Can the Warriors recover from their recent lapse and still make history? With four games to go, Golden State is left with no room for error.
Get all of Ben Leibowitz's columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
The Golden State Warriors have started a month under .500 for the first time this season. Unfortunately for the guys chasing the 72–win Bulls, this isn’t part of an April Fool’s Day gag. Since the beginning of April, Golden State has posted a 1–2 mark with losses against the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves (the latter occurring in overtime).
After a scorching–hot 24-0 start to the season (an NBA record), the Dubs suffered four losses prior to the All-Star break. Following All-Star Weekend, Golden State has lost five games, including three over its past 10 contests—perhaps signaling that the reigning champs are starting to fatigue, or, if you take Draymond Green’s word for it, starting to get bored.
The Warriors were outpacing the 1995–96 Bulls by two games through Game 75, but have since squandered that advantage and are tied with Chicago’s record pace through 78 contests.
In order to amass 73 wins and break the Bulls’ record, the Warriors must win out. Chicago went 3–1 over its final four games, comparatively. However, the Bulls played against two teams with sub–.500 records to close out their season (including the 25-57 Milwaukee Bucks).
The Warriors won’t have any such luxury, as two of their final four games will be played against the mighty San Antonio Spurs.
The season series between these two is knotted up at one game apiece. The Warriors will play the Spurs on Thursday night at Oracle Arena, then again on April 10 … the second game of a back-to-back … on the road. The second game appears to be a loss on paper, as the Spurs are an undefeated 39–0 at home this season.
Pessimists and realists now view sole-possession of the league’s best record out of reach. But how did the Warriors back themselves into a corner while chasing the league’s best record? At least one variable was completely out of their control.
One viable reason for Golden State’s recent losses is its schedule. The last time the Warriors had more than one day of rest between games was way back at the beginning of March, when they played the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 3, and then the Los Angeles Lakers on March 6 (a loss, interestingly enough).
Since then, the Warriors have played every other day, at minimum. That includes four back-to-backs over the course of one month.
Needless to say, the scheduling hasn’t done the Dubs many favors in the quest for 73 wins.
On the season overall, the Warriors boast the league’s fifth-best defensive rating at 103.8. That still makes Golden State an elite defensive team relative to the rest of the league, but consider that last year’s championship team finished with a defensive rating of 101.4—tops in the league.
At times, members of the Warriors have not been pleased with the defensive effort. Following a 128-120 win over the Dallas Mavericks on March 25, head coach Steve Kerr said, “Our defense was horrific. Dallas exposed us and they ran great stuff and they made shots and deserve all the credit in the world. But our defense was horrific. We lost focus time after time.”
Golden State’s offense has often been more than good enough to compensate for lazy defensive showings, but that narrative won’t fly in the playoff atmosphere. A number of teams around the league are already starting to lock in defensively, leaving the Dubs straggling behind.
Dating back to March 19 (the span of the last 10 games for the Dubs), they rank No. 10 in the league in defensive rating, according to NBA.com. Even teams such as the New York Knicks, and Indiana Pacers have prevented fewer point per 100 possessions by comparison over that span.
While no team in the league has been as devastatingly terrible in terms of turning the ball over compared to the Phoenix Suns of late (an absurd 19.9 turnovers per game since March 19), the Warriors haven’t been far behind in the category. Since March 19, a span with three Warrior losses, the Dubs average 15.8 turnovers per contest—tied for fourth-most in the league with the Brooklyn Nets.
In a three-game April sample size, reigning MVP Stephen Curry has turned the ball over 5.3 times per game. Meanwhile, one key criticism of Green has been his propensity to chase gaudy box scores via triple doubles. As a result, he perhaps forces the issue too often—evidenced by the fact that he’s turned the ball over four times or more in 11 of 20 games since the beginning of March. But the struggles can’t only be pinned on the slick-shooting point guard and Swiss-Army-knife glue guy. For the month of April, the Warriors are averaging 19 turnovers per game as a team. That’s second only to the Suns (20.3 per game) and by far the most turnovers the Dubs have notched in a month.
Coughing up the ball was also an issue back in early March, when Coach Kerr said, per the San Jose Mercury News’ Tim Kawakami, “That’s kind of our weakness, sometimes the game comes too easy for our guys and they think they can just do anything. What we have to get back to is simple, simple, simple.”
As it turns out, getting back to “simple” hasn’t proved so simple. Curry and Co. need to limit turnovers and buckle down on the defensive end, but there should not be doom and gloom surrounding the Warriors as the result of a minor hiccup. A home loss to the T-Wolves is certainly not expected of this team, but every championship contender suffers a couple disappointing defeats.
That being said, recent letdowns have put 73 wins very much in doubt. If the Warriors have truly hit a wall, Kerr will have to decide whether he values a vaunted regular-season record more than fielding a rested team for the dawn of the playoffs.