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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Fiifi Frimpong

Around the NBA: Warriors are league’s biggest disappointment midway through season

NEW YORK — It’s hard to imagine the Warriors missing out on the postseason. Just seven months ago, they hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy after defeating the Boston Celtics in six games in the 2022 NBA Finals.

It was a memorable coronation. Steph Curry was unanimously voted Finals MVP, and just after the once and current champs silenced the sea of Celtics fans at TD Garden, Klay Thompson ignored the off-ramp to the high road and blasted Jaren Jackson Jr. and the Memphis Grizzlies at the postgame presser for good measure.

Two months into the season, that same team suffered a 12-point loss Tuesday against a short-handed Suns team, who were without Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, and sit a game under .500 — good for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

Not many predicted the defending champs to be hanging around for a play-in spot. They’re only a game ahead of the Trail Blazers, who would be on the outside looking in if the season ended at the halfway mark. Championship teams are known to have hangovers to start a season. But this hangover is lasting too long.

Steve Kerr’s team started the season 3-7, including a five-game losing streak in that span. Also, they lost to lowly teams like the Hornets, Pistons and Magic during that streak.

It’s clear that the issue causing Golden State’s poor play is bad defense. Their opponents are scoring 117.7 points per game (26th in the NBA), which is a stark contrast from last season when they only allowed 105.5 points per game (third in the NBA). Their defensive rating is also in the bottom half of the league this season (21st) after ranking near the top (second) a season ago.

“Last year we came in and we hadn’t made the playoffs in two years. We couldn’t wait to show everybody we were still here. We started out 18-2, No. 1 defense in the league. You win the championship and there’s just a natural human nature dropoff,” Kerr said after an embarrassing blowout loss to the Knicks on Dec. 20. “You’re just not on edge. Combine that with other factors — injuries and stuff — it’s just we haven’t gotten there yet.”

Indeed, injuries factor into the Warriors’ decline in defense this season. Andrew Wiggins has missed 17 games this season and Thompson’s past injuries took away that lateral quickness that awarded him him All-Defensive Team honors. Draymond Green isn’t the same force defensively as he was in his All-Star seasons from 2016-18 and a thin frontcourt — due in part to James Wiseman severely underperforming — results in a heavy workload for him. In the last 10 games, Green is averaging 32.3 minutes, logging a whopping 45 minutes against the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 2.

Good team defenses require individual defenders who fight through screens, aren’t a liability when switching defenders and could guard multiple positions. The Warriors lost that after not re-signing Gary Payton II. His departure leaves the Warriors without a perimeter defender who provides resistance at the point of attack — a necessity when dealing with modern offenses.

The Western Conference is wide open. A winning streak could get the Warriors back on track. They’re used to championship basketball — grabbing four rings in the last eight years — but have to see adjustments soon to avoid further disappointment.

“We’ve been talking about it for a long time,” Curry told reporters after Tuesday’s loss. “Eventually, you have to do it or else time runs out. ... We have 41 games to figure it out — or else we won’t.”

Nets proving doubters wrong

The Nets needed a reality check from Kevin Durant — who requested a trade and threw coach Steve Nash and GM Sean Marks under the bus — to get to this point. No one knew what the Nets were going to get from Ben Simmons and the team was fresh off an embarrassing first-round playoff sweep against the Celtics. Kyrie Irving attempted to get out of town, which failed, and created a firestorm after promoting an antisemitic film.

Players on the team looked like they didn’t want to be there after starting the season 2-5. Playing defense was an option under Nash and questions were looming whether or not Marks should hit the restart button.

The culture was in shambles and the Nets were in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The turning point was Jacque Vaughn getting the nod as head coach.

Vaughn was able to hold players accountable, constantly citing his usage of an iPad during timeouts to scold players for their mistakes on-court. He led the Nets to a franchise-best 12-1 record in December, earning him the Coach of the Month award.

Durant’s play is the biggest factor responsible for the team’s 27-14 record. He’s averaging 29.7 points per game and has never been this efficient from the floor in his career. The star is shooting 55.9% from the field and is also posting a career-high in free throw percentage, shooting 93.4% on 7.3 attempts per game.

What’s more surprising is the supporting cast producing each night.

Just last season as a member of the Toronto Raptors, Yuta Watanabe asked head coach Nick Nurse to send him to the G-league to help get some rhythm. Watanabe didn’t get much playing time in Toronto, logging just 11.7 minutes per games in 27 appearances. He was virtually unknown to most people around the NBA.

Now, Watanabe has turned into the league’s sharpest shooter. He leads the association in three-point percentage (52.7%). He exerts max effort on defense and sprints to get into the right position. He’s been able to record quality minutes on a roster that’s filled with competition at every position. He emerged in the midst of Irving’s suspension and Simmons’ injury issues, and never looked back after getting an opportunity.

The same can be said about former Jazz 3-and-D player Royce O’Neale. He’s justified the Nets using a first-round pick to acquire him. O’Neale is currently posting career highs in points (9.4), assists (4.2) and 3-point percentage (41.1%). His role is a surprise since the minutes were expected to go to Joe Harris. The next-man up mentality is one of the recurring themes on this Nets team.

Durant’s MCL sprain could cool down the Nets, but this season’s turnaround allows the team to sustain some losses. Losing a star player to injury is always an issue but considering what the franchise has gone through the past two seasons, this one is easier to stomach. Durant will be back.

Those were couldn’t be said with confidence a few months ago.

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