Could the Warriors be running out of gas? It's a question we no longer dismiss.
Before you go any further ... you’re reading this correctly. Could the Warriors be running out of gas? It’s a question we can’t dismiss any longer, with two losses in three games on their own floor, this one to the upstart Timberwolves in overtime, 124–117. Golden State, sitting on 69 wins and nine losses, now must win out to hit the historic 73–win mark.
Behind an improbable career-high 35 points from Shabazz Muhammad, 32 from budding star Andrew Wiggins and 20 points, 12 rebounds and a magnificent two-way showing from nascent supernova Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves pushed back several times, rallied to force overtime in the fourth, and took care of business after that.
The Warriors turned the ball over 23 times, one off their season high, and Steph Curry went without a field goal in the first half for the first time in more than two years. Even with Andre Iguodala and Festus Ezeli simultaneously available after two injury-filled months, not one bench player finished with a positive plus-minus showing on the night. Curry shot just 7–of–25 on his way to 21 points. Golden State didn’t have it, got back its opponent’s best effort, and saw its margin for error get a lot more iffy.
How it happened
The Warriors looked like themselves out of the gate, which is to say, well … the score was 25–10 (including 11 unanswered) after the first seven minutes of the game. Minnesota was able to get to the rim and close the gap to end the quarter. Steph Curry was off, but not off enough to make things difficult for everyone else.
As it turned out, Curry stayed off, something we’ve rarely seen this season, unable to score at all save for a pair of free throws in the final minute of the half. His focus shifted to playmaking, racking up 10 assists by halftime, but still. The last time a no-field-goal Curry half happened, it was Dec. 2013 in Memphis and Tayshaun Prince was starting for the Grizzlies. On that note, possible Curry-kryptonite Tayshaun Prince is now a member of ... the Wolves.
Well, Curry’s struggles mattered. In real time, however, things felt safe enough. We know the Warriors can close games, they’d assisted on 18–of–22 baskets in the first half, and considering the circumstances—at home, against a team that averages less than half as many wins and attempts about half as many threes—Golden State’s firepower was still the trump card.
Also of note: the turnovers. It’s quietly been an issue over the past couple weeks. The Warriors are completely aware of their lofty entertainment value, and they play like it. It’s fun. But they turned it over eight times in one nine-minute span in the second quarter, most unforced or unnecessary, and let the baby Wolves hang around. It was 55–46 at halftime, but it could have been worse—again, remember Steph had just two points.
Worth noting: Harrison Barnes, on the other hand, was 7–of–9 for 18, but nobody will remember that. With UNC losing Monday, it was a rough couple of days for poor Harrison. This was nasty, though…
Anyhow, Curry pulled a reverse Like Mike and switched his sneakers at halftime. That seemed to work at first—he quickly stripped Zach LaVine, drove the court and then hit a three over Wiggins. Golden State regained some confidence, ripped off a 14–3 run to open the half, and it felt over. It wasn’t.
Wait, was this the birth of the Wolves?
It took a while to get to the secretly intriguing subplot, but we got here. This was a 15-point game with four minutes left in the third. The Timberwolves started playing faster, usually not a great idea for any team facing the speedy Warriors, but particularly one just starting to grow hair on its chest.
Minnesota pulled it off with gusto. They pushed and pushed harder, with Wiggins and Muhammad attacking and Towns anchoring the paint. The Warriors missed shots. Draymond Green’s mom got frustrated on Twitter.
I need to go & SUCKA SLAP the entire TEAM! Play BALL! EEEEEAT!— MBG (@BabersGreen) April 6, 2016
Even as Curry started to regain his touch, the Wolves cut the deficit and stayed in position to spoil history. It was a three-point game with 10 minutes left in the fourth. Golden State’s rotations were a step slow, the passing still sloppy and giveaways still an issue. It was a one-point game with 8 1/2 minutes to go.
How did the Wolves do it? When they deploy Muhammad as a small-ball four next to Towns, Wiggins, and starting backcourt Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio, that lineup averages 116.5 points per 100 possessions and outscores its opponents by 7.5 points on that same scale. It’s an athletic, spacy look that gives the guards room to operate and drive and offers Towns space to work on the inside.
Though those numbers are extrapolated from a limited sample size, when you see the lineup on court, it’s not totally dissimilar from what Golden State can do so well going small. This is particularly apparent as Towns corrals guards and swallow up wings on switches, a la Draymond. On talent level, the Wolves have plenty, they just happen to be running out a team full of still-adapting millennials. That’s all underselling it. Tom Thibodeau probably watched this game and bought himself a new Canada Goose parka. Minnesota is going to be something, and sooner than later.
Andrew Wiggins, bringer of death
So, this all built to a frenzied finish. The Warriors’ switch flipped on a little too late. A bizarre reversal of a call that gave Curry a charge on a driving Towns rather than his fifth foul could have swung the game with a minute left, but Wiggins’s sixth steal of the game on the next play led to Muhammad splitting free throws at the other end.
Towns impressively forced a driving Green to travel, Wiggins sliced through the defense to force overtime, and the Warriors made nothing of a final possession after Curry was bottled up by defensive pressure and forced to defer the final shot.
In short, Wiggins owned the overtime. He scored nine of his team’s 18 points, driving, pulling up, you name it. Curry took seven of Golden State’s 12 shots in the period and missed six. The 21-year-old was the best player on the floor when it mattered, which should help quiet doubts about his competitive fire and on-court aggressiveness. The final 10 minutes of the game were a peek into an alternate future, where the Wolves are running and gunning teams to death, riding their two No.1 picks as they wreak destruction on all comers. Hey, they could still win the draft lottery, too.
Golden State hosts San Antonio, of all opponents, on Thursday night for the first of its final four games, all must-wins to break the record. The Warriors then travel to Memphis on Saturday, to San Antonio for another one on Sunday, and back home a week from Wednesday to face the beat-up Grizzlies again in the final game of the season.
The truth is that by and large, the Warriors just haven’t been putting people away with the same consistency and ruthlessness since All-Star Weekend. Green admitted after the game that the Warriors are “ready for the regular season to end,” a little bit bored, even. “Saying that, we gotta continue to try and get better, not stumble into the playoffs,” he explained. An accurate statement.
Whether winning 73 matters to the Warriors or not—sometimes they say so, sometimes they don’t—the need to put together four solid games goes beyond simply breaking a lofty record. Though nobody will hold it against them too hard, it would certainly help not to stumble into the postseason. From a viewing standpoint, the stakes are high regardless. And with two wins over Golden State and another Warriors loss, the No. 1 seed is technically still in play for the Spurs, who of course could bench their starters anyway. Stay tuned.