OAKLAND, Calif. – One week ago, all seemed right in the Golden State Warriors’ world.
The NBA’s defending champions had escaped from a road game against the Utah Jazz – one of the most difficult games left on their schedule – with an overtime victory, moving them to within five games of setting the regular season wins record with seven games to go. Given that five of those games came at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors were riding a 54-game winning streak, getting those five wins seemed like a certainty.
Then came a stunning loss to the Boston Celtics last Friday, snapping that NBA record home winning streak. And then an even more stunning setback to the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime on Tuesday night.
With four games remaining, the task for the Warriors to become the best regular season team of all-time is simple: they have to win them all. But when the Warriors host the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night on national television, there is a more pressing matter at hand: securing home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
That’s right. The Warriors still have a chance to have the most regular season wins of any team in NBA history, and they haven’t even managed to ensure they’ll be hosting the final game of the Western Conference finals.
For months now, Golden State has been considered by many to be an inevitable champion. With all the glamour and fanfare that’s come with the Warriors chasing 73 wins – not to mention the excellence of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and all the rest – it’s been easy to forget that there was another team with a chance to win 70 games only a few games behind them.
Being ignored is exactly what the Spurs want, though. They’ve been perfectly content to cruise along in Golden State’s wake — racking up win after win while getting LaMarcus Aldridge adjusted to playing in a new city with new teammates, and giving Kawhi Leonard more room to impact the game at both ends of the court.
It’s impossible to ignore them now, though. Not after Golden State lost twice at home within the space of a week – and could see that number rise to three if San Antonio comes away with a win at Oracle Arena on Thursday night.
(And don’t forget: the Spurs are now the only team undefeated at home, a mark that will be tested Sunday when the Warriors travel to San Antonio.)
There’s always the chance that Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich would choose to bench his star players for Thursday’s game, thus preventing Golden State from getting a chance to best San Antonio with both teams fielding full lineups after the Spurs beat them at home last month. But, at least as of Wednesday night, both teams only had one player – Kevon Looney for Golden State, Boris Diaw for San Antonio – ruled out because of injury.
Hopefully both teams will be at full strength, as it would be interesting to see if San Antonio could continue to place doubt in the Warriors’ minds. After about five months of being considered virtually unbeatable, especially at home, the past week has begun to allow for some doubt.
The Warriors, like just about any team in their situation, have done a good job of talking around their losses to the Celtics and Timberwolves. After seeing the home winning streak get snapped last Friday, Curry claimed to not think about it as the game was winding down and Golden State was trying to mount a comeback. Then, after losing to Minnesota on Tuesday, Green posited that the Warriors had grown “bored” with the regular season.
Given how much Green, Curry and the rest of the Warriors pay attention to success and accomplishments (to be clear: in a way no different than any other professional athletes), this was Golden State’s way to avoid admitting they’d been outplayed . The truth is, though, they’ve been backsliding for quite some time.
Since March 1, Golden State has given up three points per 100 possessions more on defense than it had averaged this season until that point, a stat that backs up what the eye test has said about this team recently. Multiple people around the team, including Coach Steve Kerr after Tuesday’s loss, said the Warriors have been looking to make spectacular, home run plays whenever possible. When Golden State is at its best, it is connecting simple plays, building momentum until it unleashes fury on its opponents.
The first six minutes of Tuesday’s game looked exactly like that. Golden State jumped to a 15-point first quarter lead in impressive fashion, and it looked like it would be a 40-point victory. But then came the hunting for highlights, the failure to fully commit on defense, and the Timberwolves slowly clawed their way back into the game before eventually winning it.
Still, Golden State can mess around against most teams – even good teams – and eventually find a way to win. One team that they can’t play that away against, though, is San Antonio. That’s why the Spurs have remained on their heels even until now, when there’s less than a week to go in the regular season.
One week ago, Golden State was cruising. But in the space of seven days, what once seemed invincible suddenly looks vulnerable. With a win Thursday night, San Antonio would only intensify that feeling.