First, a little recent history: On January 31, I watched the Golden State Warriors come into Atlanta to face the Hawks, the league's 29th-best team in terms of offensive efficiency this season.
Golden State played a zone defense that night ... at least I think that's what they were playing. It actually looked more to me like five guys milling about at the morning shootaround -- it was so lazy and lethargic that it really had to be seen to be believed.
Atlanta, who had trouble scoring 70 points in a full game on many occasions, hit that mark by halftime en route to a 115-104 victory. Considering the opponent, it was arguably the worst defensive performance I've seen in person, and I remember commenting to a Warriors beat writer afterward that I'd never seen a team play with less passion. (You can see my full thoughts on that game here -- scroll down to item No. 8.)
Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson were both in uniform that night, too -- in fact, the only key Warrior who didn't play was Jason Richardson. Based on that evening's performance, it seemed utterly inconceivable that the team I saw would avoid the lottery, let alone knock out a 67-win team in six games and take the clincher in an emphatic blowout.
Well, something has obviously changed since then. The Warriors, who were one of the league's worst defensive teams for most of the season, started defending like gangbusters in early March, right as they heated up for their stretch run.
And that fact hasn't received nearly as much attention as it should have. While everyone's talking about Golden State's up-tempo style and its small-ball lineup, the team's defense deserves more credit. The Warriors had a great defensive scheme against Dirk Nowitzki, forcing Dallas' role players to beat them with long jumpers, while the hounding defense of Davis in the backcourt in particular messed with the Mavericks' offense all series long.
It happened again tonight -- Dallas, who was one of the league's top offensive teams in the regular season, shot 37.6 percent, took only took 13 free throws, didn't have a single quarter with more than 25 points, and finished the game with just 86 points despite a blistering pace.
Yes, it helped that once they fell behind (right from the beginning of the game, that is) the Mavs looked like they were trying to make five-point shots (37 3-point attempts?!? What is this, the rookie-sophomore game?), and that Dirk Nowitzki's inexplicable shooting slump continued (how does one of the best shooters in league history get a bunch of wide-open looks and go 2-for-13?).
But the key to this series, and the Warriors' resurgence in general, has been that they've suddenly gotten religion at the defensive end. That should be a scary thought for the Warriors' next opponent, because neither Utah nor Houston has been able to score with any consistency in the postseason thus far.
Provided Davis is ambulatory in the next round, the Warriors' quickness and clever schemes -- as well as the vigor that was so obviously missing that winter night in Atlanta -- could be the formula for another round of playoff success.