Just when we're ready to crown the Golden State Warriors kings of everything, they appear human, emerging from the NBA's All-Star break worse for wear, seemingly bending to the austerity of an 82-game season.
That, or, you know, they're just bored.
Both theories have their place in the debate bucket following Golden State's 110-108 loss Monday night to the Brooklyn Nets.
Objectively speaking, there is nothing wrong with the Warriors. They still have one of the league's two-best records, still hold the top defense and still own the second-most potent offense.
Relatively speaking, the Warriors are not meeting expectations, the standards set by a performance so dominant that they were, at one point, on pace to be the second-best team in NBA history.
What's happened lately, while far from dire, is a sign of regression. The Warriors are 4-3 since the All-Star break, and they wrapped up their six-game Eastern Conference road trip playing .500 basketball. They now have a higher winning percentage against Western Conference squads than those from the East.
None of the Warriors' most recent shortcomings can be constituted as blowouts, and their loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 26 is but a footnote. They merely ran into a galloping giant on its own turf. The Cavaliers have the Association's best record since beginning the season 19-20, so on that night, the Warriors fell to an equal.
Still, it's difficult not to express some level of concern for a team that's spent most of this season flirting with perfection. The Warriors have developed this nasty habit of falling behind, even in victory.
In their Feb. 24 win over the plummeting Washington Wizards, they trailed by as many nine points. Against the Boston Celtics on Sunday night, they needed to erase a 26-point deficit. And in their loss to the Nets, they once again trailed by double digits and were forced to mount a late-game comeback, one that fell short despite Stephen Curry going supernova.
Falling and almost falling to clearly inferior opponents like the Celtics, Nets and Indiana Pacers has the Warriors looking uncharacteristically weak. Their offense has been fine, but their defense has inexplicably wrestled with below-board, point-piling attacks.
|Golden State: Then and Now|
|Warriors||Win%||Off. Rtg.||Rank||Def. Rtg.||Rank||Net Rtg.||Rank|
|Before the All-Star Break||82.4||109.6||2||97.3||1||12.3||1|
|After the All-Star Break||57.1||108.7||1||102.5||18||6.2||6|
For this particular decline, Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com offers an explanation:
Ideally, a team would try hard constantly, never giving up, never relenting. That just isn't realistic as energy is finite and the long slog of the season can feel infinite. There's a reason the Warriors made two late, frenetic comebacks in their past two contests. That particular kind of defense can't sustain every game in March.
The Warriors are flip switchers, as the NBA terminology goes: a contender whose best is summoned selectively. On Sunday night, in a 106-101 win over the Boston Celtics, the switch arrived in time. On Monday night, it was perhaps a split second late.
To suggest the Warriors' respite from ideal basketball is voluntary feels absurd.
Deliberately curbed efforts might explain a surprisingly shoddy defense, but they are unable to offer insights into the finer struggles, such as Klay Thompson's and Marreese Speights' plunging field-goal efficiency.
Then again, there is something calculated about the Warriors' recent slide. Though they've staged a handful of furious comebacks, both successful and foiled, they have not gone out of their way to create a conspicuous sense of urgency as the regular season nears its end.
Curry sat out with a sore right foot in the loss to Indiana, but he was back in action two days later against Washington, healthy enough to log 34 minutes and pump in 32 points on 11-of-18 shooting. Andre Iguodala didn't appear in the Warriors' dismantling of the Toronto Raptors on Feb. 27 yet was good for 33 minutes when it came time to face Boston.
Playing time, in fact, is down almost across the board for Golden State's core. Andrew Bogut's minutes are being capped more than usual, while it's safe to say Curry's are being monitored. He logged just 17 minutes through three quarters against the Nets before being unleashed for all 12 of the fourth.
That loss to Brooklyn, more than any other game, represents something of a paradox. A completely engaged team desperate for wins wouldn't limit its star player's minutes with an outcome in doubt; a group that's coasting wouldn't let him run rampant for an entire quarter without resting him once.
Thus, the dilemma.
The Warriors are both trying and unconcerned. They see the value in winning, in trying to close games out, and they see the perils of exhaustion. And that's led them here, to this weird place, where they're balancing competitive spirit with the luxuries they've earned and intend to exploit.
“If we were fighting for a playoff spot, I’d be grinding guys a little harder, but we’re in a really good position,” head coach Steve Kerr said, per Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s more important for us to keep everyone healthy and fresh. If that costs us a game or two, that’s fine.”
Contrary to traditional thought, what's happening now is just fine.
Slipping on the defensive end and prioritizing the big picture, the postseason, over immediate wins does put the Warriors at risk of forfeiting the Western Conference's top slot. At the same time, they are not in imminent danger of losing anything.
Four games separate Golden State from the second-place Memphis Grizzlies, with the former more vulnerable than ever before. That says it all about the Warriors' chances. They have the freedom to flip switches, to conserve minutes, to preserve bodies.
And now, when they're at their "weakest," they're still right there, surviving a season-long road trip, their record worse, their hold on the West intact.
Should their grip over the Grizzlies ever loosen, there still wouldn't be reason to panic or doubt. First place and second place is the difference between a first-round dance with the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
Assuming health, the disparity in difficulty of those two opponents is virtually nonexistent. Ergo, the Warriors have no incentive to fight like hell for the West's top spot—especially when it's already in their possession.
This self-admitted approach doesn't mean they're bored, nor are the latest returns a harbinger of doom.
This is just what it looks like when a championship contender that's head and shoulders above the rest uses its status as a safety net.