LOS ANGELES — Sunday served as a reminder that there’s a thin line between wondrous and perilous for the now 55-6 Golden State Warriors.
Even though their unexpected 112-95 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers left them still on track to surpass the Chicago Bulls’ 72-win season of 1995-96, it left them only 2.5 games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs in the pursuit of the NBA’s best record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs this season.
Steve Kerr maintains the No. 1 seed is all that matters, that it’s pointless to speculate about winning 73 until it’s actually within reach. But the 73 talk is out there, awaiting the Warriors everywhere they go — to the detriment of the team’s focus, some in the Warriors organization believe. Yet it’s also possible that the goals are one and the same, that securing the top seed could necessitate winning 73 games. That’s how good the Spurs and their .855 winning percentage have been this season, with about 1/90th the buzz of the Warriors’ season.
Kerr says he believes any lamenting over missing a chance at history would quickly be erased by refocusing on the task at hand of winning a championship. What about missing out on not only the best team of all time but the best team of 2015-16? That would be, as Kerr said, “anti-climactic.” And falling behind the Spurs in the standings would probably mean carrying the additional mental weight of losing at least two of their remaining three games against San Antonio.
But the Warriors aren’t at a point of panic about seeding yet. Far from it.
“We’re still in control of that conversation,” Stephen Curry(Stephen Curry Jersey) said. “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.”
If the Warriors are a shooting team, they need to have that shooter’s mentality: the belief that no matter how many misses they rack up the next one’s going in. Curry made only one of his 10 3-point shots Sunday — just enough to keep his streak of hitting a 3-pointer in consecutive games alive at 131 straight — and no one thinks he’s about to pack away his jump shot. Klay Thompson surely won’t stop firing after his 0-for-8 performance.
The ability to turn it on when they need to has pushed the Warriors to 55 victories so far. It’s why Kerr didn’t berate them in the locker room for this lackluster effort. He knows the impossibility of asking a room full of athletes to be at their competitive best for 82 regular-season games of varying significance. He recognizes the professionalism they have shown in keeping the lapses to a minimum.
That didn’t mean he found Sunday’s effort acceptable.
“It’s the NBA, and if you’re not ready to play, anything can happen,” Kerr said. “And we weren’t ready. We had zero attention span out there at either end of the floor. Our guards were leaking out, not helping on the glass, turning the ball over, over and over again. Not following the scouting report defensively, not putting any pressure on the ball. And the Lakers played a great game.”
It would be easy to point to the Warriors’ 4-for-30 long-range shooting display and say, “See! That’s what happens when jump-shooting teams go cold.” That wasn’t what this loss would be about. The Warriors are built to survive cold-shooting performances. Before Sunday, the Warriors had shot below the league average of 35 percent on 3-pointers 14 times and still managed to win 13 of those games. (The lone loss came in Milwaukee the night after a double-overtime win in Boston).
Sunday the Warriors combined poor shooting with pitiful effort. That’s what did them in. The Lakers jumped into passing lanes, leaped for rebounds and hustled for loose balls.
“They beat us from start to finish,” Andrew Bogut said. “We didn’t come out and compete the way that we have to compete.”
Kerr likes to joke with Curry that Warrior miscues are due to the “Millennial mentality” of this young team. The undelivered punchline is that the Warriors so often display the opposite of the entitled-attitude stereotype of the generation. But Sunday?
“Guilty as charged,” Curry said.
You could chalk it up to an early Sunday afternoon game against an inferior opponent after a Saturday night in Los Angeles, which might be as valid an explanation as any.
“In an 82-game season, there are so many variables that go into it,” Curry said. We’ve been pretty good at mastering those every single night. We haven’t played well every night, we haven’t brought our A-plus game, but we’ve found a way to win. That’s what we’ve been most proud of all year.
“The big thing is how we respond [after the loss].”
Not just big, but necessary, for their shot at history and their quest for the No. 1 seed. The teams in the third and fourth Western Conference spots, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers, spent last week saying that seeds didn’t matter and only health and momentum going into the playoffs were important. That could be why they’re the third and fourth seeds.
The Warriors believe things like the No. 1 seed are important, and have spent much of the season acting in that manner. The response to their previous loss, a road pounding to the Portland Trail Blazers coming out of the All-Star break, was to win the next five games on their trip, culminating in that memorable overtime victory in Oklahoma City. Their response to the loss before that, against the Detroit Pistons, was to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Spurs by a combined 107 points over the next four games.
“We’ll be all right,” Curry said after Golden State’s defeat.
It sounded more like belief in what his team can do than denial about the way his team had just played. If the Warriors want everything they’ve openly sought, they’ll need to be more than all right.