TORONTO -- The Golden State Warriors are electric.
Their point guard, Stephen Curry, has unlimited range, wicked handle and top-tier court vision. Paired with versatile power forward David Lee, they boast one of the most devastating one-two punches in the game. Their system surrounds them with sharpshooters and a bolstered bench and their pace and passing allows the supporting cast to shine. This makes for a team fiercely fun to watch and to play for.
"It's fun, it's refreshing," guard Jarrett Jack said.
Acquired from the New Orleans Hornets in July and averaging 12.8 points and 5.8 assists per game off the bench, Jack is a stabilizing force on and off the floor on his fifth team in his eighth year. With forward Carl Landry's 12.0 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, Golden State has two Sixth Man of the Year candidates on its roster and five players averaging double-digits in scoring. That number could realistically be seven by season's end.
"I just think the relationship that everyone has 1-through-15 is different," Jack said. "I think everybody has a personable relationship with one another. I've been on other teams ... where [it's] these three guys that hang out versus these three guys and these four guys -- it's not like that. We really have a collective unit, we have a camaraderie that you can't fake at all. And it's just something that's authentic and I think when you're playing with one of your friends or a guy you see as your friend or you care about, you tend to go that extra mile for him when you're on the court. You'll go help him out, you'll go dive for a loose ball, you'll have his back if there's a breakdown."
Jack said the Warriors "preach selfless basketball" and "lead by committee". It's translated to a 28-17 record that has them 1.5 games out of home court advantage in the Western Conference playoff race. Curry is averaging 21.0 points, 6.4 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game, shooting 47 percent from the field, 44 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the line. Lee is averaging 19.6 points and 10.9 rebounds per game and making 53.6 percent of his field goal attempts. Both are having All-Star seasons, though only Lee made the team.
Leaders like Curry, Lee and Jack can establish a light locker room. Success sustains it.
"I don't know how other [NBA] teams do it, but this is probably the most fun team I've ever been on," rookie forward Harrison Barnes said. "Just because it's so light-hearted, we got a lot of characters in this locker room. It's been a lot of fun and it's made my transition to the NBA so much easier."
Before facing the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre on Monday, point guard Charles Jenkins tossed candy up in the air and caught it in his mouth a few feet from sophomore shooting guard Klay Thompson's locker. Thompson did his best to keep his concentration on the reporter interviewing him. Walking back from chapel service, the 20-year-old Barnes looked at home laughing with stars Curry and Lee.
"I've been on some teams ... where if you're a rookie they didn't like you to talk," Jack said. "They didn't feel you deserved to talk yet."
"I've been surprised with that too," Barnes said with a chuckle. "I didn't know we were allowed to speak, either."
"It's great," Thompson said. "It's a business when you got on the court so we're all serious, but no one takes themselves too seriously. It's a long season for 82 games so you gotta have a lot of fun if you want to survive. We all have a lot of fun just in the locker room before the game and it carries over on the court. It's fun playing together, it's fun when the team's unselfish, when you share the ball."
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Sharing the ball isn't a surprise in the Bay Area. Their 13th-ranked defense is.
While the Warriors have been able to put up points in the past, stops were a different story. They were 27th in defensive efficiency last year and 26th, 29th and 28th the three years prior. The last time the team had an above-average defensive squad was 1998-1999. It's not a coincidence that the Warriors have made one playoff appearance in the last 18 years.
When Mark Jackson took over as head coach in June 2011, he guaranteed a playoff spot and said, "The only way to win in this league and win big is defensively." It looks like he was just off by one season.
"Coach Jackson, he talked about [defense] a lot last year but our team didn't really focus on it," Thompson said.
Part of it was circumstance -- Jackson couldn't work with his players in the summer or conduct a full training camp due to the lockout. On the defensive end, Golden State played like a team making up as it went along.
"When you have basically two weeks to get in shape, get guys assimilated to the new offensive scheme and the defensive schemes, it's a lot coming at you in that short amount of time," Curry said. "And once games start, it's hard to adjust, especially since we didn't have much practice time in the season. It was different and we have still some new faces this year but a full training camp, a full exhibition season allowed us to get a lot better and we've played a high level of defense from the opening tip of preseason."
The Warriors went 6-2 in the preseason but the work began many months before that. In July, they were the only team to go 5-0 at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
"It started back in Summer League," Barnes said. "They really put a huge emphasis on defensive presence, what we need to do defensively. I think that's the reason why we won a lot of games in Summer League and that just continued on."
"Our rookies came in a day after the draft ... Our entire team, with the exception of one player, came back the day after Labor Day," Jackson said. "They were in the gym every day. They worked on it, they care about each other, they drill it. And when you do that, good things happen. You don't stumble into becoming a very good defensive team, you work on it and you hold each other accountable."
"It really carried over to the season," Thompson said. "At the time, you don't really think it is. You're like, ‘Ah, it's just summer.' But we worked real hard and we had an advantage going into training camp. There was a lot of hard work, it'd only be for an hour a day as far as on the court stuff, but it was an hour of work. And it's something I'm looking forward to doing next summer as well."
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The team made its massive jump on the defensive end without the man who was supposed to be most responsible for it. Golden State acquired an injured Andrew Bogut two days before last season's trade deadline to be an anchor. Bogut is an elite defender, the kind that covers up teammates' mistakes and makes sure they make fewer of them. He uses his voice, his smarts and his size, moving his feet quickly and protecting the paint.
The Warriors were more than willing to wait for him to get healthy, but didn't know it'd take this long. Bogut played four games in early November then decided he needed to rest and rehab his surgically repaired ankle. He returned to the lineup Monday and should solidify the surprisingly stingy defensive group that has gotten this far on internal improvement and consistent commitment to unchanging principles from game to game.
After Bogut's fifth game in a Warriors uniform, Curry said it was a huge bonus to have the guy they thought they'd have manning the middle all year long. His teammates mobbed him in pregame introductions and Lee teased him postgame about the 22-point, 10 rebound performance by Raptors center Aaron Gray.
Bogut could feel the collective excitement.
"They've been all giving me a little bit of stick lately, [the] last day at least, because they've known for a little while," he said. "But for the most part they've been great, obviously they've supported me through it because they see me every day doing workouts in the weight room and the treadmill and their question is, ‘Why isn't this guy playing?' So they've supported me well through it."
"It's just great to get him back because he's a guy that loves to play the game and he's a guy that's going to make us better," Lee said. "It's good to be back on all cylinders."
The next night in Cleveland, Golden State unfortunately wasn't on all cylinders roster-wise. Bogut will sit out back-to-backs until the All-Star break, while Curry, Landry and Barnes nursed respective ankle, shoulder and knee injuries. It shouldn't surprise, though, that these Warriors made up for it with a team effort. Thompson scored a career-high 32 points and grabbed seven rebounds on Tuesday, shooting 13-for-24 from the floor and 6-for-8 from three-point range. Jack had 26 points and shot 11-for-18 while dishing 12 assists. Lee had 20 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists and made eight of his 12 field goal attempts. Their defense held Cleveland to 42.9 percent shooting in a 108-95 victory.
"When you play hard for somebody else -- because we play for each other in this locker room -- I think when you do that, your goals fall right in line as well," Jack said. "I take the floor every time to help D-Lee get to the All-Star Game, help Steph get to the All-Star Game or help somebody get another year on their contract if they're a free agent, help coach Jackson get Coach of the Year. Those are the reasons why I take the floor and try to play as hard as I can, not so much for the benefits I'm going to reap on my own individual situation."
The way the Warriors are playing, it feels safe to say they'll continue sharing wins and recognition. With their youth, chemistry and cohesion on the court, a boost from Bogut gives the Bay Area numerous reasons to believe in this team.