Warriors settling into new role as a championship favorite
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) A larger banner hangs on the far end of the Golden State Warriors' practice gym reminding every player, coach and executive of the franchise's past glory.
''1974-75 NBA Champions,'' it reads.
The Warriors have spent most of the last 40 years trying to reclaim a place among the NBA's elite. Instead, they've often been an outlier, fielding teams such as ''Run TMC'' and ''We Believe'' every so often that could thrill crowds during the regular season but would always finish well short in the playoffs.
Nobody sees them that way anymore.
The Warriors are in a rare position entering the playoffs as one of the favorites. They won a franchise-record 67 games, going an incredible 39-2 at home, and finished seven games better than East-leading Atlanta to earn the league's top seed.
Golden State opens its first-round series against New Orleans on Saturday comfortable and confident in its new role, knowing a regular season unlike any other has everybody in the basketball-united Bay Area feeling one way about these playoffs: championship or bust.
''We feel like we're going to get it done,'' Warriors star Stephen Curry said. ''We feel like we have what it takes to do it. Obviously, we have to take care of one opponent and reset after that point. But if we play our best game and New Orleans plays their best game, we feel like we should take care of business.
''But that's the hard part. You got to be on top of your game every single night, especially when the pressure builds each moment throughout the playoffs. We got to be ready.''
They have been all season.
The Warriors had best shooting percentage and best defensive shooting percentage. They dished out the most assists, and they had an eye-popping plus-10.1 point differential; the next best team, the Los Angeles Clippers, outscored opponents by 6.6 points.
Las Vegas believes Golden State can get it done. Bovada set the Warriors and Cleveland as 11-5 favorites to win the championship after the playoff bracket came out.
Curry could be the NBA MVP, Steve Kerr, the Coach of the Year, and Draymond Green, the Defensive Player of the Year when the league announces the awards over the next few weeks. But none of those regular-season accolades will get Golden State the Larry O'Brien Trophy in mid-June.
Only 16 more wins can.
''We know 67 wins doesn't mean anything going into a seven-game series against anyone,'' Warriors center Andrew Bogut said. ''They don't care that we won. We don't get an extra pat on the back before the series starts or anything like that. We get homecourt and that's about it.''
Kerr, who won three titles playing with Michael Jordan in Chicago and two more under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, is counting on his team's talent and experience to carry it through the tough times ahead.
The first-year coach watched the Warriors upset Denver and push San Antonio to six games in the second round of the 2013 playoffs before injuries wore them down. He saw how they competed in a physical series against the Clippers last season without Bogut, falling in the final minute of Game 7 in Los Angeles.
''They've felt what happens in the postseason, and they have not shied away from it the last two years nor will they shy away from it now,'' Kerr said. ''It's a very confident group of guys, and we have a lot to be confident about.''
Unlike the previous two years, Golden State is healthy and well rested.
The Warriors secured homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs a couple of weeks ago. Kerr used the final stretch of games to keep his team in tune, and players have been counting the days until they could begin the difficult task of trying to live up to the high expectations they've set this season.
''You want to just finish the story,'' Curry said. ''You don't want to fall short of anything.''
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP