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What Could Possibly Make the Warriors Unchill?

The reigning champs were coasting through another title defense—until Steph Curry got injured

The backs of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green with a picture of Steph Curry in the background Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The last 10 minutes or so of the Warriors’ morning shootaround last week at Staples Center was set to almost uninterrupted laughter. They were in a good mood. They were having a good time. Afterward, when I saw JaVale McGee sitting alone playing a game on his phone, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to ask him about the fanny-pack bet.

Nevada and McGee won. Davidson and Steph Curry lost. All in good fun. Just another way for a veteran team to enjoy itself and, as McGee put it, not take themselves too seriously.

“The fanny-pack thing is serious,” McGee said. “I wear a fanny pack all the time.”

I’m pretty sure he was joking.

“That’s not a joke.”

Fashion accessories aside — McGee encouraged me to get a fanny pack, which I might, just to horrify my wife — the way McGee made it sound, it wasn’t so much that the Warriors try to have fun as they need to.

Steve Kerr appears to have picked up on that. A few days ago, while the Warriors were in Miami — the third stop on their current six-game road trip, their longest of the season — Kerr canceled practice and set his guys loose in South Beach. Golden State beat the Heat by 28 the next day, even while Kerr joked that some of his guys “looked rough” when they showed up to work.

The Warriors certainly seemed to appreciate playing hooky. Draymond Green said it showed that Kerr trusts them, while Klay Thompson offered another wonderful Klay take: Thompson called the off day “everything to me” and explained that going to the beach is “good for your soul and your body and it’s good for your mind.”

“We’re in the gym 100 games a year, endless hours,” Thompson said. “So to get outside and feel that beautiful South Florida sun, it goes a long way.”

As metaphors for Golden State’s season to that point, those were awfully on the nose. The Warriors were relaxed. Even a little bored. They talked openly about it. Perhaps the only thing that could ruin the otherwise sweet afterglow of a second title was exactly what unfolded on Monday evening in New Orleans.

Curry rolled the same right ankle that was surgically repaired twice and haunted his first few seasons in the NBA. Afterward, his foot and ankle were heavily bandaged in the locker room, and he eventually hobbled out of the arena on crutches and a walking boot. (X-rays were negative and, though he’s expected to miss at least two weeks, a follow-up MRI revealed no structural damage.) Curry initially plotted the injury closer to the “concerned side” of the spectrum. “I shouldn’t say that,” Curry corrected. “It’s more on the — I won’t just bounce back tomorrow morning waking up like, ‘All right, I should be whatever,’ just because of the swelling.” Curry said his first thought was to call his dad, Dell, to say that he couldn’t play golf on Wednesday in Charlotte before the Hornets game. He was kidding. You have to laugh to keep from crying, I suppose, but it was interesting that he was initially so cavalier about revisiting an injury that once threatened his career.

Later in that same Pelicans game — which the Warriors won by 10 despite being down 20 at half — Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins were both ejected when some in-game jawing escalated to the point where the two had to be separated. (KD and Boogie reportedly took the beef backstage.) It was the third straight game in which at least one of the Warriors was ejected.

Kerr was less amused than he was the night before. He said the Warriors weren’t composed and vowed to “definitely talk about it in the next couple of days.” “We’re a championship team,” Kerr said. “We’ve got to be poised and we’ve got to execute out there.”

Durant agreed that things got out of control and that he “can’t get involved with that type of stuff.” He said things got “heated” between “grown men” but promised he’s “not gonna fight nobody.” Probably for the best.

So much for relaxed and bored. This is the most action the Warriors have seen all season.

“It’s human nature,” Kerr said on The Bill Simmons Podcast last week. “The motivation wanes a little bit.”

And here we will enter into evidence the head coach’s commitment to pregame performance art. Kerr turned announcing his lineup moves into an extended bit. To give reporters time to tweet out the starters, he alternately occupied himself by clipping his fingernails, playing with a Slinky, shuffling a deck of cards, and solving a Rubik’s Cube. When I asked if he planned to stretch his prop comedy career over the entire season, Kerr practically recoiled. “Oh no, no, no,” he said. (I took that as a no.)

It’s not surprising that, like his players, Kerr has periodically humored himself during the process of another long season. As Kerr stipulated, it’s a natural impulse to be a little less engaged after you’ve already achieved so much. That happens when you win two championships in three seasons and you’re so good that everyone — fans, media members, friends, family, oddsmakers, other players, other coaches, everyone (not named LeBron) — expects you to add another title this season. But the inevitability presents its own odd challenge, as does the physical price paid for near-historic dominance.

The Warriors have played 62 playoff games since Kerr took over in 2014–15, the most in the league. Durant, Green, and Thompson also played for Team USA at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Last week in Los Angeles, Durant said the “game is supposed to be fun,” and the Warriors want to “play with energy and joy,” but he echoed the same sentiment as a lot of his teammates: “Sometimes the practice, the preparation can be a lot.”

As they’ve learned, sustained success requires unending effort. And focus. How they’ve done on that last front is a matter open to interpretation, and not simply because of the recent ejections or the hold-me-back back-and-forth with Boogie. Two and a half weeks ago, the Sixers hung 47 points on the Warriors in the first quarter of their game in Philadelphia. Golden State woke up after that and returned the favor, scoring 47 points in the third quarter — they are killers coming out of halftime — to win the game pretty easily. Last Wednesday, the Warriors needed overtime to beat the Lakers in Los Angeles — which led some media members to wonder if maybe the L.A. nightlife was the Lakers’ best defensive strategy.

“It’s hard. It’s hard, man. It’s the hardest year yet, the fourth year,” Shaun Livingston said. “Accomplished regular-season goals. Won championships. It’s tough.” He had ice packs on both knees and kept them on when he left Staples Center after shootaround and walked back to the team hotel down the street. (He made sure to cross at the light.)

No wonder Kerr has upped the amount of off days. When they do practice, Kerr has scaled back his approach and the attendant demands. The Warriors scrimmaged quite a bit in his first season. Now they never do. Practices are generally lighter than they once were, and shootarounds shorter.

“There’s just an awareness of the wear and tear that comes with 100-plus-game seasons, not just physically but emotionally as well,” Kerr told me in L.A. last week after another truncated shootaround. “We always try to lighten it up. A lot of humor. We try to keep things fresh, which is really hard to do because it’s not fresh when you play for four straight years and practice and do the same things. We try to mix things up the best we can, but it’s not an easy thing.”

The Warriors have gone to increasing lengths to amuse themselves this season. When Durant went through his Twitter burner account snafu, Draymond Green was so giddy that “the next day I saw him in person and I laughed in his face.” Kerr paused at various points to admonish the current presidential administration and record various political podcasts with former Obama staffers David Axelrod and Dan Pfeiffer. On Monday in New Orleans, Jordan Bell — channeling his inner Nerlens Noel — was spotted pregame in the media dining room eating enchiladas and cake and watching Family Guy on his phone before playing the Pelicans. Even the PR staff has indulged itself, taking time to poke fun at an old friend and current rival. Perhaps best of all, Klay Thompson entertained himself as only Klay Thompson might — by professing his love for newspapers and giving a random man-on-the-street interview about scaffolding to Fox 5 in New York.

As Kerr admitted to Simmons, there’s a “malaise” that sets in when you’ve been to the NBA Finals every year and you know you’re going back again. “I’m perfectly fine with it,” Kerr said.

It’s hard to argue with the results. The Warriors are second in the NBA in wins (19) and second in the Western Conference standings. The deep talent pool is why Golden State is tops in the league in offensive rating, net rating, assist percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio, eFG percentage, and TS percentage. They are, per usual, really good at everything, all the time. And even though Curry’s injury is hardly good news, the Warriors rattled off 15 wins in the 19 games Durant missed last season because of an MCL sprain. Which was probably a disappointment by their standards, but they were brave and muddled through.

“We’re trying to just bide our time and try to keep our fundamentals sound and our concepts sound without grinding these guys too hard with the understanding that, come springtime, the horse is going to turn back toward the barn and realize where he’s going and he’s going to start running faster,” Kerr said. “That’s just how it works.”

That’s something people bitch about most when it comes to Golden State — that the Warriors topple one of the tent poles that makes sports fun: not knowing who will win in the end. Except if the Warriors weren’t so dominant, if they were pretty much any other team in any other sport, they wouldn’t feel so comfortable talking about how comfortable they’ve gotten. Perhaps that sucks some of the fun out of their games, but it also ironically allowed them to open up and goof off, to show a side we didn’t expect and probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Maybe that will change now that they’re without Curry for an extended period. Maybe Kerr’s chat about poise and composure will alter the overarching approach. Or maybe McGee will have them all wearing personalized fanny packs before the week is out. Either way, the result for the Warriors is likely the same. Their only real competition is themselves and random acts of fate. Out of all the metrics, those have to be the most deflating for the rest of the league.