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Monday, March 07, 2016

Lakers Defeat Warriors in Biggest Upset in NBA Regular Season History

No NBA team with a winning percentage as bad as the L.A. Lakers (12-51 entering Sunday's game) had ever beaten a team with a winning percentage as good as the Golden State Warriors (55-5 entering Sunday's game) prior to the Lakers' shocking 112-95 victory over the defending champion Warriors. Jordan Clarkson (25 points) and D'Angelo Russell (21 points) led the way for the Lakers. Kobe Bryant, playing in his final game against the Warriors, contributed 12 points and three assists in 24 minutes while tying Lakers' reserve forward Brandon Bass with a game-high +16 plus/minus rating. Bryant's individual numbers were not eye-popping but he was an inspirational, stabilizing force while he was in the game, providing nifty passing and even accepting the challenge of guarding current (and future) MVP Stephen Curry on occasion. A nagging shoulder injury--Bryant still has not completely recovered from his January 2015 surgery for a torn rotator cuff--prevented Bryant from seeing much second half action but he remained involved and engaged on the bench, mentoring and encouraging his young teammates. Curry topped the Warriors with 18 points but he shot just 6-20 from the field, including 1-10 from three point range.

The Lakers efficiently executed an excellent game plan, demonstrating poise, patience and passing on offense while applying a lot of pressure against the Warriors' key scorers and ballhandlers. The Lakers played physically against the Warriors' guards, trying to deny--or at least heavily contest--every three point shot, while actively rotating to cutting big men after the Warriors' guards passed the ball in response to being trapped. The Warriors shot just .402 from the field, including .133 from three point range (4-30, one of the worst single game three point shooting performances since the NBA adopted the three point shot in the 1979-80 season). The Warriors also committed 20 turnovers. In contrast, the Lakers shot .471 from the field and .375 from three point range while turning the ball over just 11 times. Golden State won the rebounding battle 49-41 but those eight extra possessions could not make up for all of the Warriors' missed shots and ballhandling miscues. How aberrant are those numbers? The Warriors rank second in the NBA in field goal percentage (.486), first in three point field goal percentage (.412) and they average a little over 15 turnovers per game; the Lakers rank 30th (last) in field goal percentage (.415) and three point field goal percentage (.322) while averaging a shade under 14 turnovers per game.

Why did the Lakers seemingly turn into world beaters while the Warriors morphed into the Washington Generals? Part of this is overconfidence by the Warriors, who had destroyed the Lakers in each of the three previous meetings between the teams. Also, there can be no doubt that the Lakers were very pumped up for this game while the Warriors were likely looking ahead on the schedule. Lakers Coach Byron Scott has been much maligned but he deserves credit for designing and implementing the kind of "old school" game plan that many legends of the game have recently said would have slowed down the Warriors if the Warriors had played in a different era; the Lakers did not let Curry or his backcourt partner Klay Thompson have free reign to launch open three pointers and the Lakers rotated well enough to prevent the Warriors from making passes to cutters for layups. The Warriors missed some shots that they usually make but the Warriors were also under more duress than they usually face.

No one should ever get too carried away by the outcome of one regular season NBA game. Ultimately, the Warriors are still likely to win the championship and the Lakers are still a bad team. However, very few things that happen in a game of skill should be entirely attributed to luck. The Lakers demonstrated that there is a way to frustrate the Warriors. Can this way work over a seven game series when the Warriors presumably will be more focused than they were in a March 6 regular season game versus the Lakers? That is the key question, but if San Antonio or Oklahoma City adopt a similar game plan they have much better personnel to execute that plan over seven games than the Lakers do.

The Warriors must finish the season 18-3 to break the Bulls' 1996 record. Think about that: as well as the Warriors have played for the past several months, they still have to be almost perfect to surpass what the Bulls accomplished--and yesterday's game showed that, to borrow a phrase from the NFL lexicon, anything can happen on any given Sunday. What the Bulls did not just in 1996 (winning a championship to punctuate their record-setting regular season) but also in 1997 (69-13 record plus a second consecutive title) and in 1998 (62-20 plus a third consecutive championship) is remarkable.

It is mathematically possible that both the Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs will win at least 70 games this season, a plateau only reached by the 1996 Bulls. I have been thinking a lot about what this means. Are both the Warriors and the Spurs two of the best single season teams in NBA history, much like the Lakers (69-13) and Bucks (63-19 after going 66-16 and winning the championship the previous year) in the 1971-72 season? Or, is the league somewhat watered down now?

When they are at their best, the Warriors are a joy to watch: they pass, they cut, they shoot the ball exceptionally well and they help each other on defense. Similarly, the Spurs are also a joy to watch, for many of the same reasons. I have always believed that the very best teams from any year in the post-shot clock era would do well if transplanted to a different era but I am not convinced that the Warriors and Spurs both possibly rank among the three best teams of all-time alongside the 1996 Chicago Bulls. There are multiple NBA teams that are tanking now, even though it has been demonstrated that tanking does not work. While some of the criticisms of today's game and today's players may sound like they are based on jealousy or bitterness about the amount of fame and money today's players receive, specific and valid points made by the sport's legends should not be blithely dismissed: (1) it is true that the game used to be more physical and (2) it is true that the Warriors and Spurs are exploiting various rules changes that have been made over the years. The Warriors and Spurs deserve credit for adapting their style of play to be successful but it is fair to question how well the Warriors and Spurs would do in the 1990s against the Chicago Bulls' "doberman" perimeter defenders or in the 1980s against the Bad Boys Pistons or in the 1970s when seemingly every team had an enforcer.

Commentators should not take either point to the extreme; it seems silly to suggest that the 2007 Warriors would beat the 2016 Warriors in a playoff series just because the 2007 Warriors beat a 67 win Dallas team in the first round but it is also premature to crown the 2016 Warriors as the best team of all-time when they have yet to prove that they are even the best team of this year by winning the championship. In 1996, Chicago's Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper made some T-shirts bearing the phrase, "72-10 Don't Mean a Thing Without the Ring." Regardless of how many games the Warriors win this season, in order to be in the greatest team of all-time conversation they must win the championship. No one talks about the 68-14 Boston Celtics from 1972-73 or the aforementioned 2007 Mavericks because those teams did not win the title.

Golden State probably will win the 2016 NBA championship and earn a seat at the sport's symbolic "Champions of Champions" table but--as we just saw yesterday--no team is invincible. If the Warriors have one misstep at home in the playoffs, a team like San Antonio or Oklahoma City could eliminate them with three home wins.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:01 PM