The Golden State Warriors are an unbeatable basketball team.
This might be a questionable moment for that statement, but we know it to be true. We saw it last year as they blasted through the league to their second title in three years. We saw it on Sunday when they lit Houston on fire and danced around the flames.
The challenge has been figuring out why the Warriors have shown their human torch mode so infrequently. That question, which dominated the regular season, has never been more pressing or perplexing than in the aftermath of a disappointing Game 4 loss.
There are easy-to-recognize basketball reasons for the setback, like a 3-for-18, 12-point fourth quarter with four turnovers and only one assist. The Warriors have told us their offense is humming when they have 300 passes, 30 assists and under 16 turnovers. On Tuesday, they had 269 passes, 14 assists and 16 turnovers, which is akin to the offense attempting to whistle and drooling down its chin instead.
The Rockets stumbled out of the gate in Game 4, failing to score for the first five minutes of the game, and the Warriors took it easy, cruising to a medium-sized lead instead of grabbing a giant one. Perhaps they could have delivered an early knockout blow, but like so many other things we have said they could have done this year, they didn’t.
Our go-to explanation has been that the Warriors simply weren’t trying their hardest all the time. It’s a natural thing to say about a team we know has the potential to be dominant, that shows us that dominance at times but other times seems to lack the focus or intensity necessary to reach their peak.
That theory is bolstered by the fact that the Warriors’ biggest let-downs this season often came right after their best basketball. The narrative is clear: They occasionally felt the need to flex and show everyone how good they can be, and once they did, they reverted back to lackluster basketball.
We spent a lot of time discussing when the greatness would be needed. The Warriors can beat almost anyone without playing their best, as a simple result of having remarkable talent on the roster. So maybe never? But if the goal was to put together a playoff run befitting that talent level, need should have arrived weeks ago.
Another problem with the “just not trying hard enough” theory of the Warriors struggles is the fact that it’s entirely qualitative analysis. We can point to passing numbers and look at advanced player tracking to see how much they’re moving, but it is mostly an aesthetic conversation. It’s about rhythm and flow, as Steve Kerr would say.
The prevailing wisdom is that when the Warriors play “their way” — which is to say exceptional player and ball movement on offense leading to good shots for great players, coupled with tenacious defense anchored by Draymond Green — they will beat anyone, and not just by a little. It has also been rather widely accepted that whether or not they play “their way” is entirely up to them.
The Rockets have done a good job of trying to force the Warriors out of that ball movement offense. Houston’s defense seems to share their offensive philosophy, namely that three-pointers, layups and dunks are the best shots to take. The fact that the Warriors have settled into isolation play for mid-range jumpers as often as they have this series is certainly in part a credit to the Rockets.
That doesn’t change the fact that it feels like a choice, though. Undoubtedly, many a Warrior fan found themselves doing a Kerr impression during Tuesday’s fourth quarter, twirling their hands to send the message, “Move, for goodness sakes!”
It’s particularly vexing when a quarter as disastrous as Tuesday’s fourth comes on the heels of such an impressive one. The Warriors had seven assists in the third, half of their total for the game, and though Steph Curry scored half of the points when he caught fire, the ball was hopping around and almost all of the non-Curry shots were in rhythm and pretty open.
What got them off-track in the fourth quarter was a reversion to isolation play, but there was a particular flavor to it, one that played a role in both of the first two series, though it didn’t hurt much then. Too often late in games, the Warriors’ all-stars take turns attempting to play hero, and it’s suicide for the offense as a whole.
They lost a 12-point lead in less than five minutes, a stretch that featured two missed 3-pointers by Kevin Durant, Curry getting blocked by Gerald Green, a missed dunk by Draymond and unforced turnovers by both Green and Shaun Livingston.
With 5:20 remaining, the Warriors were down one after Trevor Ariza free throws and seemingly lost their minds. Curry missed a three pointer, then Durant missed a three-pointer and a mid-range turnaround fadeaway. They were within two again at three minutes after a Steph and-one, but he followed that with a terrible step-in jumper from about 20 feet (perhaps trying to draw a foul) and a turnover. Ninety seconds later, Klay and Curry would both miss three-pointers on the same possession, both early in the shot clock.
Virtually none of the shots described came out of movement; few, if any of them, were in rhythm. Those bad missed threes felt like attempts to hit the “big shot” or deliver a “dagger.” But it’s hard to understand a commitment to murder by dagger when you’ve got automatic weapons in your holsters.
We assumed all year that eventually the Warriors would reach into those holsters, pull out the big guns and lay waste to the competition. Many of us thought that time was here after Sunday, but Tuesday’s trigger pull seems to have produced “BAM!” flags rather than heavy fire.
The margin for error is now as good as gone. Game 7 on the road against a team with two future Hall of Famers is not a position the Warriors want to be in. If they really are capable of playing their best whenever they need it, we should see it on both Thursday and Saturday.
If we were wrong, though, this is the reckoning. We had good reason to believe that the Warriors were holding their best in reserve, and they gave us evidence to suggest they could access it command. The problem with that operational philosophy is its presumption: if you’re sure you can pull it out at the end, you won’t know you can’t until it’s over.
The Warriors have reached the point where if they can’t find a way to perform at their best with more consistency, this unbeatable basketball team will be watching the NBA Finals from home.
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.