OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors have been in a holding pattern for seven months. Since the start of training camp, the Warriors — winners of two of the past three NBA titles, including a 16-1 romp through the postseason a year ago — have been the overwhelming favorite to win a third in four years.
The only problem? They had to endure the combined seven months of preseason and regular season basketball that precedes the playoffs to do so. The result was the most indifferent 58-win season in the history of the sport that, combined with a series of injuries, including to star guard Stephen Curry, has cast some doubt as to whether the Warriors are still the favorites to repeat.
That’s why the start of the playoffs arrives here Saturday against the San Antonio Spurs with a sense of relief among the Warriors.
“It’s been a long haul, for sure,” Coach Steve Kerr said. “I was hoping we’d be heading into the playoffs healthy. Obviously everybody wants that. But because we weren’t able to, the last few weeks have been made more difficult.”
And over the past few weeks, the state of the Warriors has become a prominent subject of debate. Remarkably, after the Cleveland Cavaliers led the league in dysfunction all season, an upset of Golden State — and not Cleveland — seems more likely to prevent a fourth straight showdown between the teams in June’s Finals.
Part of that is because of the Houston Rockets, who led the NBA with 65 wins and have the presumptive league MVP this year in James Harden. But part of it, too, is because Golden State is limping into the playoffs.
The Warriors were just 7-10 over their final 17 games — more losses than they had in their record-setting regular season two years ago.
Much of that is because of injuries. Golden State’s plan was to get to the all-star break healthy, ramp up over the final two months of the regular season and feel good heading into the playoffs.
The first part worked out relatively well — only for Golden State to suffer a litany of injuries over the past two months. Curry, who played in just 51 games because of ankle and knee injuries, will miss the first round with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee . He probably will return early in the second round. The Warriors spent several games over the past month playing without all four of their stars — Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
There also hasn’t been the same level of desire as the past few years. Three years ago, Golden State burst onto the scene for the first time. Two years ago, the Warriors were motivated by skeptics who said their first title was a fluke. Last year brought the arrival of Durant and new dynamics that needed to be sorted out.
This year brought none of those things — and the Warriors have looked stale.
Cleveland, on the other hand, has been anything but stale, changing over much of its roster throughout the season. But the Cavaliers have looked better since the deadline day trades that shipped out Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder and brought back Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., George Hill and Rodney Hood.
With injuries sabotaging the Boston Celtics, Cleveland’s ongoing domination of the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers’ inexperience, the Cavaliers enter the postseason as the favorites to make it out of the East for a fourth straight year. That would make eight straight trips to the NBA Finals for LeBron James.
As the postseason begins, though, there is more doubt about the Warriors and Cavaliers meeting at the end of it than at any point over the past four years. Whether that is just wishful thinking from those hoping for something new or a new reality remains to be seen.
Some other things to watch as the playoffs begin:
●Can the Rockets and Toronto Raptors — who hold the top seeds in the West and East — overcome their past playoff failures? Houston stars Harden and Chris Paul have had multiple implosions in previous postseasons — most notably Harden’s disappearing act in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals last year against the San Antonio Spurs. The Raptors have repeatedly been bested by the Cavaliers.
●How far can the young 76ers go? Typically, NBA teams take gradual steps forward on the path to contention. Philadelphia has gone from a non-playoff team to one that won 52 games this season and is a favorite to reach the Eastern Conference finals. That they have the talent to do so is unquestioned. But whether the 76ers are ready to embrace the pressure that comes with the playoffs is another matter.
●What will happen in Oklahoma City? After trading for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in the offseason, the Thunder was expected to be a championship contender. Instead, it has dealt with injuries — including losing arguably the league’s best defensive player, Andre Roberson, for the season with a knee injury — and inconsistent play. As a result, the Thunder’s final record wasn’t much different from a year ago without George and Anthony. But Oklahoma City enters the playoffs as a team no one is enthusiastic about facing, and with George’s free agency hanging over the franchise, how it fares in these playoffs will be something to monitor.