You call it a burp, a brain fart, a passage of exhaust forgotten once it left the system in Los Angeles. I call it a reality smack, a healthy reminder that the Warriors do need food and water to survive, do need to shower in the morning and do need to care just a wee bit to win basketball games.
Love and lollypops returned to their kingdom Monday night, when an adoring Oracle Arena mob glowed in the knowledge that no NBA team ever has enjoyed a longer uninterrupted homecourt advantage. Shortly after 9 p.m., the fans literally were bowing to Steph Curry, who had frozen a poor sucker named Ersan Ilyasova with a series of crossover dribbles before stepping back for a leisurely three-pointer, his poetic 300th this season.
But in the end, even the record-breaking 45th consecutive home victory wasn’t easy. Not until an ailing Draymond Green — on a miserable evening of seven turnovers, one point and one IV infusion — saved the ball on the baseline and flipped it to Klay Thompson, who hit a three from the right corner with 52.8 seconds left, did the scrappy Orlando Magic perish. The Warriors survived 119-113, behind Curry’s 41 points and Thompson’s 27, but what will weigh on critical minds is how they nearly blew a 19-point lead after a pathetic loss to the Lakers the previous afternoon.
“We’re not satisfied, but we have to embrace this,” Thompson said. “It’s crazy that our fans haven’t seen us lose in 45 games. As long as we’re focused, I don’t think anyone can beat us.”
“When we were winning 23 games a year, our fans were as loud as they are now,” Curry said. “They deserve it.”
“Forty-five straight. Without y’all, it definitely would not be possible,” Green said to the crowd.
With 24 turnovers, it almost didn’t happen.
“We could have lost tonight very easily,” said a miffed Steve Kerr. “We keep putting ourselves in position to win games and dominate our home floor, and I’m really proud of our guys for that.”
“That’s 46 turnovers in the last 36 hours. Inexcusable,” Kerr said. “Every team has 12 turnovers a game, minimum, and some are gonna happen. But I can rattle off 10, easy, that were just inexcusable. That’s kind of our weakness. Sometimes, the game comes too easy for our guys. They think they can do anything. They have a lot of talent, a lot of skill, but what we have to get back to is simple, simple, simple. That’s good enough. The simple leads to the spectacular. Sometimes, our guys try for spectacular plays when they just have to make the easy ones.
“If we don’t get that cleaned up, then we’re in big trouble.”
Wow. And they say Vince Lombardi was an S.O.B.
We saw history coming, an addendum to the best-ever start in American sports. What we didn’t see coming — and aren’t sure actually happened — was a 17-point stinker loss against the league’s second-worst team. It wasn’t an out-of-body experience to be shellacked by the lowly Lakers. Rather, it was a very human occurrence to be embarrassed in the workplace when one doesn’t exert effort, energy or purpose. It’s actually a good thing that they suffered the NBA’s worst-ever regular-season upset, with Sunday marking the first time a team with a below-.200 win percentage beat a team above .900. Because it reinforces a lost truth that the Warriors, amid the surrealism of a 56-6 season, still have some work to do.
That’s right, bucko. After all the worship, all the hype, all the historical chatter, all the scalped tickets, all the Obama slobber, all the grumpy-old-men debates, all the blinding blue hues of Prince and all the other celebs who show up in buildings and locker rooms from sea to shining sea, the Warriors are — deep breaths — just 3½ games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs in the standings. Meaning, after 16 months as the most acclaimed team in sports and Curry’s blurry run of all-demographics global popularity, there’s a vague chance they won’t play Game 7 at home in the Western Conference finals. Rather, they could play such a deciding game in the SBC Center, tucked between the Whataburgers and TravelLodges due east of the Alamo, where the Spurs are 30-0 this season and have won 39 straight themselves.
All of which should awaken the Warriors, in the weird aftermath of the Staples Slaughter, to this: If they don’t handle the regular season properly the next five weeks, these streaks and records shockingly may not matter. While the rest of the NBA is either waving white flags or tweeting reverence about Curry, the Spurs are on a 69-victory pace themselves — with three games remaining against the Dubs, two in Texas.
Consider it not a scare tactic but a necessary jolt to the collective soul and comfort zone. Unfair as it seems, now that normalcy is restored, the Warriors face a tricky challenge. They must begin to rest Curry and other key players, such as a fatigued Green and hamstrung Andre Iguodala, yet also must focus enough on their remaining 20 regular-season games to hold off a recent Spurs charge that reaffirms their status as a 21st-century dynasty. As feared last summer, the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge and continuing emergence of Kawhi Leonard as a top-five league player has stripped the Spurs of their old, fading feel and allowed Gregg Popovich to blend the aging Big Three — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili — as elements of a larger mix. The Spurs didn’t look capable of hanging with the Warriors in a 30-point blowout in Oakland last month, but they do now, even after their nine-game win streak was snapped Monday in Indiana without Popovich, who was tending to a family illness.
The operative goal, much as Curry and the players want it, no longer is 73 wins. “The goal,” said Kerr, “is to be the No. 1 seed in the West.”
What’s fascinating is, those objectives needn’t be mutually exclusive. The Warriors, in effect, might have to eclipse the 72-10 league record of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls to finish ahead of San Antonio for the top seed and home advantage throughout the postseason. Yet in doing so, they’d deal with a damning Catch-22: Kerr may have to use Curry and the stars more than he prefers down the stretch — contrary to last season, when everyone received sufficient rest in a 67-win campaign in which their No. 1 seeding never was threatened.
“Resting, that will take precedence,” Kerr said. “We will rest guys if they need it before we will go for any kind of streak or record, that’s for sure.”
But if the Spurs are within striking distance, he can’t rest them. Or the Oracle edge, now the biggest ongoing vice grip in sports, might be gone in late May.
That’s where the Warriors’ no-show in L.A. could be problematic. It adds some unforeseen stress to the equation — and impending man-hours better spent in street clothes in April. Curry continues to display the confident cool of a shooter who simply had a bad afternoon, saying, “We’re still in control of that conversation. We want to keep looking ahead, not looking behind us. [The Spurs] are playing well. But we don’t need any help down the stretch. We’ve got control of our own pace. We’ve allowed ourselves that room to maybe drop one here or there, but we’ve gotta turn it back on.”
And while they did so against the Magic — and will in other mismatches coming up — they still have two games against a Dallas team that is playing the league’s best offensive ball, two against Damian Lillard and a Portland team that smashed them earlier this month, two against physical Memphis and another against a Clippers team that is playing well following its usual internal dysfunction. Any further letdown leads to more heavy breathing at their backs, with a game in San Antonio on March 19, an Oracle rematch on April 7 and a return to the SBC Center on April 10.
Do realize that the Warriors, by necessity of their Bay Area base, will fly a whopping 53,575 miles during this regular season. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who lead the Eastern Conference despite their own internal conflicts, are in the center of the country and thus will travel only 35,055 miles. “Every team is going to have a tough time being locked in for 82 games. It’s hard,” Kerr said. And they have cleaned up against the teams that matter, remaining unbeaten against the league’s five elite opponents — Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Cavaliers and Raptors. Keep in mind, too, that San Antonio plays 15 of its remaining 19 games against plus-.500 teams and that Popovich likes to rest players.
Still, three games remain against a mad scientist who plays mind games and knows the Warriors would be freaked with a No. 2 seed. Those will be furious showdowns and, suddenly, they do mean something. We all seemed to understand when they lost in Milwaukee a night after winning in Boston in double-overtime, or when they came out of the All-Star break cold in Portland, or when they were shaken down in Detroit.
The L.A. clunker, in which Curry and Thompson went a combined 1 for 18 on threes, was a no-show farce. “It happens,” Green said. “It just can’t happen anymore.”
Almost did Monday night.
But it didn’t.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.