It took just two weeks for the Golden State Warriors to completely change the conversation around the team.
On Dec. 20, the Warriors were 14-13 and in ninth place in the Western Conference. They had been missing Andre Iguodala, but one of the sexy picks to make a deep run in the playoffs had those around the league wondering: what's going on? The energy and enthusiasm that made them so beloved last year was all but gone, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry weren't shooting at their previous levels and the defense was lagging.
After Iguodala's insane buzzer-beater Friday night, the Warriors have won eight straight games since that season-low point -- they're now 22-13 and tied with the Houston Rockets with the West's fifth seed -- and have done so with renewed vigor and surprisingly stout defense.
NBA fans don't need to be told how important Iguodala's contributions are to his team. If you aren't aware, all you need to do is read this staggering Jonathan Abrams story about Iguodala being "The New Pippen." He's one of the Top 5 perimeter defenders in the league -- arguably Top 3, with LeBron James and Paul George, but Tony Allen would have some bones to pick about that -- and functions as a point forward, particularly when Curry is on the sideline.
The Warriors weren't exactly lighting the league on fire in the beginning of the season before Iguodala went down, but as someone who has his fingers in every aspect of a team, Iguodala needs more time to jell with teammates than different types of players (e.g. a spot-up shooter). Last year, in Denver, Iguodala and the Nuggets also started 14-13 before going on to win a franchise-record 57 games.
Now that he's spent 35 games with Golden State, the Warriors have clearly gotten more comfortable with Iguodala, and vice versa. Iguodala's only averaging 7.9 points in 29.4 minutes per game during this winning streak, but he's at 4.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. His presence in the lineup is even more important to the defense. With Iguodala and Klay Thompson on the perimeter and Andrew Bogut at the rim, that's three above-average or even great defenders, which makes it easier for the Warriors to hide Curry and David Lee, who are pretty awful on defense.
Side note: Iguodala hasn't shot a huge amount of three-pointers this year, only about three per game, but he's fourth in the whole league at 46.1 percent from outside. That's an insane development, considering he's a career 33.4 shooter from long range and shot just 31.7 percent in Denver last season. He's due for a regression, but he's getting such open looks from the perimeter that he could keep that number above 40 percent.
It's nothing new that Lee can be one of the best interior scorers in the league, but he has taken that to a whole new level during the last eight games. He's scoring 22.9 points per game in that stretch on 59.2 percent shooting and the Warriors are outscoring opponents by 13.5 points when he's on the floor, according to NBA.com. He's also averaging 9.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, a number that belies what a skilled passer he is.
Lee was especially huge in the Warriors' best win of their streak, on the road against the Miami Heat. He scored 32 points on 17 shots and grabbed 14 rebounds. He's worked exceptionally well in the pick and roll with Curry -- not a surprise -- but also as a weak-side outlet when Curry is running the pick and roll with Andrew Bogut, which has made the Warriors essentially unstoppable on offense.
Lee has a less-than-sterling reputation defensively, thanks in part to Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry eviscerating him at the Sloan Sports Analytics conference last year for being the league's worst rim protector. In his last 10 games, Lee has a defensive rating of 91.4, per NBA.com, a fantastic, if not entirely reliable, number. He doesn't need to be a big-time rim protector when he shares the floor with Bogut, he just needs to contribute to the team's defensive scheme, and it's clear he's doing that.
The Defense's Improvement
Without a doubt, Golden State couldn't be considered a title contender until their defense improved over last year's effort, and their defense is -- somehow -- better than their offense to this point in the year. They're fourth in the league in opponents' points per 100 possessions this season, allowing just 98.9 (the Pacers are first at a ridiculous 93.7, by the way).
In the last eight games, the Warriors have been even better. They're allowing 91.6 points per 100 possessions, tops in the league during that stretch. Incredibly, during their winning streak, they're scoring 102 points per 100 possessions, below their season average of 103.4.
Obviously, Iguodala has vastly improved the team's defense this year, but Bogut is fully healthy for the first time in years and it's shown on both ends of the floor. He looks spry, making athletic finishes off the pick and roll and on alley-oops. On defense, opponents are shooting just 43.6 percent against him in attempts at the rim, one of the best marks in the league among big men, according to the NBA.com player tracking database.
Most great defensive teams need one elite defender on the perimeter, an elite rim protector, and three other players who have a strong understanding of a solid defensive scheme. The Warriors have that and it's shown all season long. As incredible as it is to consider, it's a fact: the Warriors are a defense-first group, and that's why they're the hottest team in the league.