OAKLAND, Calif. –– The Golden State Warriors, the dynastic superteam so loaded with talent as to bring an air of inevitability to the NBA season, began their title defense with a tune-up. What should have been a straightforward win against a short-handed opponent was instead competitive to the last minute that ended in a 108-100 win. Warrior leads built and buckled. Passes sailed into the hands of bystanding Thunder defenders. Golden State has been guilty, in the past, of making games artificially close—of playing to its hubris at the expense of dominance. Tuesday’s game was not such a case.
Rather than win at a jog, the Warriors won in a stumble. Their characteristically beautiful ball movement turned slapstick. After shaking loose from a few defenders in the second half, Stephen Curry whipped a cross-court pass to Klay Thompson, who bailed out just to save the ball back inbounds to Kevin Durant, who looked to break down his defender before stepping into a pull-up airball. Curry, in an otherwise excellent performance, would go on to miss many of the third-quarter haymakers that set Golden State apart—the force behind so many of the Warriors’ most explosive runs. Thompson, one of the best shooters in the world, couldn’t convert even wide-open looks. “I mean, when is Klay going to miss that many open threes?” Durant wondered after the game. Many of Durant’s own best plays were half-highlights—gorgeous crossovers followed by botched drives. Tuesday night’s version of the Warriors wasn’t a threat to ruin the league, but their own scoring opportunities.
“I think in terms of just overall timing and execution, we were a little off,” Curry said. “Guys were moving at different speeds.” Ball-handlers were out of sync with their screeners. Shooters peeled off to curl in the same direction at the same time. Help defenders were just a touch too eager, to the point of negating a good contest with a foul. There was a recognizable flow and chemistry to what the Warriors were trying to accomplish. It simply didn’t manifest in the way the last four years would lead you to expect.
“I think we had great intentions,” Durant said. “Guys trying to make the right play, make the right read. It’s going to come after a while.”
Of that, there can be no doubt. There is no earthly reason for concern in the first of 82 games, particularly when the cause for Golden State’s problems is baked into the premise. “It’s the product of this being the first game,” Curry said. The Warriors have enviable continuity in the grand scheme of things, and yet every year they face a disconnect from June to October. Even the best team in the league needs time to reconnect the wiring, to reheat old habits. Even in the best of cases, the preseason is a hollow imitation of actual, meaningful NBA basketball. Golden State’s exhibition slate was even emptier than usual, for the simple fact that Draymond Green missed most of it due to injury. “Just got to get that conditioning and timing back,” Green said. “Overall, I think that will come over the next week or two—with not only myself but everybody. We will find that rhythm.”
Rhythm can be a funny thing. The Warriors were no less talented Tuesday—when they collected their championship rings—than on the day they swept the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. All four of the team’s stars were still in uniform and, individually speaking, still quite effective. More sluggish was the connection between them: the difference between the bumbling, mortal Warriors who start this season and the formidable Warriors likely to end it.
A stalled possession can always find its way to Durant, who walks the earth as a living, breathing mismatch. And there are many, many worse options than just running Curry and Thompson around staggered screens and letting them cook. The real luxury comes in the balance between them, which even in its crudest form can put away most opponents. At its most refined, few even have a chance. “We’ve got to get the ball moving,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “More passing, and we’ll look more like ourselves.”