OAKLAND — The Golden State Warriors have at times this season shown themselves to be disengaged, almost bored, as the presumptive NBA Finals favorites, armed with five recent All-Stars, have lazed their way to a No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
While they’ve reeled off the occasional winning streak — taking home eight in a row in October and November, then 16 of 17 in January and February — they’ve also played disjointed and below their talent level far more often than not, suffering what head coach Steve Kerr called an “embarrassing” 33-point loss to possible Finals opponent Boston in Oakland four days prior, before rebounding with a resounding 17-point win over second-place Denver on Friday.
On Sunday, with time running out before a projected fifth straight run at the NBA Finals, Golden State’s struggle to find a sense of championship-caliber consistency and a sense of urgency reached its nadir. The Warriors surrendered a 16-point first-quarter lead to the Phoenix Suns, the last-place team in the Western Conference, and dropped their first game to the Suns since Nov. 9, 2014 in an uneven 115-111 affair as tensions inside the locker room mounted.
“It’s karma,” said head coach Steve Kerr. “When you don’t deserve to win, in terms of execution and energy, connection, the ball doesn’t go in. I like that about basketball. You tend to earn things, earn points, earn rebounds, you earn a win. We didn’t earn a win.”
With 1:35 left in the game, NBA TV cameras caught Kerr speaking on the sidelines with assistant Mike Brown, as he said, “I’m so f—ing tired of Draymond [Green].” Kerr was not available to immediately comment on the moment.
Shortly after the game, Kevin Durant, who had rolled his right ankle midway through the fourth quarter, was observed by Sam Hustis of KNBR walking in an Oracle Arena hallway yelling: “Stupid as motherf—ing game we playing. We need to be playing championship level basketball.”
Durant, who scored 25 points before leaving with a right ankle contusion (which should not impact him moving forward), can opt out of his contract after this season, a fact that caused tensions to rise between him and Green initially in November, with Green earning a one-game suspension from the team. Those cracks seem to be showing again. In the loss to the Suns (15-52), Durant was the only consistent offensive force.
While Klay Thompson was hot early, hitting four of his first five shots, he finished just 10-for-22, and went 1-for-7 from beyond the 3-point arc in the second half. Stephen Curry, for his part, went just 6-for-20 as Golden State went 42-of-94 (44.7 percent) from the field and just 10-of-43 from three.
“Three-point shooting was ugly,” Thompson said. ‘We got great looks in the second half, great looks we make more than half the time, but it was just one of those nights.”
Since the All-Star Break, Curry — a career 43.6-percent 3-point shooter — is shooting 38.3 percent from beyond the arc, and the Warriors are 4-4 without any back-to-back wins.
“They made shots, took a swing at us,” Curry said. “That’s been the narrative over our season, because there’s nothing else to talk about, in terms of we’re trying to get to the playoffs and build the right habits, but we just haven’t been able to put a consistent string of games together after the All-Star break.”
Golden State slogged through four separate possessions where they missed two 3-point attempts, and combined with the Suns to start the game 0-for-10. From there, the lead changed 13 times, and the Warriors were tied with the Suns —a team coming into an early game on the back end of a road back-to-back and losing an hour because of Daylight Savings — eight times.
As sub-par and as disengaged as the Warriors have been on defense this season — they’re 14th in the league in defensive efficiency, lower than they’ve been since 2011-12 — they were especially so against a team they’d beaten by a total of 53 points in three previous meetings. Phoenix shot over 50 percent for much of the game, and finished 42-of-86 (and 10-of-25 from three), shooting 35-for-62 (56.5 percent) after Golden State rattled off a 29-16 first quarter. Devin Booker finished 13-of-23 for a game-high 37 points.
“Lackluster energy, too many ups and downs throughout the whole game,” Thompson said.
This kind of malaise isn’t new for the Warriors (45-21) during their run of three championships in four years. Last year, they dropped 10 of 17 down the stretch, but that was during a period where Golden State wasn’t at full strength, with Curry on the bench with a groin injury. Golden State is, now, as healthy as it has been all season, minus the torn pectoral that’s kept Damien Jones sidelined since Dec. 1.
“You’ve got to keep the big picture in mind of where we are, what our goals are and just focus on that,” Curry said, citing the fact that the Warriors are still atop the Western Conference standings. “Tonight, I thought we came out with great intentions, we jumped on them early, knowing they were coming off a back-to-back, we could have made the game a lot easier on ourselves.”
“We’ve been playing a lot of basketball for five years now, and you’re not going to be perfect for 82 games,” said Thompson, who labeled the loss as the worst of the season.
Thompson — who led the team with 28 points despite going just 4-for-15 from 3-point range — unexpectedly maligned the atmosphere in Oracle.
“We’ve had too many missteps, and it’s ugly … I expect our crowd to be into it a little more, too,” Thompson said. “It’s not the playoffs, but it is our last go-around at Oracle. At least you could stand up if somebody makes a play, especially in the beginning. We need that energy. Especially at this time of year, it’s hard to conjure up energy every single night because you are looking forward to the playoffs, and that run, so we expect our fans to kind of break that from the jump.”
After the two teams went scoreless for the first three minutes, Thompson, in the span of 65 seconds, drilled a three from the right side, hit another 28-foot triple, blocked Booker in the paint, picked up a rebound and hit a reverse one-handed jam, sparking Golden State to a 16-point lead with 2:58 to go in the opening period thanks to a three by Durant. That was the last time that Golden State looked like the two-time defending champion.
Phoenix was able to take advantage of lazy defensive miscues and ill-timed turnovers to close the gap to one by halftime, shooting 15-of-20 in the second quarter. Outside of Thompson in the first half (7-of-13), the rest of Golden State shot 16-of-35, and just 1-of-11 from beyond the arc. They weren’t much better in the second, as for every three Golden State hit, the Suns were able to answer.
In the normally-magical third quarter — where Golden State leads the league for the second straight year in scoring, at 31.0 points — the Warriors were unable to deliver, going 8-of-26 as Phoenix was able to take the lead.
A 10-0 fourth-quarter run by the Suns to go up 91-88 was halted with seven minutes to go by a game-tying three from Curry — just his third on 11 tries. Booker then went on a personal 11-2 run that all but sealed the game.
“I’m just going to show them the tape and say, ‘Don’t play like this,'” Kerr said.
The win for Phoenix (15-52) was its second over a No. 1 team in the past week, as they beat the Milwaukee Bucks by nine on March 4. It was Golden State’s first loss to the Suns since Nov. 9, 2014, a streak of 18 games.
“I always expect our team to play well,” said Kerr. “We laid an egg.”