The Warriors have struggled out of the gates in many games recently, but they’ve become the league’s best in the third quarter.
Early in the month of March, the Golden State Warriors find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Their unbridled regular season success of the past three seasons hasn’t carried over to this season, and they’re stuck looking up at another team in the standings.
The 50-13 Houston Rockets currently sit a half-game up on the 50-14 Warriors and have the tie-breaker in-hand. This is the first time since Steve Kerr was hired in 2014 that the Warriors have been anywhere but first in the league’s standings this late in the season and, barring a Houston slump, the first time they won’t have home-court throughout the playoffs.
The once upstart Warriors are now the second oldest squad in the league and have nine players 29 or older. The regular season motivation they’ve had each of the past three seasons just isn’t there this year and we’ve seen a corresponding drop in effort.
The Warriors know they can win most regular-season games with just a few minutes of sustained effort, and that’s how they’ve gone about this regular season. But, their new cavalier attitude (pun very much intended) towards the regular season has left them vulnerable on many nights and has created a very worrying habit.
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The Warriors are 15-5 over their last 20 games. Over that stretch, Golden State has outscored opponents 16 times in the third quarter, but have led after the first in just nine of those games.
While the specific players might change on a given night, Steve Kerr prefers to stick to similar rotations each half. Stephen Curry will almost always play the entire first and third quarters with Kevin Durant also playing between nine and twelve minutes. With both MVPs on the floor, the Warriors expect dominance. But have been just an average team in the first quarter.
Since Jan. 1 (when Curry returned to full strength from his ankle injury), the Warriors have a first-quarter net rating of +5.2. They’ve upped their numbers a bit with recent good performances against the Hawks, Wizards, and Nets, but Golden State actually had a negative first quarter +/- for the season just a couple weeks ago.
Given they’re on yet another 60+ win pace, it’s somewhat perplexing that the Warriors so frequently start games with a mediocre quarter. It gets even more confusing when you see those exact same rotations that played in the first quarter, jump to the league’s best in the third quarter with a +19.3 net rating.
The reason is pretty simple and I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the offense. The Warriors have the league’s best offense in both first and third quarters since Jan. 1. In fact, their first quarter ORtg of 121.2 is actually slightly better than their 120.4 ORtg in third quarters. It turns out playing Curry and Durant together creates a dynamic offense pretty much no matter what, and scoring clearly hasn’t been the problem.
That’s why when you look at the other side of the ball, their defensive numbers jump out even more. In first quarters since New Year’s Day, the Warriors have allowed 31 points, 49.7% shooting from the field, and the second-worst DRtg in the league of 116.0. In third quarters, with the same players on the court, the Warriors have limited opponents to just 43.7% shooting from the field and have the league’s fourth-best DRtg of 101.1.
If you sit and watch one of their games, you’ll see these numbers aren’t misleading. The Warriors very often look like a completely different team after halftime. They contest more shots, grab more defensive rebounds, and force more turnovers in third quarters. By any metric used to measure defensive intensity and success, the third quarter Warriors are worlds better their first quarter predecessors.
This trend was perfectly clear when the Warriors played in Madison Square Garden a couple weeks ago. The Warriors trailed after one to the Porzingis-less Knicks due to lackluster perimeter defense and no rim protection.
Durant provides very little resistance on Emmanuel Mudiay’s initial drive, and Curry’s ball-watching allows Tim Hardaway Jr. to drive for an uncontested layup. In the second half, Golden State ratcheted up the defensive pressure and held New York to several futile offensive possession just like this one.
A few days later in Washington, D.C., the Warriors found themselves sleepwalking through yet another first quarter.
Otto Porter Jr. was destroying the Warriors’ defense by simply setting a screen and fading out to the three-point line for a wide open look. In this case, Durant doesn’t even pretend to try to contest Porter’s shot, conceding an easy warm-up jumper at the top of the key.
In the third quarter, the Warriors dramatically ramped up their defensive pressure and allowed a fraction of the open looks they gave up in the first. Golden State held Washington to just 14 points in the third quarter, due to several fantastic defensive possessions like this one.
While defense has driven Golden State’s second-half turnarounds, the Warriors’ transcendent offensive weapon has followed a similar pattern.
The Warriors have shot just 39.1% from deep in the first quarter since Jan. 1, 12th-best in the league. That number jumps all the way to 45.5% in third quarters, far and away the best rate in the league for any quarter. The entire Warriors team basically turns into Klay Thompson behind the arc for an entire quarter.
The main difference between those two quarters has been Curry. He shoots roughly the same amount of threes in both the first and third quarters, but Curry makes an ungodly amount of his attempts in the third. He’s shooting just 36.4% (about league-average) from three in the first quarter, but a ridiculous 50.9% in the third period. While the defense is the driving force behind the Warriors’ success, the Steph Curry deep ball is still the ultimate barometer of Warrior dominance.
While their first quarter struggles haven’t affected the outcome of many games, the Warriors don’t want to get in the habit of falling behind every night. Being down 13 to the Blazers in February isn’t a big deal, but falling behind that much to the Rockets in a potential Western Conference Finals is a considerably bigger one.
When asked about Golden State’s third-quarter success, Curry attributed it to them wearing down opponents over 48 minutes. Kerr responded to a similar question by praising Golden State’s transition scoring and shooting and saying he doesn’t know why third quarters have been successful, “…but that seems to be the key time for us these days.”
When it comes down to it, this is an entirely fixable problem. Opponents aren’t getting dramatically worse at halftime, the Warriors are getting better because they know they can. While home-court advantage could become important, 2016 taught the Warriors the limited benefits of regular season success. If these slow starts and apparent complacency continue in the playoffs then Warriors fans can start to worry; but for now, you have the luxury of sitting back and enjoying a relatively stress-free regular season.
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