LOS ANGELES — Success isn’t always measured by trophies or champagne showers. Sometimes, it’s measured by being handed the dry-erase board. The Golden State Warriors had become victims of their own regular-season success so much that coach Steve Kerr, believing his voice was resonating like one of those mumble-mouth teachers on a Charlie Brown television special, decided to combat the malaise by putting his players in charge of calling plays during timeouts of a recent 46-point win against the lowly Phoenix Suns.
The dry-erase board didn’t go to any random, end-of-the-bench rookie or the swaggiest of P’s, but to Andre Iguodala, David West and Draymond Green, the guys whose basketball IQs were such that they could most likely handle the responsibility. When he grabbed the board from assistant coach Jarron Collins and took his turn in Kerr’s seat, Green didn’t want to disappoint. Green drew up a play that he was certain would lead to an easy layup for Klay Thompson — and he watched it get ruined before his eyes.
“I was hot. I was hot,” Green said, shaking his head. “I drew up an incredible play. Amazing play, and he ran it wrong. No only did he run it wrong, but he got called for a travel.”
Kerr wasn’t worried about any perceived disrespect, only the burgeoning disconnect from a unit that has learned in the most humiliating and non-stop, meme-producing fashion that it is only judged by what happens in June, 73 wins or not. “The coaching was a little different. It was a little challenging, but I think it was great for us. We just needed something different. For him to do that says a lot about Steve and how he gets it,” Green said. “It was really fun.”
The regular season hasn’t necessarily become cumbersome, but maintaining the same focus and maniacal, pedal-to-the-floor passion of the previous three seasons has been impossible. And that’s one reason — the Houston Rockets being the other — that the Warriors arrived at the All-Star break with four representatives for the festivities but not the NBA’s best record.
Golden State was expected to run away with the league this season — and still very well might — and become just the seventh franchise in NBA history to put back-to-back championship banners in the rafters. But the Warriors have discovered that being the Super Bowl for the other 29 teams can be draining, even with a talent edge most nights in terms of All-Stars and former MVPs, and Kevin Durant’s better understanding of the schemes and his surroundings in his second season with the squad. They’ve still been great by normal NBA standards, but not “Warriors” great, which is a standard that has spoiled their fans and given hope to Houston, the new-look LeBrons, and others, that the repeat effort might be more vulnerable.
“It’s a tough task just in general,” Curry said of repeating as champions. “Think about the whole history of the league, how many teams have done it? I think it’s not even double digits. Look at the Spurs team, won five since [Gregg] Popovich has been there, they never repeated. Everybody is gearing up. They study your game, study your tape all summer long, trying to put together a team that can compete. And you get everybody’s best shot throughout the course of the regular season and obviously, the playoffs. That’s going to happen. It’s a challenge we’re at.”
The Los Angeles Lakers from 1984-88 are the only team in NBA history to win at least 60 games in four consecutive seasons but not win more than 65 in a season. The Chicago Bulls from 1995-98 were the only other team to win at least 75 percent of their games for three consecutive seasons but were broken up after Michael Jordan’s unparalleled pettiness and intensity pushed him to retirement. The NBA has had 13 seasons of 67 or more wins, and the Warriors have had three in a row. None of the teams that have made four consecutive NBA Finals trips ever won more than 66 games. Following up the greatest three-year, regular-season run by doing it again — or being even better — doesn’t even seem reasonable.
“It’s a good thing that people aren’t expecting you to lose like this,” Thompson said. “We have a very high standard. That’s what we hold ourselves to. But we still have a great record. We still have a chance to finish the season with less than 18, 19 losses. It’s a challenge, but it’s what we’re paid to do.”
Kerr was critical of his team’s “disgusting” play after a 30-point loss in Utah, which led him to empower his squad by surrendering some control against one of the league’s dregs just days before the All-Star break. Handing over the play-calling wasn’t some scam, it’s an exercise Popovich has used in the past. And Kerr has tried other means to reach his players and break up the monotony of an 82-game season. He’s had rapper Drake join the team on a flight from Oakland to Los Angeles. Music icons Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine visited a practice last month for a business-of-basketball meeting, set up by director of player programs Jonnie West (“That was dope,” Green said of that encounter). Film sessions will be paused and opened up to players-only discussions. And practices and shootarounds are generally filled with loud music.
“This is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be innovative,” Durant said. “Doing the same thing everyday, you get tired. It’s cool to mix things up. I’m sure a lot of these coaches try to figure things out throughout the season, to keep players engaged and get their minds going. It’s great for the game.”
Complacency and boredom aren’t all that the Warriors are confronting. The depth of their roster after their top-heavy top four isn’t what it used to be. The bench, led by Iguodala and his season-long shooting struggles, has been inconsistent and contributed to some lackluster performances. And the Rockets, a team that has watched Golden State end its season in two of the previous three postseasons, has given MVP frontrunner James Harden his best team since arriving in Houston. With the addition of Chris Paul, a member of the last Western Conference team to beat the Warriors in the playoffs, and the recent signings of Joe Johnson and Brandan Wright, the Rockets aren’t ceding anything. And why should they, when the Warriors are looking up to them in the standings?
“We set a goal from last season,” Harden said. “We wanted to be the best team and we wanted to come out of here with a championship. So many guys downplayed it and was asking questions, can me and Chris play together? We’ve been proving them wrong. Obviously, we’ve got a long way to go and we’ve got to continue to get better, continue to grow and make this run in the playoffs.”
Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics finished with the NBA’s best record seven straight seasons from 1959-65, winning the championship each year, and added another title the next season with the second-best record. Durant said “playing good basketball” is the Warriors’ primary objective over their final 24 games, not finishing with the No. 1 seed. But Thompson said home-court advantage throughout the postseason remains the goal. “It matters,” Thompson said. “It won’t be the end of the world if we don’t get it. But it’s something we definitely want. It’s helped us the last three years get to where we needed to go.”
The Warriors have only had played two Game 7s during this recent run, using the home crowd at Oracle Arena to fuel a 3-1 comeback against Oklahoma City in the 2016 Western Conference finals only to have Cleveland reverse that result in the Finals and celebrate on their court. That season, Golden State’s first attempt at repeating as champs, fell victim to Curry getting injured twice in the postseason and Green getting an untimely suspension in the Finals. Green offered a succinct response to what could stand in the Warriors’ way this season: “Losing.”
“This is the fourth season going after — like realistically going after — that championship trophy,” Curry said. “Human nature is to lose your edge a little bit. We’ve got to fight that, but I like where we are right now, to be honest. I like that it hasn’t been easy. We’ve had some bumps in the road. We’ve had to check ourselves and kind of recalibrate a little bit. Hopefully, that’ll carry ourselves to where we want to go when we get back from this All-Star break and look at this four to six weeks and think that that was the point that gave us our edge back and gave us the championship look that we’re used to.”
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