Deep down, most everyone always believed the Golden State Warriors were still a really good basketball team. The sub-.500 record over the final 10 weeks of the season was chalked up to the injuries to Draymond Green, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson still working his way back into form.
Me? I was somewhere in the middle. Obviously, the Warriors were still a good team that on any given night could look great, but I'd also come to grips with the new reality that Curry and Thompson were no longer human blowtorches. They had their nights, sure, but nobody who's watched the Warriors closely this season could say with any sort of credibility that Curry, in particular, had been anywhere near to the shooter that won consecutive MVPs.
Add in Thompson being understandably hit or miss after two years off, and Golden State's margin for error just wasn't the same. Now, they had to win games like everyone else, in a more grinding fashion, more reliant on nightly defense to carry the day, a plan that went to hell when Green went down and then took a while to rediscover his groove upon his late-season return.
All of this is to say, I really had lost some faith that the Warriors were still a top-tier title contender. I believed they had it in them on any given night, but the inconsistency of the shooting from Curry and Klay had turned them, in my mind, into more of a wild card. I picked them before the playoffs started to make the Finals, but if I'm being honest, that was a legacy pick, more heart than head, a grown man longing for one more ride with the team he grew up watching in Northern California.
I am happy to report I now believe in the Warriors once again, objectively.
Not because they're my favorite team, and not because of Curry, Klay or Draymond.
I believe the Warriors can win the title because of Jordan Poole.
On Monday night, the Warriors blew past the Denver Nuggets, 126-106, to take what feels like an insurmountable 2-0 lead in their first-round series. Curry, who again didn't start as he eases his way back from a sprained foot ligament, looked like he used to look just about every night, torching the Nuggets for 34 points. He sunk 12 of his 17 shots, including 5-of1010 from 3. He did all this in just 23 minutes of action, during which the Warriors outscored the Nuggets by 32 points.
Thompson also had a good night, finishing with 21 points on 9-of-19 shooting, including 3-of-8 from 3. Draymond was fantastic, totally frustrating Nikola Jokic (who was eventually ejected for losing his cool with the officials) while turning in a superb all-around defensive showing.
When this all happens on the same night, the Warriors are arguably the best team in the league. Nobody argues that. But, whether it's for a lack of court time together or the start of a slow individual and collective regression, it has not been a dependable reality for all three of those guys to be clicking on the same night, every night, for quite a while now.
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This is where Poole comes in. He's the insurance. On nights like Monday, when the Big 3 are rolling, Poole going for 29 of his own points, throwing 3-point darts from all over the court and smoking defenders off the dribble, becomes an embarrassment of riches, and the Warriors might be unbeatable. But it's the nights when Curry and Klay don't have it going, when the defense is up against, say, the Phoenix Suns offense and not the very limited Nuggets, when Poole will go from luxury to necessity.
Right now, Poole is bordering on indefensible. He can create whatever shot he wants for himself, and he's also totally in tune with Golden State's read-and-react movement. Through the first two playoff games of his career, he's posted 59 points and 11 assists while shooting 19-for-29 from the field, including a scoring 11-for-17 from 3.
This once again gives the Warriors that margin for error they always had during their five straight runs to the Finals. No, Poole is not going to keep shooting like this (at least I don't think he will), but it's a numbers game. There are now three potential flamethrowers on the court for the Warriors, and given the attention that Curry draws whether he's shooting well or not, only one of them has to be really hot for the Warriors to be in good shape offensively. If two of them are hot, they're going to be extremely tough to beat. If all three of them have it going, turn the lights out.
That extra threat is what has the Warriors looking like a top contender again. I'm sorry, but I just don't think Curry and Klay are quite enough anymore on their own, not unless everything is going perfectly. But you can't depend on everything going perfectly in playoff basketball, can you? I've seen the vulnerability of the Warriors as Curry has struggled to make shots at many points throughout this season. He was on fire on Monday, but if the ebbs and flows of this season continue, he could just as well go 5-for-16 on Thursday.
In the playoffs, you have to be able to win on bad shooting nights. Curry's sheer gravity, even on bad nights, is part of that equation for the Warriors, as is certainly Draymond and the defense. But Poole, who is turning into a star in front of our eyes, is the final part. Poole playing like this, with the obvious caveat that the Nuggets are not very good right now, takes the Warriors from a dangerous team to a true title favorite once again.