The Golden State Warriors were waltzing down the stretch against Portland. The fourth quarter was winding down and the Warriors were only up by three points. To lose this game, at home, would mean three straight defeats for Steve Kerr’s team, an unwanted milestone they had yet to register this season, this glorious, historical season. In the Blazers’ Lamarcus Aldridge and Damien Lillard, they were up against two of the most potent attacking players at their respective positions, a sensational two-punch combo. Draymond Green had been working like a maniac minding Aldridge, who has four inches on him. Green had been doing good work, despite Aldridge’s 27 points. The Blazer’s forward has attempted more 2-pt field goals than anyone else in the league, by a country mile, so for Green, overmatched in size if not grit, keeping him shooting well under 50% (Aldridge finished 11-24 FG) was a respectable effort. There is a reason why Draymond Green has the second most defensive wins shares in the NBA. But, the game was in the balance. Yes, the season was lolloping to a finish for Golden State, with the number one seed in the West already tied up, but a loss always tastes bad, and Kerr isn’t in the business of losing.
Then, on the TNT telecast, we saw this.
There was Portland’s Terry Stotts, exasperated, serious, stony-faced (though, he always looks like that), marshalling his troops for the final push against the NBA’s best team. And then there was Kerr, the rookie head coach, erasing the handheld whiteboard, smiling and saying “This is fun!”. And you know, he’s right, it is fun watching the Warriors. They’re the bubbliest team in the league, playing at the fastest pace, shooting lights out nearly every night, in front of one of the league’s best crowds. Sure, things feel better when you’ve already secured home court advantage throughout the playoffs, but this is the sort of atmosphere that Golden State have maintained with ease over the entire season. We thought they were fun under Mark Jackson. Under Kerr, they’re even better, playing with an exhilarating freedom on offence, and a fiery passion on defence.
More than anything else, this season has made it utterly apparent just how momentously good a shooter Stephen Curry really is. Curry has taken more 3-PT shots (636) than anyone else in the league, 71 more than Damien Lillard, who is second with 565. The fact that he’s third in the league in terms of 3-PT FG% is staggering in and of itself; only Kyle Korver, tenth in the league in terms of attempts from deep, and Eric Gordon, who doesn’t appear on the attempts top 20 at all, have shot a better percentage. And then here’s the kicker: looking at Kyle Korver’s shooting stats, .963% of his 3-PT FGs are assisted; he’s set up with spot-up shots by his team mates almost all of the time. For Curry, his 3-PT FGs are assisted only .580% of the time. That means that slightly under half of his successful 3-PT makes are taken off the dribble. It really cannot be overstated just how astonishing this is; there has never been a player who takes shots he’s created for himself so frequently and so accurately from deep. Curry literally changes entire defences based on this stunning ability.
Obviously, you don’t need these numbers to know that Curry is the best shooter in the league, just watching any Warriors game will make abundantly clear the range and accuracy Curry enjoys. But Kerr has really given his point guard an always-green light this season. In that game against Portland (which the Warriors would go on to win by 11 points) Curry broke his own record for made 3-PT FGs in a season; he made 272 in the 12/13 season, and as of this season, he’s made 281. It puts his last 3 seasons shooting from deep as three of the five best ever seasons in NBA history. And this “Shoot first, ask questions later” mentality has spread throughout the team, on the orders of Kerr. Bringing Draymond Green into the starting lineup not only ensured that the Warriors would have the best defence again in the league, but it also put another competent 3-PT shooter on the floor. David Lee, an excellent finisher and passer from the post, is not, however, a 3-PT shooter, and demotion to the bench has made Golden State even more potent from downtown. Similarly, Harrison Barnes, a much more accurate 3-PT shooter (40%) than the player he replaced in the starting line-up, Andre Iguodala (around 35%), has also added further threat from deep. Andrew Bogut, a contender for First Defensive Team All-NBA honours this season, is one of the best passing big men in the league, and can join in on the swirling ball-movement Kerr has cultivated which, more often than not, is designed to lead to an open three-pointer for one of his sharpshooters. There is a jubilant atmosphere that comes with such a free approach. Green is a phenomenal energy player, and Harrison is an exceptional young athlete. Mix this in with the potential for Klay Thompson to explode for 37 points in a quarter, and the result is, as Kerr said in that time-out, fun.
So often, rookie coaches are weighed down in their first year, trembling and nervous under this new, harsh pressure. Kerr is undoubtedly the coach of the year, and has made a team that was already good, into a team that is historically great. The points differential (10.3) the Warriors have maintained this year is up there with some of the game’s greatest ever teams; only 7 teams have ever finished a regular season with a 10+ points differential. All except one, the 71/72 Milwaukee Bucks, won the title the year they did it. Kerr may well become the best ever first-season coach this year, an NBA championship would ensure this. Professional margins in the NBA, just like the game of basketball itself, can be impossibly fine, and decisions can have earth-shattering consequences. Kerr might have chosen to coach the dreadful New York Knicks this season, but he didn’t. Better decisions in sports have rarely been made. But, on top of his decision to back the winning horse, Kerr has also improved this Warriors team by creating an environment that allows his players’ very best qualities to flourish.