors, who sit at No. 84 overall with 115.9 points per contest. The next-best in the non-Dubs division? That would be last season's Houston Rockets, who fall another 11 spots down the pecking order.
Digging deeper yields even more impressive results.
Looking at offensive rating, the gap between the Warriors (116.9) and No. 2 Houston Rockets (111.6) is vast. It's also the same size as the chasm between the Clippers and the No. 16 Memphis Grizzlies (106.3).
Throughout all of modern NBA history (1973 through the present), a similar trend emerges. Golden State is still No. 1, but this time, 1986-87's Showtime Los Angeles Lakers sit just behind them (115.6). The gap between the Warriors and that iteration of the Purple and Gold is equal to the divide between those Lakers and No. 8 all time—the 1981-82 Denver Nuggets (114.3).
But we can dig deeper still.
Tradeoffs between offense and defense fluctuate throughout the roller-coaster ride that is NBA history. Identical offensive ratings earned during different eras shouldn't be treated equally. A squad scoring 112 points per 100 possessions during a defense-first portion should be deemed superior to a group putting up the same numbers at a time offense reigned supreme. And that's where NBA Math's adjusted offensive rating comes in, set up such that a score of 100 equals the league average during any given year.
Golden State is blowing the current field out of the water, but that's just not a strong enough barometer. Throughout the entirety of the Association's annals, the top three marks belong to the 2015-16 Warriors (107.61), 2004-05 Phoenix Suns (107.92) and 2003-04 Dallas Mavericks (108.94).
These Dubs sit at 109.86 after their second-half shellacking of the overmatched Minnesota Timberwolves:
NBA Math @NBA_Math
#DubNation has provided one of the greatest offenses in NBA history each of the last two years. This year's version of the Golden State Warriors is on track to have, by far, the best recorded score in adjusted offensive rating since the beginning of the Association. https://t.co/zAhdqHGZJU
And going forward, who's going to stop them?
Nothing about these numbers should feel particularly unsustainable. Nobody is performing at an unreasonable level, and Golden State is capable of overcoming turnover-laden struggles with sudden explosions of offense, as it did against the 'Wolves, scoring 51 points in the first half and another 44 in the third quarter alone. Plus, as ESPN's Micah Adams pointed out, the schedule is about to ease up substantially:
Maybe Durant and Thompson will cool off from beyond the arc. But Curry, sitting at a career-worst 38.9 percent on his deep-balls, should counteract any declines as he reverts to his own mean. Every concern is nullified by another strength, and the increased depth in the Bay Area should help preserve the stars for the stretch run.
At this point, you may have noticed an aversion to breaking down the individual pieces of this offensive juggernaut, and that's intentional.
Durant is an indefensible presence at either forward spot and is too skilled and big to be corralled by any singular defender. Curry is a scheme-warping shooter with the gravitational pull of Jupiter. Thompson may be an even better "pure" marksman off the catch and is still in possession of a lightning-quick release that tends to find twine. Green's ball-handling opens up so many possibilities for his teammates. Even the bench, imbued by the new faces Nick Young, Omri Casspi and Jordan Bell, often looks unstoppable.
But all these pieces work together in concert, and the harmonious product is more important than any of the granular pieces. What truly makes the Warriors so otherworldly is the ability to knock down jumpers from all over the court with virtually any lineup combination, and that's shown by looking at the Four Factors.
On a per-possession basis, the Oakland residents cough up the ball more frequently than all but six teams. They rank just outside the top 10 in offensive rebounding percentage and generate free-throws at an average rate. The profile isn't that different than 2016-17's Warriors, though they were even worse at creating second-chance opportunities or earning freebies at the stripe.
In 2015-16, the Warriors posted the best effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) ever recorded at 56.3 percent, then matched it one year later. Now, they're shattering their own high-water mark, sitting pretty at 59.6. When you can shoot the basketball that efficiently, even major flaws are minimized.
The biggest change doesn't come from the aforementioned stars, who are continuing to torment defenders each and every night. Last year's bench posted a 54.2 eFG%, which left it trailing only the Cleveland Cavaliers' second unit. This season's has an NBA-best 56.8 eFG%.
Performances like Young's debut with the team help:
So too do pick-and-roll exploits, like this one between Bell and Andre Iguodala:
The non-starters might not infuriate the opposition quite like the opening quintet does. They don't force foes into as many Sophie's Choice situations. But they make up for the lack of scheme-shifting talents with terrific shooting, unselfish play and a commitment to the fundamental excellence that has recently come to define Bay Area basketball under head coach Steve Kerr.
Each of the last few seasons, the Warriors have broken new ground, showing off expanded limits of what an NBA offense could do on a consistent basis.
This, however, is the most dangerous version. By far.
And with the schedule declining in difficulty, burgeoning chemistry between the new pieces, further growth from the youngsters upon whom Kerr is relying with increased frequency and the inevitable hot streak from the starting point guard, the best may somehow be yet to come.
Look out, history books. These Warriors don't miss when they set their sights on a target.