On December 15th, at the very end of a very long column about the Warriors’ first loss, I first wrote that I believed they would break the Bulls’ record for most wins in a season.
The unspoken caveat was, of course, the dreaded injury. If a key player, like Steph Curry, or Klay Thompson, or Draymond Green was to miss significant time, all bets were off.
Well, the injury bug has hit the Warriors, and even though it wasn’t one of their current All-Stars, it threatens to make the remaining 16 games of the season all about holding onto first place in the Western Conference rather than chasing 73 wins.
However, there’s another element to this question that has not been explored, at least in the analysis I’ve seen. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first let me try to explain what they’re up against here.
Andre Iguodala is a player that, if your relationship with the Warriors is that you watch their highlights, you could forget was on the team. He doesn’t start, doesn’t score, and doesn’t rebound. All he does is… everything.
Iguodala comes off the bench with three minutes to go in the first quarter, replacing Thompson. He takes over the ball-handling, allowing Curry to work away from the ball to get his shot. Curry comes out at the quarter break, and Iguodala pairs with Shaun Livingston in the backcourt for the first six minutes of the second period. He is a great perimeter defender, and the Warriors know they can rest Curry and Thompson together without losing ground to the opponent.
The third and fourth quarters work much the same way, except that Iguodala is also a key member of the Warriors’ small-ball lineup, the so-called “death squad.” This is the group that finishes a lot of games, creating matchup problems all over the floor.
The Warriors’ coaches talk about Iguodala’s skill at playing the game, but they reserve their highest praise for his “basketball IQ.” He knows exactly when to push tempo and when not to, and the team’s ball movement is at its best when he’s on the floor.
This is a former All-Star, remember, a career starter who agreed to come off the bench for this team last year, only to be put back in the starting lineup in the Finals with the team down 2 games to 1… and win the Finals MVP award.
So it would seem that this injury will be the one the derails the Warriors’ dreams of history, right? Well, maybe not.
One of this team’s great talents over the past two years is adjusting to circumstances, and it’s entirely possible that this two-week period (or more) is just another opportunity to see the Warriors apply that skill.
The other unforeseen consequence of losing Iguodala is improved focus and concentration, especially against the weaker opponents on the schedule. The Warriors haven’t lost a game to the top five teams in either conference. Their losses have mostly been a combination of playing poorly against a mediocre team having a great night. This has been a result of the monotonous nature of this season, starting with the 24 straight wins at the beginning of it.
Without Iguodala, it’s hard to imagine that the Warriors would take any team lightly. They’ve won two games since he went out, and while the 17-win Phoenix Suns made it a game for 3 quarters, they had no chance once the champs got fully engaged. That effort seemed to carry over to the game against New Orleans, when they blew open a close game right before halftime and cruised to an easy win.
I don’t want to try to make a case that it’s going to be easy, just that it’s still possible. The Warriors need strong contributions not only from their stars, but from Marreese Speights, Harrison Barnes, Leandro Barbosa and Brandon Rush. If those guys don’t hit shots, the pressure on Curry, Thompson, and Green would be immense. That, in my opinion, will wear them down to the point where 73 wins becomes impossible.
The Warriors have been 40-4, 50-5 and are now 60-6. I believe 70-7 is a real possibility, and that gives them 5 games to win 3 for the record. Two of those last five games would be against the Spurs, but if the best record in the Western Conference is already decided, the Spurs might bring the “B” team.
I know the Warriors would rather not have to do it this way, but if they do wind up setting the record, it will be infinitely more interesting the longer they have to go without No. 9.