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With 82 games gone, Warriors answers are finally around the corner

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The Warriors have gone 7-10 down the stretch since Steph Curry went down with an ankle injury. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/2017 Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

To say the entire Golden State Warriors roster and fanbase has been desperately longing for this moment since the start of the regular season would be disingenuous, though losses in two of their first three games certainly hinted at the team’s frame of mind. That said, talk of “flipping the switch” for the playoffs heated up around the All-Star break, and has been more compelling than much of the basketball the Dubs have played since.

Unfortunately, the arrival of the playoffs has not brought the sigh of relief or buzz of anticipation we expected. Somehow, a team that was not just a title favorite but the presumptive champion at the start of the season has struggled and stumbled and injured itself into a storm of questions.

The entirety of that whirlwind, varied as the moods and modes of presentation may be, comes down to a couple of easily asked but tough-to-answer queries: What the heck just happened, and what now?

What the heck just happened?
If we envision “the switch” as having a dimmer function, it hasn’t really been flipped to the full “on” position all year, and it’s been set to heavy mood lighting since Steph Curry’s ankle injury ended a seven-game win streak.

It’s important to note what actually went down: The Warriors didn’t even limp across the finish line; they caught a ride with the post-race cleanup crew. When Steph went down (effectively for the remainder of the year, less 25 minutes against the Atlanta Hawks), the Dubs were 51-14, which makes them 7-10 down the stretch. Yes, the Warriors have played under .500 for more than a month.

And it’s worse than that, because it’s near impossible to argue those seven wins were the games where they “came to play” or “brought the intensity.” Four of the seven were against literal last-place teams in Phoenix and Atlanta; two more against losers in the Lakers and Kings (who they also lost to, at home, during this stretch). The one win with any juice was over the Thunder, but that lost luster when it was followed by back-to-back defensive failures against the Pacers and Pelicans.

I say all this to emphasize that this team has been bad for awhile now. Not just a little off, but flat-out bad.

Of course, there are reasons for this. The obvious humdinger is Curry’s injury (and the mess of other smaller maladies), but not far behind is the fact that not a one of those 17 games meant anything tangible to this team. They’ve been locked into the No. 2 spot all along. If you thought coaching this team was hard in February, try motivating millionaires with literally nothing to play for.

Steve Kerr & Co. tried every tool in the motivational trick bag over the course of this season. Some worked for a time, and others provided delightful fodder for all of us, but nothing really seemed to stick. The Dubs are down statistically across the board since March 9, with both their offensive and defensive rating below average. But what really stands out is a rebounding percentage of 48.3 (26th in the league), down from 51.5 (4th in the league) over the first 61 games.

As Jerry Sloan put it, “Rebounding is where you get a chance to compete for possession of the basketball.”

You can make complaints about professionalism and what’s fair to ticket-holders, and you may have valid points, but human nature is a powerful thing. I’m not here to make a value judgment — even if I was, I’m loathe to use words like “try” or “care” because I don’t doubt the character of any of these guys — it is simply a fact of life that human beings respond to incentives.

No matter how much they gassed themselves up, the Warriors walked onto the floor every night with the knowledge somewhere inside that the result was irrelevant. Completely irrelevant over the last month or two, yes, but also largely irrelevant all year long.

They knew they could more or less roll out the ball, recreate for a couple hours every night and, at the end of the 82, they’d be in playoff position. I say “knew” because they believed it — and they were right. I’m not saying players deliberately dogged it or were less than professional, but in their heart of hearts, Steph and KD and Draymond and Klay and everyone on the roster knew the regular season was nothing more than a training exercise.

The results bear it out: Even with a rash of injuries worse than any other year in this recent run, even with the best competition they’ve seen in the Western Conference, even without ever really hitting their stride or finding a consistent groove as a team, the Golden State Warriors won 58 games and home court advantage for at least two rounds of the playoffs.

They underperformed by their own standards, and ours, but what does that really amount to? Nothing, if they end up where they want.

What now?!
Thankfully, this is an easier question to answer: Now, we find out.

We find out if “flipping the switch” is really a thing. We find out if we’ve been seeing a team in trouble or a hibernating grizzly bear.

I, for one, still believe the Warriors are ticketed for title-town. Either way, this postseason will be a referendum of sorts on whether the regular season means anything to a potentially dominant team. With as much as we’ve talked about things like motivation and focus and intensity throughout the year, it is bound to be the center of the story.

Barring additional injury or a Steph setback, the Warriors will have the better roster and likely be the favorite in every series they play. They have the same “problems” they had last year, when they went 16-1 in the postseason: They lack a dominant big man, and they turn the ball over too much, sometimes.

When they are right, the Warriors overcome these issues with relative ease. That’s why this regular season has been so confounding. It’s impossible to tell if the inability to transcend their deficiencies is a matter of motivation and timing or a sign of real decline and danger.

If they don’t win the title — especially if they lose before even getting to the allegedly dangerous Houston Rockets — it will be hard not to see it as evidence that the regular season is more important than we thought. Perhaps, even as proof that turning it on just for the playoffs is too much to ask for any team, no matter how talented.

If they repeat as champions, it validates the “flip the switch” theory, and it makes next year an even more fascinating study in human behavior.

The playoffs are here, and it means everything.

Finally.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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