TORONTO -- If not for a LeBron James stepback three, the Golden State Warriors would be winners of nine of their last 11 games. As it stands, they're 14 games over .500 for the first time since the 2007-08 season and are quietly making a case they can be contenders.
On Tuesday, they locked down the league-best Indiana Pacers and withstood a late-game run to earn a 98-96 win. On Wednesday, they annihilated the Boston Celtics, 108-88. They won't be the favorites heading into the playoffs, but no one will be angling to face them.
Last year, Golden State attracted all sorts of attention as Stephen Curry turned into a superstar. After a particularly scorching night from Curry and Klay Thompson in the playoffs, Warriors head coach Mark Jackson called them "the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the game."
The fact that Jackson elevated that team to just above average on defense last year was seen as a huge accomplishment. In the offseason, defensive mastermind Andre Iguodala joined the team. Now, stunningly, only the Pacers and the Chicago Bulls are better at getting stops. That's right: The Warriors, long the franchise that scored 100 and gave up 110, are third in the league in defense.
Has the perception changed yet?
"I don't think so," Iguodala said before a recent game. "Because our main player, our main two players are seen more as scorers. You see the Warriors, you see a picture of Steph Curry, so you think we shoot, you think we score, and then you hear about the Splash Brothers."
The 10-year swingman is only averaging 9.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game this year, using offensive possessions less frequently than he has since his rookie season. Yet he's been by far the biggest change in the Bay Area and the man most responsible for their improvement. The Warriors are a whopping 13.5 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents with him on the floor and they're outscored by 5.4 points per 100 when he's not, according to NBA.com's stats page. Iguodala's unselfishness and versatility complement the rest of the starting five perfectly.
But it's not just Iguodala. It's the combination of him and now-healthy center Andrew Bogut, who should join Iguodala on the NBA's All-Defensive Team. Iguodala admitted he's never played with someone so dominant down low.
"I had Sam Dalembert, who was a great shot-blocker," Iguodala said. "But I think Bogut, he's rare because he's a little bit more engaged in the game of basketball. He has a high IQ. He's very vocal. He just takes pride in protecting the paint. That sets him apart."
Curry and Thompson have improved immensely as defenders since coming into the league. If reserve forward Draymond Green was as good on offense as he is on defense, he might be on magazine covers. Iguodala almost always guards the opposing team's best player. It is Bogut, though, who sets the tone.
"The most important part of defense is communication," Iguodala said. "It starts with being vocal. He's kind of holding it down for us back there and it makes it easier for us to know what's going on and how to be on the same page."
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Oddly, the most common criticism of this year's Warriors team is Jackson's offense. With that much firepower, how in the world can they only be 13th in offensive efficiency? It's a fair question, and it's also fair to ask why they run so many isolation plays and why the starters aren't staggered more in the rotation. With the way the offense collapses when Curry goes to the bench -- Golden State scores 91.8 points per 100 possessions without Curry, which is a full four points fewer than the league-worst Philadelphia 76ers -- it appears as if Jackson hasn't found the right plan when he goes to the second unit.
But for all of Jackson's faults, he really does have the belief and trust of his players.
"You really can't explain it unless you get in a situation where you're able to play for him," Iguodala said. "He just allows us players to play. You don't get that that often. He's for his players, he's loyal to his guys. You don't see that that often. You got coaches who have their own agendas, who are trying to win for themselves or improve their own record or make themselves look good or their scheme that won the game -- ‘I put this guy in this position to win' -- but he's totally the opposite of that to where he gives all the players the credit. Probably too much credit."
When Jackson called Curry and Thompson the best shooting backcourt ever, it wasn't an empty gesture. When TNT showed him in a timeout telling his players he was jealous of them, that he wished he could put on a uniform, it wasn't a joke. You can hear it when he speaks, you can see it when he's having shooting contests with them.
"I think that's just genuine care for his guys," Iguodala said. "He doesn't let the business side affect his relationship with his players, so it makes it easier to play for him. You want to play hard for him."
For a team that was seen on the rise last season, there have been a lot of changes. Iguodala's had the most impact, but newcomers Jermaine O'Neal, Marreese Speights, Jordan Crawford and Steve Blake are all trying to fit in. Golden State also lost Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, who were two of the league's most productive bench players. Despite this and the heightened expectations, the team's upward trajectory remains the same.
The Warriors are only sixth in the crowded West with 20 games to go. Three games separate them from the ninth-place Memphis Grizzlies. If you want see the glass as half-empty, you can look at that instead of looking at the type of basketball they're playing. You can underestimate them as the postseason nears; you can make the mistake of still thinking they're just an offensive team.
But, as Iguodala said: "We don't mind that at all."