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Arizona Cardinals’ Tyrann Mathieu: Team motivated by last season’s finish

The Arizona Cardinals began the 2014 season winning nine of their first 10 games.

After dropping consecutive matchups at Seattle and Atlanta their record fell to 9-3, but they went on to win their next two, with the second — a road victory over the St. Louis Rams on Thursday Night Football — ultimately clinching a playoff spot.

But even at that time it was obvious the Cardinals were not the same team they were in the first half of the season.

Arizona lost its final two regular season games as well as the playoff matchup with the Carolina Panthers, giving them defeats in their final three contests as well as seven of their last nine.

To say it was a rough finish would be an understatement, and it has led to a different mentality leading into the 2015 campaign.

“I think there’s enough motivation in that, how we finished last year,” Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu told Bickley and Marotta on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Tuesday. “Even before we got to the playoffs, those last six or seven games, it was just horrible. Defensively, we couldn’t tackle — miscommunications.

“I know if we could go back we’d fix it, but we’ve got a season coming up and hopefully do our job and do our part.”

Plenty went wrong down the stretch.

It likely starts with the team’s offense, which lost quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton, along with running back Andre Ellington, to injury. Though the team put on a brave face with its “next man up” mentality, it was clear that the Cardinals were suffering without so many key players.

Still, at the time it was hoped the defense, which had played well all season, would continue to carry the team.

It didn’t. Quite the opposite, actually.

The Cardinals had been great against the run and had not yielded a 100-yard rusher in 21 games (spanning 2013 and 2014) saw someone eclipse that mark in six of their last seven games. Opposing offenses pretty much had their way with Arizona, and despite some big plays or moments of dominance, nothing was sustained.

Blown assignments, missed tackles — the Cardinals were doing it all, and it cost them.

“Probably missed 100 tackles in that timeframe,” Mathieu said. “So it was tough to give up those big plays, those big yardages, and just watch. Because our offense couldn’t move the ball at that point in time so it was really all on the defense to keep the field position, and we just couldn’t do it.”

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In the NFL, there actually is a higher level of recognition for a team than simply “Super Bowl champion,” and that level of recognition is as a dynasty.  A dynasty, in sporting terms, is a team that is built to win repeatedly and consistently.  The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s, the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, and the New England Patriots of the 2000s are all examples of dynasties in the NFL.

The Colts have talked about not just winning a Super Bowl while Andrew Luck is at quarterback but rather winning multiple.  Even as recently as earlier this month, owner and CEO Jim Irsay said that the team’s goal is to win at least two Super Bowls with Luck under center.  It’s clear that the Colts hope to win multiple titles with Luck, and therefore it’s worth at least discussing (since we’re in the middle of the offseason) whether the Colts could become the next dynasty in the NFL.

NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger was recently asked that very question, and he laid out three marks of a dynasty that he sees in the other dynasties in league history.  He noted that dynasties have a legendary coach who has a vision and is able to execute it, they have a championship-level defense with intimidating players, and they have a franchise quarterback.  Using those three marks as criteria, Baldinger then looked at the Colts.

“I believe that Andrew Luck is certainly that guy,” he said.  “I think Chuck Pagano is showing that he has that type of metal.  And they’ve got to build that level of defense.  We don’t believe that that defense can carry this team.  Right now, it’s being carried on the shoulders of Andrew Luck, and rightfully so, but it does take time.  I mean, Chuck Noll took over the worst in the NFL and it took two or three years to add Joe Greene, and Jack Lambert, and all those pieces that came together.  So I think you have to give Chuck Pagano a little bit of time here to see if they can create that style of defense.”

He really didn’t answer the question that he was asked, but he at least gave us an interesting discussion point when there’s not much else going on to discuss: can the Colts become that next dynasty?

Obviously, they have the franchise quarterback.  That’s an easy answer and a no-brainer, as Andrew Luck is clearly a franchise quarterback who shows everything a team could want in a quarterback to lead them to multiple Super Bowls.  But what about the other two factors?  Baldinger thinks that Chuck Pagano is close to becoming that dynasty-type coach, and that’s where I would disagree.  I think that Pagano is a coach that you can win with, and I think the Colts could win a Super Bowl (or more) with Pagano as coach, as long as he’s paired with a player such as Luck.  He won’t be the best head coach and has a number of faults, but he is a guy that you can win with.  Baldinger, however, notes that a “legendary” coach is needed, and there’s no way that you could put Pagano in the same sentence as guys like Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, or Bill Belichick.  That’s not to say that I necessarily agree that a legendary coach is needed to win multiple Super Bowls, but clearly Chuck Pagano doesn’t fit that criteria yet.  He’s a guy with a vision and, to some degree, has shown that he can execute it, and I do believe that the Colts can win a Super Bowl (or more) with him as coach.  But, with the criteria as Baldinger laid it out, Pagano doesn’t fit it.

Thirdly, Baldinger says that you need a championship-level defense.  And while the game has changed, it’s true that for sustained success at the highest level it requires a good defense.  If paired with a franchise quarterback I don’t think it has to be the league’s best defense, but the team needs a legitimately good defense to win multiple titles in the same era, becoming a dynasty.  The Colts aren’t there yet either.  Their defense in 2014 played very well against the bad and average opponents and played terrible against the good opponents – showing that the defense was simply average, or slightly above it.  With a guy like Luck at quarterback and a dynamic offense like the Colts have, they could possibly win a title in spite of their defense.  But in order to build for sustained success and become a dynasty, the Colts’ defense simply must be better.

It seems a bit silly to begin talking about whether the Colts can become a dynasty when they’ve yet to play in a Super Bowl in the Andrew Luck era, much less win one, but it’s the middle of the offseason, plus Luck is that exciting and that good.  Brian Baldinger didn’t really answer the question that he was asked, but using his criteria, the Colts don’t yet fit the mold for a candidate to become a dynasty.  But the one component that they absolutely have is a franchise quarterback, and in today’s NFL that can go a long way.  If they surround him with a good defense, they might have a team capable of sustained success at the highest level – but that’s still a big if and still a while away.

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Sabres GM resumes search, won’t reveal candidates

Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray said he is continuing his search for a coach but on Thursday would not reveal who the candidates might be.

Murray did confirm to WGR Radio that the Sabres negotiated with Mike Babcock, who on Wednesday left the Detroit Red Wings to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs. But Murray refused to confirm an ESPN.com report that he will be interviewing former Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.

“I just don’t feel like making the list public,” Murray told the Buffalo radio station. “I have no preconceived notions that I want a veteran NHL guy or that I want a young guy to grow with young players. I’m looking for the best guy, the guy that comes in here and is a good fit.”

Babcock reportedly signed an eight-year, $50 million contract with the Maple Leafs. His contract with the Red Wings was ending on June 30, and Murray said he thought the Sabres had a good chance to hire him.

“There’s no deal until he agrees to come and signs a contract. I know that, we all know that,” Murray said. “We knew he was talking to other teams. … My understanding was it was Detroit and us, and that he had spoken to Toronto.

“I guess deep down I might have thought that, but when a team like Toronto is involved, you can never be surprised. It’s the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s in Toronto. … Am I surprised? I don’t even know how to answer that. Nothing surprises me.”

The Red Wings gave Babcock permission to talk to other NHL teams on May 8.

“He went through a two-week process with us and I assume we were in the mix until he decided on Toronto,” Murray said.

“We were quite a piece down the line,” he added. “We were in negotiations in a contract knowing full well that at the end of the day, there’s no deal done until [Babcock] says, ‘I’m coming to you,’ and he told us that he’d call us on Wednesday morning at 11:30. So he wasn’t a man of his word, because he actually called me at 11:33 and told us he wasn’t coming, and that was it. We move on.”

The Sabres fired coach Ted Nolan after going 23-51-8 this season, last in the NHL standings.

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford provided on Thursday told The Associated Press that Bylsma is free the pursue any coaching opportunity. Bylsma was fired by the Penguins after last season and has two years remaining on his contract with them.

Murray said teams have called him about trading for the Sabres’ No. 2 pick in next month’s NHL Draft, which Buffalo likely would use to draft Boston University center Jack Eichel, with Erie Otters forward Connor McDavid expected to be selected first by the Edmonton Oilers.

“I’ve had two calls asking if I would move my pick. It was short,” Murray said. “We’re picking No. 2 and I think we’re picking in a great spot. We are extremely happy. Deciding on who we are picking No. 2 …that’s the easiest decision I think I will have in my general managing career.”

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The Most Intriguing Rookie Storylines at Jacksonville Jaguars’ OTAs

Competition spawns the majority of news and stories from OTAs, but for the Jacksonville Jaguars and their rookies, there are other storylines to consider. These five players have new challenges in the NFL, and how they handle them will mean a lot for their first season.

For most, it’s basically a case of transition and dealing with the new responsibilities or roles of being an NFL player. While it can be narrowed down to the transition from college to the NFL, each player’s potential story is different.

The Jaguars have one of the most talented rookie classes thanks to an incredible draft, and it’s for that reason that they can handle this new challenge. The Jaguars will ask a lot of some of these guys, and that won’t be easy by any means.

It’s impossible to predict exactly how any of these rookies will handle the NFL, but a lot of these guys were either from top programs or were at the top of their teams in college. Success in college obviously doesn’t always translate to pro success, but it definitely helps their case.

The situations and storylines are dependents to the performance of the rookies, which just adds more depth to each rookie’s story overall. Besides handling all the extra details of being an NFL player, they need to handle business on and off the field.

It won’t be an easy process, but it’s one that can kick-start an NFL career. A player proving that he can handle it now makes the first season easier, and he will earn the trust of the coaches and the supporters.

With the intro out of the way, let’s look at the five most intriguing rookie storylines at the Jaguars’ OTAs.

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ST. LOUIS — Wide receiver Bradley Marquez is prepared to do whatever it takes to carve out a spot with the St. Louis Rams this season after signing as a rookie free agent following the NFL Draft. Should a stint in the NFL not work out, though, his potential backup plan is pretty cool: playing professional baseball.

The 22-year-old Marquez, who played college football at Texas Tech, is an outfielder in the New York Mets organization, carrying a .254 batting average over 36 career games with their rookie league affiliate, the Kingsport Mets in the Appalachian League. But last year, after spending the summers of 2012 and 2013 with the organization, Marquez decided to go all-in pursuing football.

“Just the opportunity that it brought, finishing my college career,” he explains. “I was able, potentially, to play at the highest level. And that’s been a goal of my entire life: just to play at the highest level, compete at the highest level of whatever sport it may be, and football presented that opportunity as of now. I just got to make the most of it now. Whereas baseball, I’m still a few years out, you work your way through the minor league system.”

His decision to chase the NFL rather than fastballs makes sense in the context of his hometown of Odessa, Texas — in the heart of football country. Marquez attended Odessa High School, whose rival, Permian, inspired the Friday Night Lights book, film and TV series. At Texas Tech, the 5-foot-11, 201-pound Marquez had 10 receiving touchdowns last year. He was considered a decent pro prospect, though it was not a huge surprise when he went undrafted.

“Maybe thought I could get in there in the later rounds,” he says, admitting to “a little bit of disappointment” at not getting drafted.

Not that he had long to worry about it. Within 30 minutes of the end of the draft, he estimates, he signed with the Rams, and a few other teams were talking to him at that point as well.

“It just felt right,” he says. “Just looking at it, top to bottom — organization, opportunity.”
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Meanwhile, he’s still under contract with the Mets, with whom he signed a seven-year deal in 2011. The Mets can release him from the contract, but Marquez says they’ve stuck by him despite his interest in football.

“They’ve been supportive,” he says. “They just kind of want to see how everything shakes out.”

Just don’t expect him to be taking batting practice with the St. Louis Cardinals anytime soon.

“I don’t know how the Mets organization would like that,” he says.

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The strategy for facing Clayton Kershaw is simple enough that even Rafael Ynoa can break it down, and he’d never faced the three-time Cy Young winner before Sunday.

“Just get a good pitch — and swing,” Ynoa said.

Those pitches and swings for hits are rare against Kershaw. He came to Coors Field just shy of 1,500 career strikeouts and 100 victories.

But the Rockies did it, they weaved together hits and runs against the National League MVP. Enough runs to win.

And yet the Rockies walked off Coors Field with a ninth consecutive loss.

After the groundscrew cleared away four inches of overnight snow, the Los Angeles Dodgers plowed over them again for a 9-5 victory behind Justin Turner’s pinch-hit, two-run home run in the eighth.

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“I’m sitting in my chair here and trying to think of one positive thing and there are not many,” shorstop Troy Tulowitzki said. “It’s tough, but what are you going to do?”

The Dodgers (20-10) and Rockies (11-17) continue to separate themselves in the NL West. Los Angeles won an 11th game in its past 15 and continue to lead the division. Colorado hasn’t won a game in two weeks.

“Honestly, good teams don’t go through this. We need to find a way to get out of it,” third baseman Nolan Arenado said. “It’s awful.”

What they lack in victories, the Rockies are more than making up for in walks. They allowed 10 more free passes Sunday — for 109 this season, the third-most in the NL.

When asked if it’s tough to watch the walks, Tulowitzki said:

“It was cold, I’ll leave it at that.”

The Dodgers shoveled away Rockies ace Jorge De La Rosa after he gave up six walks in just four innings. Then the Dodgers broke open the game in the eighth, hitting around their lineup against relievers Scott Oberg and Boone Logan for four runs.

The Rockies had a prime chance in the sixth to break open a tie game. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly pulled Kershaw and brought in second-year reliever Pedro Baez for his first look at Troy Tulowitzki. The bases were loaded with two outs. Baez threw four fastballs — 96 mph, then 97, 97 and 98 on a strike-out pitch.

Colorado wasted a day when they actually got to Kershaw. He threw his 1,500th career strikeout in the third when he caught Drew Stubbs looking at a curveball. He struck out four in the first three innings and allowed just one hit.

But the Rockies battered Kershaw in the fourth. They hit through their lineup, gnawing at Kershaw with patient singles and bloop hits. Troy Tulowitzki, Wilin Rosario, Nick Hundley and De La Rosa all hit off Kershaw. And they scored five runs in the inning — Colorado’s highest-scoring inning this season. De La Rosa’s single to center scored Hundley and Stubbs to tie the game.

Through four innings, reserve utility player Rafael Ynoa and De La Rosa combined to go 2-for-3 against Kershaw, with 3 RBIs and a sacrifice. Kershaw left in the sixth still stuck on 99 career wins.

“He’s the best pitcher in the world and we got a lot of lucky hits and we’ve got to capitalize on that and unfortunately we didn’t,” Tulowitzki said.

On the mound, though, De La Rosa unraveled. He seemed unnerved by umpire Tim Tichenor’s strike zone. He jawed with the ump in the fourth after a third consecutive walk. And Hundley, his catcher, ran to the mound to play peace-keeper. After Kershaw grounded to De La Rosa, the pitcher stared at Tichenor before throwing to first. And Hundley had to cool off the ump too.

Between the fourth and fifth innings, De La Rosa walked six of seven hitters. He walked in a run in the fourth. Then he gave the Dodgers back their lead. After De La Rosa walked the bases loaded to open the fifth, Adrian Gonzalez — Rockies killer No. 1 this season — doubled to right to clear the bases.

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“Lost command in the fifth. That was it,” manager Walt Weiss said.

Weiss pulled De La Rosa from trouble in the fifth after just 80 pitches — and just 43 strikes. He finished with five runs on five hits. De La Rosa’s six walks matched his season total through three games.

Rockies starters have thrown 143 innings this season — the fewest in baseball. The Chicago White Sox, the next fewest, have 154 1/3 from their starters in the same number of games.

“It’s been a tough week, hopefully the tide will turn,” Weiss said.

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On April 10, 2004, Barry Bonds was days from passing Willie Mays on the career home run list, Phil Mickelson was on the verge of winning his first green jacket at the Masters, and Internet giant Google had just launched a new service called gmail.

At Yankee Stadium that day, Chicago White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle earned his first career win over the New York Yankees.

More than 11 years later, Buehrle finally beat them again.

Russell Martin homered, Buehrle snapped a two-start losing streak and the Toronto Blue Jays beat New York 5-1 on Wednesday night.

“We’re excited for (Buehrle),” manager John Gibbons said. “He got the monkey off his back tonight.”

Buehrle (4-2) allowed one run and six hits in five innings. He walked one and struck out three.

Buehrle came in with a 1-14 record in his career against New York, and was 0-12 with a 7.27 ERA in 17 starts against them since his lone victory.

“Over my career I’ve had good games where I’ve thrown pretty well against them and things haven’t panned out,” Buehrle said. “For the most part I haven’t pitched too good against them but there has been some games where I feel like I should have more than one win.

“I made bad pitches today and I got away with them,” Buehrle said. “I’ve always said I want to be good but at the same time I want to be lucky.”

Martin went 3 for 4 and Chris Colabello had a career-high four hits as the Blue Jays took two of three from the AL East-leading Yankees.

In Buehrle’s only previous win over the Yankees, he allowed two unearned runs over eight innings in his first career start at Yankee Stadium. That game came just over a week after New York had returned from a season-opening series in Japan.

“I don’t remember anything about it,” Buehrle said Wednesday. “I can’t remember what happened last week.”

Alex Rodriguez, who batted third and started at third base that day, is the only Yankee still with the team. Rodriguez also batted third Wednesday.

Roberto Osuna worked 2 1-3 innings, Aaron Loup got two outs in the eighth and Brett Cecil finished.

Mark Teixeira’s RBI grounder in the first gave New York an early lead but Toronto answered in the second with Ezequiel Carrera’s two-run single off CC Sabathia.

“Carrera killed me today,” Sabathia said. “It’s just so frustrating to give up a two-run single to a lefty 9-hole hitter.”

Martin lined a single off Sabathia’s backside to begin the fourth, went to second on a balk and scored on a one-out single by Colabello.

Martin extended Toronto’s lead with a one-out homer in the fifth, his seventh. Martin has homered in each of the past four games he has started.

Sabathia (0-5) remained winless in six starts, allowing four runs and nine hits in 6 1-3 innings. The left-hander has received only one run of support in four of his outings this season, and 13 total runs in his six starts.

“He’s pitched well enough to win in two or three games. We just haven’t scored a lot of runs,” manager Joe Girardi said.

Sabathia didn’t share Girardi’s optimistic outlook.

“I’m just good enough to lose right now,” Sabathia said.

PROTECTIVE LAYER

Sabathia didn’t flinch after being struck by Martin’s liner. “Last year I probably would have went down but I’ve got enough padding back there now so I feel good,” he said.

FLIP THE LID

The roof at Rogers Centre was open for the first time this season.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Yankees: OF Brett Gardner (stiff neck) was held out of the starting lineup and was replaced by Chris Young. Gardner said he hopes to return Thursday. … 3B Chase Headley returned after sitting out Tuesday with a sore lower back. … The Yankees placed INF Gregorio Petit (bruised right hand) on the 15-day DL and activated INF-OF Jose Pirela off the DL.

Blue Jays: SS Jose Reyes (left ribs) ran on the field before the game but has yet to resume hitting. He’s scheduled to undergo an MRI in the next few days.

UP NEXT

Blue Jays: Toronto is off Thursday before opening a three-game series against Boston on Friday. RHP Aaron Sanchez (2-2) faces LHP Wade Miley (1-3) in the opener. Sanchez has won two of his past three starts despite walking 15 batters in 16 2-3 innings.

Yankees: New York returns home Thursday for a four-game series against Baltimore. RHP Nathan Eovaldi (2-0) faces RHP Chris Tillman (2-3) in the opener. Eovaldi has won two of his past three starts since getting a no-decision in New York’s 7-5 loss at Baltimore on April 15.

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The majority of pre-series analysis said that the Memphis Grizzlies would have a very difficult time beating the Golden State Warriors without star point guard Mike Conley. Sunday’s Game 1 of their Western Conference Semifinals matchup did little to disabuse anyone of that notion.

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The No. 1 seed Warriors carried over the success of their first-round sweep of the New Orleans Pelicans with a 101-86 victory over the Grizzlies at Oracle Arena. Golden State used hot shooting to build an early lead and amped up the defensive pressure on Memphis in the second half to stay in firm control. The Warriors led by double digits for all but a few seconds after the halftime break and look to able to win several key matchups for at least as long as Conley is out recovering from facial surgery.

The most anticipated one-on-one matchup of the series defined the first quarter. Warriors power forward Draymond Green appeared to have a major advantage on offense against his much slower Grizzlies counterpart Zach Randolph. Golden State managed to expose him very quickly as Green knocked down 3-of-4 three-pointers and 4-of-5 shots overall for 11 points in the first quarter alone. That performance led an explosive period in which the Warriors shot 13-of-20 from the field (with 11 assists) and 4-of-9 from beyond the arc for 32 points. It was the Grizzlies worst nightmare come to life — Golden State spread the floor, exploited its versatility, and got the quality shooting necessary to punish the visitors.

The problem for the hosts was that Memphis shot nearly as well. While Randolph was not guarded by the smaller Green at the other end, he quickly established himself as the Grizzlies’ best offensive option on the day via post-ups and mid-range jumpers. If not for six turnovers, the Grizzlies could have matched the Warriors. Instead, they settled for 11-of-21 shooting (with eight assists) and a seven-point deficit.

The second quarter played out much the same as the first, although the Grizzlies saw no further turnovers to avoid a truly problematic halftime score. The Warriors continued to rely on their shooting to cover for any mistakes, knocking down 24-of-39 shots (or 61.5 percent) and 8-of-16 threes in the half. Likely MVP Stephen Curry led the way with 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting but was far from the only player to perform well — virtually every Warrior did something to yield that terrific percentage. At the same time, the team’s league-best defense was not there, and the general story of the half was sloppy play salvaged by the best collection of shooters in the NBA. The Grizzlies continued to get good shots against the league’s best defense, shooting just over 50 percent (20-of-39 FG) and converting at the free throw line (10-of-12 FT). Randolph (16 points on 7-of-9 FG) and Marc Gasol (11 points on 5-of-6 FT) led the way with strong interior scoring, but Courtney Lee and Tony Allen also contributed to the offense to provide some balance. While the 61-52 halftime score wasn’t exactly a positive for the Grizzlies, it was possible to imagine a comeback given their quality offense and the Warriors’ unsustainable shooting percentage.

Golden State did see their offense dip in the second half, but it was irrelevant given the defensive job they did on Memphis. The Grizzlies scored just 34 points total over the final 24 minutes, including 14 in the effectively game-ending third quarter. The Warriors deserve a great deal of the credit after improving their rotations and locking down key players, but it was at this point that the loss of Conley proved especially difficult to withstand. The Memphis roster is starved for outside shooting even with its regular point guard, and their lineups in Game 1 were simply too one-dimensional with non-shooters Tony Allen and Nick Calathes occupying spots in the starting lineup. Both performed well at the defensive end — Allen also became the villain of the Oracle crowd after walking through a children’s dance routine in the first half — but it’s hard to see how the Grizzlies can keep up with such a talented team while sacrificing so much at one end. Conley also would have helped to stabilize the offense and help get it out of its second-half doldrums. It’s not clear if he can return for Tuesday’s Game 2, and it’s fair to expect similar results if he’s in street clothes yet again.

That’s largely because the Warriors are a team that can win convincingly without playing close to their best game. This one was not close — Golden State led by double digits from the 11:10 mark of the third until the final buzzer and built the lead to as many as 20 — but it’s not as if anyone played well outside of his capabilities. Curry finished with a game-high 22 points but was limited throughout by Allen and Calathes, only really putting together a top-level run with two triples on consecutive possessions near the end of the first half. Klay Thompson (18 points on 8-of-16 FG) was also pretty good, but the team’s successes in Game 1 were largely due to solid performances from the deepest roster still alive in the postseason. Harrison Barnes was perhaps the best example, scoring 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting while chipping in elsewhere and playing good defense at the other end. But there was also backup big Marreese Speights (10 points on 4-of-6 FG), Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, and plenty of other reserves who contributed just enough to ensure that the Warriors wouldn’t hit any real rough patch.

Curry and Thompson get most of the publicity, but the Warriors are a formidable opponent in large part because they have no glaring weaknesses and and steamroll the opposition with game-killing runs. This win was a product of the latter. Who knows what will happen when they manage to reach peak explosiveness, too?