Warriors’ air of invincibility may be gone, but they’re still more than capable of flipping the playoff switch

MINNEAPOLIS — There’s a theory about the Golden State Warriors: That they’re bored. That they can flip on the switch whenever they want to. That they’re slogging through the dog days of the NBA season that are March, having gone 7-7 in their past 14 games.

On Tuesday night in Minneapolis, the Warriors played their 481st game in the 1,603 days since Oct. 29, 2014, the opening night of the championship season that began what may go down as the NBA’s greatest dynasty. Every NBA team goes through March slogs, but it stands to reason that the Warriors are wearier than most, having been on a five-year marathon in which they have played one game every 3.3 days — and that includes the offseason. They’re looking ahead to the playoffs, which start in 3 1/2 weeks, and which the Warriors are currently in the driver’s seat for a No. 1 seed in the West.

And yet, despite beating the Timberwolves in dominating fashion — a night after not being able to buy a bucket in San Antonio, the Splash Brothers were the Splash Brothers again, with Steph Curry netting 36 points on 8-of-14 3-point shooting and Klay Thompson scoring 28 points from all over the court — there’s still that nagging feeling about the Warriors that they’re not the same as past years.

Or, as people around the NBA have put it at various times throughout this season, that the Warriors are more vulnerable this season than they have been during the entirety of their run.

This is what Markieff Morris of the Oklahoma City Thunder recently told Sam Amick of The Athletic: “They definitely had that air of invincibility (before) … I think they’re a lot more beatable than they were in the past.”

That air of invincibility might have been fully punctured last weekend, when the Warriors lost at home to the Phoenix Suns, one of the worst teams in the NBA. Since that loss, though, the Warriors played with purpose on a 3-1 road trip: A gutsy win at Houston, a blowout at Oklahoma City, a close loss at San Antonio to one of the NBA’s hottest teams that head coach Steve Kerr painted as a good game where the shots didn’t fall, and then Tuesday night’s 117-107 win over the Timberwolves that wasn’t really as close as the score indicates.

“I think the loss to Phoenix opened our eyes a little bit,” Kerr told reporters recently. “Any time they’re threatened, I think our guys tend to play better.”

One of the most difficult parts of Kerr’s coaching job is keeping this team focused. Since the game before the All-Star break, the Warriors have gone 7-7. When context is taken into account, that could be the Warriors’ worst stretch during a sustained time period since this dynasty began. The Warriors went 4-8 during a stretch in November this year, but that coincided with Curry’s groin injury. And the Warriors ended last season 7-9, but the bulk of that came when the Rockets had already secured the top seed in the West — so the Warriors were ending the regular season with very little to play for.

There are plenty of explanations out there. One is that DeMarcus Cousins‘ impact on the Warriors hasn’t been what it had been expected to be. In fact, advanced statistics would actually tell you it’s been a negative impact. In Cousins’ 21 games since returning from last year’s Achilles tear, the Warriors are 1.9 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent when Cousins is on the floor, but 6.4 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent when Cousins is off the floor — an efficiency differential of minus-4.5 points per 100 possessions. Another explanation is that some Warriors veterans have become noticeably worse this season. Shaun Livingston, age 33, is averaging 4.1 points and 15.4 minutes per game, the fewest in his career. Draymond Green, age 29, is averaging 7.0 points per game, the first time he hasn’t averaged in double figures since 2013-14, his second season in the NBA. The rest of his numbers have tumbled off a cliff as well, worst of all the 26.9 percent 3-point shooting that’s his lowest since his rookie year.

I asked Livingston about this. Does this year’s version of the Warriors have that switch that they’re capable of flipping at any time, whether it’s a hyped regular season game or at the beginning of the playoffs? Not surprisingly, the answer was yes. Though it seemed like a tempered yes — not that air of invincibility that used to surround the Warriors.

“Our guys are capable,” Livingston told CBS Sports. “Physically, they’re still active enough. Our stars are still in their prime to be able to do that. Sometimes, I can speak to this myself, you go to flip the switch and it’s not there. And that’s the natural progression we all face. Our guys, our main guys, are still capable of doing that, still capable of hitting another gear. So our team, in that sense, they’re capable of doing that. And experience. You can’t ever count out experience. It’s pretty valuable that time of year.”

So in the meantime — i.e., before the playoffs start, in the dog days of the season, where a team like the Warriors that’s always under a microscope will be studied for flaws and signs that the end is near — how do you judge the Warriors’ successes or failures?

The answer is nuanced. The sense you get from talking to Warriors players and coaches is that the final part of the season is more about process — about clean, smart basketball — than about results. As Thompson succinctly put it when I asked him, “Little things build great habits.”

“We try to break the season up into 20-game quadrants, set goals, game-within-the-game type of goals,” Livingston told CBS Sports. “This is the time where you’re trying to prepare for the playoffs, so really trying to build good habits. This time of year it’s just the anticipation of it, especially when you’re going to the playoffs every year like we have. It’s tough. We might get away with winning based on our talent, but that’s not necessarily success for us. It’s more about the little things we’re focusing on, how we’re playing, our spirit, our energy, our mindset, as opposed to wins or losses. We lost to the Spurs, but our spirit, our energy, our mind was right.”

Kerr echoed those same thoughts. Yes, the Warriors are trying to win every game. Kerr looks at the standings every day, so he knows his team is neck-and-neck with the Denver Nuggets for home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. That’s not for nothing, either, as the Nuggets may have the best home-court advantage in the league. But more important than wins and losses is how those wins and losses are accomplished. And while Kerr showed great consternation a few weeks ago, when the Warriors lost by 33 to the Boston Celtics in the worst home loss of the Steve Kerr Era — “We’re not taking care of the basics,” he said — you get the sense that Kerr is in a much better place with his team these days.

“I think every coach tries to evaluate his team on the little things,” Kerr replied when I asked about how he judges his team this time of the season. “Boxing out. Making sure you’re attentive defensively. And helping one another. Competing. All that stuff. I thought (the Spurs loss) was a good reminder of that for me. I was frustrated at the end of the game, but watching the tape, the ball just didn’t go in. You can’t be upset with the group when they’re really competing and taking care of the details. That’s what I look for this time of the year.”

So the answer with the Warriors probably lies a little bit in between. Are they vulnerable? Sure, they’re vulnerable, likely more vulnerable than at any point during their run. Their depth is suspect — one injury to a core player could wreak havoc to their title chances. But their vulnerability is just as much because other teams have risen — especially in the East, where one of the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors, the Philadelphia 76ers or the Boston Celtics could all present difficult challenges to the Warriors in the Finals.

Who knows what is truly going on inside the Warriors locker room? Maybe Kevin Durant really does have one foot out the door, as many have predicted. Or maybe he realizes the best chance for more titles is to stay put, and has no plans to leave. It’s all guesswork unless you’re inside Kevin Durant’s brain. But you can’t help but imagine that, once the playoffs begin, these Warriors will be able to flip that switch. They always have. With the possibility that this version of the Warriors could end after this season — and with that, the air of invincibility of this dynasty would truly go out the window — it’s only smart to assume that the switch is still there, and when they activate playoff mode, you better watch out.

Are they beatable? Absolutely.

But do you really want to bet on them losing four games out of seven?

Categories: National Sports

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