Why the Warriors needed to take a step back

Steph Curry and Draymond Green didn’t have to remove their warmups Saturday night. (AP)
Steph Curry and Draymond Green didn’t have to remove their warmups Saturday night. (AP)

SAN ANTONIO – A few hours before the Golden State Warriors placed in greater peril their hold on the Western Conference’s top seed and willingly surrendered a tiebreaker to the San Antonio Spurs, Stephen Curry was seated in front of his locker-room stall, gleefully staring into his smartphone with his headphones in his ears. Coach Steve Kerr’s decision to sit his three remaining, healthy All-Stars and a vital reserve drew considerable criticism, but it was a calculated risk worth taking for a team that needed a mental and emotional break from the game.

The physical vulnerability that came from playing eight games in eight different cities in 13 days was obvious. But the Warriors needed to not concern themselves with exerting every ounce of energy to continue compensating for Kevin Durant’s absence – and holding on to a Western Conference lead that they might eventually cede. The Warriors have played one way over the past three seasons, with a level of unprecedented intensity that was unrealistic to sustain, regardless of pulling one of the greatest free-agent coups in NBA history last summer. After churning out wins at an alarming rate and spoiling fans with their sustained dominance, they needed a chance to not care about something important.

Curry’s joy during that quiet moment, all alone with his phone, revealed the importance of disengaging. Through their unexpected rise to join the NBA elite, the Warriors have gone from heroic underdogs to hated for being on top. They wanted to embrace the role of villain after luring Durant – and they certainly have some villainous elements on the roster. But it hasn’t been a role in which they’ve thrived. There have been moments when Klay Thompson has dropped 60 points in 29 minutes, when Curry strutted after a 3-point barrage or when Durant has simply been Durant, but there has also been less fun, less magic. And every misstep – which continues to be rare – has either raised panic or inspired more ridicule.

The Warriors have lost five of seven, their worst stretch of basketball since Kerr became head coach. But every team endures bad stretches, why can’t these guys? After their 107-85 loss to the Spurs on Saturday night, Golden State remains on a 65-win pace. And here comes some perspective: There have been 19 65-win seasons in NBA history and the Warriors could potentially have three in a row.

“If this is tough, then we don’t got it that bad. We don’t have much to complain about. I’ve been in tougher situations,” Warriors reserve Shaun Livingston told The Vertical. “But end of the day, it’s good to get a rest. Guys needed it, to get away from the game, probably. It’s been a long season. Always a long season. Probably a little longer this season, considering everything we’re going through.”

Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls had the most incredible three-year stretch in NBA history, winning 72, 69 and 62 games in successive seasons. The Warriors would only need to go 12-4 the rest of the season to have a better regular-season run. Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics won 60 games each season from 1984-86, peaking at 67 wins in the final season but began to decline every season afterward. The franchise wouldn’t win 60 games for another 22 years. Bill Russell’s Celtics never won more than 62 games. Shaquille O’Neal’s three-peating Los Angeles Lakers won 67 games in the first season under Phil Jackson but never won more than 58 the rest of the way. Magic Johnson’s Lakers finished first in the West every season from 1981-90, winning at least 62 games four straight seasons between 1984-1988. They won three championships during that latter stretch but only won 65 games once.

Kevon Looney and other Warriors reserves played extended minutes Saturday. (AP)
Kevon Looney and other Warriors reserves played extended minutes Saturday. (AP)

The Spurs have won five championships during this 20-year playoff streak but only two of those title runs were attached to 60-win seasons. They have also been that quiet source of motivation the past two seasons. It’s often forgotten that the Warriors essentially had to win at least 70 games last season to simply hold on to the top seed. San Antonio didn’t have its stars for Saturday’s game, but injuries forced coach Gregg Popovich’s hand – Kawhi Leonard was undergoing concussion protocol, LaMarcus Aldridge was shutdown indefinitely with a heart arrhythmia and Tony Parker had a back injury – not his known habit of needling the league’s network partners by putting first the health of his players. Aldridge will continue to have more tests on Monday to determine what comes next. His health scare could have a long-term influence, especially given his past heart problems.

No one should fault Kerr if he decides to scale back a little more over the final 16 games after resting Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala on Saturday night. It’s easy to get caught up in the debate over resting stars, the grueling NBA schedule and shafted fans. But Kerr’s decision went beyond not leaving his players susceptible to injury. His Warriors are the overachieving honor student, on the verge of a breakdown, learning that getting an A-plus on every assignment isn’t more important than passing the final exam.

“You can see, sometimes the physical wear and tear and you can see it, cognitively, as well. You get beaten down, you get worn down, your mind doesn’t work as well, either,” Kerr said. “You can have these wild swings of feeling prepared or feeling wiped out. Yes, you have to play through all that stuff, but if a coach can help you out every once in a while and give you a break, that’s a good thing.”

The Warriors had no intention of replicating what happened last season. And they wouldn’t have been the same had they decided to bring back Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, Mo Speights, Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush and Festus Ezili. Golden State played with postseason intensity throughout their run to 73 wins. Curry’s unfortunate knee injury in the first round disrupted much of the team’s flow, but the final two rounds of the playoffs exposed something else that was concerning to the team: When Oklahoma City and Cleveland elevated their level of the play, the Warriors couldn’t go higher. That’s why they needed Durant. More than greed, more than a desire to be unfair to the rest of the league, the Warriors needed Durant to remain “light years” ahead. The Warriors’ struggles without Durant have proven his importance to the team.

Before the season began, Draymond Green explained to The Vertical why a team that was about to set the NBA regular-season wins record would even need to consider adding a former league MVP. “Obviously, when you add a player like Kevin Durant, you end up with more than just one thing,” Green told The Vertical. “It’s not, ‘Oh, we’re trying to fill in a gap.’ You don’t fill in a gap with a Kevin Durant. The things he adds to this team, he’s going to fill more than one category. It’s a bunch of categories. He’s an MVP, scoring champion multiple times, he’s done some great things in this league, and we hope to continue to help him do more great things.”

Golden State won’t win a championship without Durant. The time with Durant sidelined, however, could help Curry, Thompson and Green recalibrate their games and fight through no longer leaning on his consistent brilliance. Or the challenge of wanting to do too much. Curry looks like a flame-throwing pitcher who lost a little off his heater and he appears to be pressing of late. He had the most difficult adjustment of any player on the team, going from All-Star to superstar to all-time superstar before having his ascension disrupted when he slipped on a wet spot in Houston in last year’s postseason. Another dumb-luck incident – Zaza Pachulia getting tossed into Durant’s knee – has raised the expectations for Curry to be that mesmerizing player once again. But that’s unfair. For Curry. And the Warriors. They all just need to dial it back a bit. Put their excellence in perspective. Sit back. Smile into a phone. And chill.

“People don’t understand how hard it is to win in the NBA. It’s not easy to do. The last couple of years have been an anomaly, in a sense of putting together so many wins, staying healthy,” Livingston told The Vertical. “Fantasy owners, if you don’t go 82-0, the world is over. But in an NBA locker room, it doesn’t work that way. We don’t think that way. We don’t feel that way.”

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