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The Golden State Warriors’ Bizarre Adventure

The defending champs are still the title favorites, but with the playoffs rapidly approaching, they’re coming off a loss to the Suns and struggling to look like the best team in the NBA

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Maybe Steve Kerr didn’t say that he’s “so fucking tired of Draymond’s shit” late in the fourth quarter of the Golden State Warriors’ eyebrow-arching Sunday loss to the lowly Phoenix Suns. Amateur lip-reading is a dangerous game, and the Warriors coach declined to comment on the matter after the desultory defeat. Perhaps, after years of watching Green develop his own personal style, Kerr felt like the 1:35 mark of the Warriors’ second bad loss in three outings was the right time to let his assistants know that he’s been so fucking inspired by Draymond’s fits.

Whatever words tumbled out of Kerr’s mouth Sunday night, though, it sure seems like the Warriors are tired of something these days. The two-time-defending NBA champions look like a team desperate for regular-season drudgery to give way to postseason competition, with Sunday’s loss just the latest to suggest that Golden State’s searching for that “sim to playoffs?” button … and maybe searching for something more than that too.

To be fair: Recently, Phoenix hasn’t been quite as bad as its record might indicate. Devin Booker’s averaging a shade under 28 points and seven assists over his past nine games. Deandre Ayton is making defensive strides. The Suns have been shockingly decent when their cornerstones have shared the floor with midseason trade acquisitions Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tyler Johnson; given the chance, they can jump up and bite you. (Just ask the Bucks.)

Even so, losing at home to a 15-52 team that was on the second night of a back-to-back after flying down from Portland (and losing an hour to the evil farmer who steals your clock) is a bad, bad thing. It was also an appropriately dismal capper to a 4-6 stretch during which the mighty Warriors were outscored by 3.6 points per 100 possessions—the fifth-worst mark in the league over the past 10 games—inviting questions about whether the odds-on title favorite is just going through the motions, or maybe going through something more serious.

Stupid-ass motherfucking game we playing,” Kevin Durant reportedly said as he made his way to the locker room Sunday, after having to leave the game early due to a right ankle contusion. “We need to be playing championship-level basketball.”

The Warriors are certainly capable of playing championship-level ball, as they showed in Friday’s statement-making annihilation of the Nuggets that saw Klay Thompson explode for 39 points and DeMarcus Cousins come up just two steals shy of a 5x5. But Stephen Curry’s shooting just 41.8 percent from the field over his past 15 games, and has missed two-thirds of his 3-point tries over his past eight. Durant, one of the smoothest and most lethal shooters the sport’s ever seen, has remained frustratingly inconsistent from long distance this season, hanging right around league-average accuracy from beyond the arc. Opponents continue to target Cousins in the pick-and-roll and in isolation, exposing his lack of lateral quickness as he continues to work his way back from surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon; what was once the NBA’s most fearsome defensive team has looked largely disinterested in hustling and communicating to help out the recovering big man.

Despite leading the Western Conference at 45-21, the Warriors have rarely sustained that kind of form during the 2018-19 campaign—especially on the defensive end. They’ve hung around the middle of the rankings in defensive efficiency since the season tipped off in mid-October, generally seeming to be pacing themselves in hopes of starting to hit their stride as winter turned to spring. Curry intimated as much last week, suggesting that the Warriors would use the balance of their schedule to crank things up on the defensive end.

And then Golden State went out and conceded 128 points to a Celtics team that entered Oracle Arena in turmoil, in an effort that head coach Steve Kerr called “embarrassing.” That prompted a team meeting and come-to-Jesus film session, after which Green told reporters, “We’re clearly not locked in.” Any ground the Warriors might have gained by holding Denver to 37.9 percent shooting Friday, they lost Sunday by allowing a Suns squad that had boasted the NBA’s fourth-worst offense before the game to hang 115 and walk away with a win.

Golden State is a consensus colossus with nothing to prove, one expected to just stomp its way to a third straight title. But whether it’s simple fatigue, free-agency-as-sword-of-Damocles, or something else, the Warriors’ stride has seemed off all season long. Offseason gambits like skewing toward youth on the bench and adding Cousins as a wild card in search of a sustaining spark haven’t seemed to work. Something’s off, and nobody seems positive what it is; that Thompson came away from the game questioning the fans’ intensity and engagement points toward the odd spot that the Warriors find themselves in right now. So too does the fact that when Green was asked recently about the general spirit surrounding the champs, he said, “I don’t see a problem with the vibe of the team. We just haven’t competed.” (Which, y’know, might be construed as a vibe-related issue.)

It doesn’t necessarily help that the Warriors went through a similar process this time last year. In March 2018, Golden State had just lost to the Trail Blazers to fall a half-game behind the Rockets in the race for the West’s top spot, starting a 7-10 season-ending swoon. But then they went on to go 16-5 in the playoffs, survive a seven-game war of attrition against the Rockets, and sweep the Finals. “Let’s not forget last year,” said Curry, who suffered ankle and knee injuries during last season’s tumble. “It was way worse than this. Way worse than this.” But past experience isn’t a perfect indicator of future performance; Green, for his part, said that while “it’s easy to take that mind-set again—just get to the playoffs and we’ll turn it on—I don’t want to live on the edge like that.”

Maybe the Warriors are setting up for a 2001 Lakers run. Fresh off a dominant 67-15 run to the first championship of the Shaq-and-Kobe era, that team yawned its way to 56 wins and a tie for 21st in defensive efficiency, only to steamroller their way through a 15-1 postseason en route to a second straight title. If Curry, Durant, Thompson, and Green are all healthy come mid-April, the Warriors will certainly have the talent to make a similar stomp through the playoffs.

It’s at least possible, though, that we could be looking at something more like the 2014 Heat. That veteran-heavy team had made its way to three straight Finals and back-to-back championships, relying on its elite offensive firepower to cover for an aging defense that had slumped toward average. Miami made it back to the title round but was running on fumes when it arrived, resulting in a five-game dispatch by the Spurs, the exit of an MVP forward, and the dawn of a new era in the league. I’m saying: There could be parallels.

The Warriors might just be bored, tired, and saving their best games until they’ll matter most; it’s still more likely than not that a Sunday sputtering against Phoenix won’t amount to more than a bump on the road to celebrating a fourth title in five years. But while this recent meandering might be necessary for the Warriors to conserve energy, it’s also a habit they need to kick before next month. Living on the edge can be a real rush. Lose your footing and go over the side, though, and it’s a long way down.