It felt like a high-stakes playoff game.
With five minutes left in the fourth quarter on Monday, the Golden State Warriors trailed the Sacramento Kings 97-100. It was only Game 11 of the regular season, but the Warriors, who had lost every quarter of the game, seemed to be fighting, desperately, for their lives, clawing to even the score — and maybe, just maybe, to win the game. To win any game. The Warriors were 3-7 after a horrific five-game road trip in which they'd dropped every contest, most of them heartbreakers, and most of them to teams that they should have beaten.
The Kings had an answer for every Warriors' score late in the fourth quarter. An Andrew Wiggins turnover led to a 107-102 Sacramento lead, but Wiggins hit several timely threes, before Stephen Curry began to levitate the building. After tying the game 107-107 and scoring his 40th point of the night, Steph Curry brought the ball into the Kings' half, stepped back, and fired a three.
Everyone in the building knew that it was going in.
Steph Curry had literally imposed his will on the game and manifested a win. It was remarkable, but you could also feel the fragility of the Warriors' early season — it took Steph summoning his superpowers to get a regular-season win against the then 3-5 Kings.
"There was a sense of desperation coming off that road trip," Curry said in Monday's postgame interview, after the Dubs beat the Kings 116-113. "I've never been more happy about winning a game 11 games into the season." Postgame, Draymond Green said: "It was kind of like Game 4 of the NBA Finals. He wasn't going to let us lose. We needed that win."
Of Curry's performance on Monday, coach Steve Kerr said: "He was breathtaking — he plays well every night, but that was special, even for him." Of the heavy minutes Steph and the starters played against the Kings on Monday, Kerr said: "It was obviously necessary, but it's not sustainable. We felt comfortable chasing this one, [but] we know we can't do this for long."
Is it time to panic, Warriors fans? The narrative out there is that we might be witnessing the unraveling of a dynasty and the inevitable, age-induced "decline" of great players. How spoiled we are as Warriors fans, where anything less than championship inevitability feels as if the sky is falling? I don't know how the Dubs' new bench will pan out what the Dubs' prospects might look like, but I'm preaching patience over panic.
On October 18, the Golden State Warriors were presented with their championship rings, raised their most recent banner, and beat LeBron and the Lakers in what has been their only "easy" or comfortable win of the season.
Most people (including me) probably assumed that the Warriors would pick up right where they left off — and the core of the team has done just that. On the floor during those last five minutes on Monday night against the Kings was the "closing lineup in the NBA Finals," noted commentator Bob Fitzgerald, referring to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney, who are statistically one of the highest ranked lineups in the league.
"Dallas and Boston have the best offenses in the league with 117.5 points per 100 possessions; the Warriors starting five has an offensive rating of 129.1" said JJ Redick on The Old Man and The Three Things podcast. (An offensive rating refers to the amount of points produced by players per 100 possessions.) The Warriors starting five also has "the equivalent to the third-best defense relative to the overall league," Redick continued. (As a team, the Warriors' defense is 23rd overall in the league, while their offense is ranked 14th.)
Oh yeah, Stephen Curry is currently the second-leading scorer in the NBA , averaging 32.6 points a game.
So what's been the issue? "Their bench sucks right now," Redick said.
Heartbreakers and Crushing Quarters
On October 21, the Warriors played catch up for three and a half quarters against the Denver Nuggets, valiantly fighting from 10-points down all game. After a Jordan Poole steal and layup with 20 seconds left, a miraculous comeback seemed within reach, but the Warriors lost 128-123.
Two nights later, on October 23, the Warriors scored 89 points in the first two quarters against the Sacramento Kings and seemed to be rolling to an easy W. The starters sat, and Jordan Poole was running the bench unit, but the Kings came back from about 15 down in the last five minutes to make it a four-point game. The Warriors squeaked by with a 130-125 win, but something felt a little off.
The Warriors first road game in Phoenix on October 25 was their only blowout of the year thus far; they lost 134-105. Klay Thompson was ejected for the first time in his career after having words with Devin Booker, then the refs. The narrative that "Klay is not the same player he once was," was resurrected. "No duh, man," Thompson said in response to criticism, specifically from Charles Barkley. "I tore my ACL and my Achilles in consecutive years and still helped a team win a championship."
The Warriors won every quarter against the Miami Heat on October 27, and Klay Thompson scored a then-season-high 19 points. The Warriors were 3-2. Bring on the five-game road trip. What could possibly go wrong?
The Warriors blew a four-point lead near the end of the fourth quarter in Charolette on October 29, loosing in overtime to the then 2-3 Hornets 120-113. "I got wrapped up in trying to 'hero ball' my way to a hometown buzzer-beater," Steph Curry said of his decision making at the end of regulation. The Detroit Pistons outscored the Warriors 34-18 in the second quarter on October 30 to hand the Dubs a 128-114 loss. The Warriors were outscored 30-15 in the fourth quarter on November 1 in an otherwise fantastic game against the Miami Heat for a 116-109 loss.
But the heartbreaking-est of heartbreakers was in Orlando on November 3 against the then 1-7 Magic, who outscored the Warriors 43-33 in the third and eked out a 130-129 win. That's when the bench looked like Swiss cheese on defense, and bad luck and tough breaks started to feel, instead, like something systemic.
The Warriors have committed the most personal fouls per game of any team in the NBA. Several times this season, and especially on the road trip, poor Bob Fitzgerald has announced, exasperated: "The Warriors commit another foul."
James Wiseman has been the seven-foot lightning rod through which the dismay at the Warriors' bench and general woes has been conducted. "It's gonna take a lotta time and a lot of reps, especially for a big guy with very little experience," said Steve Kerr of Wiseman. "It takes a little longer for big guys to adjust to the NBA game."
"Why does it take longer for big guys to learn?" NBC's Kerith Burke asked Kerr.
"When you're a big guy, you're anchoring the defense — you're behind the play, you're calling coverages, you're covering up for the guard's mistakes. You've got to do that quickly, and if you don't, you're going to foul somebody. You're also trying to grow into and learn your body, and the game is happening so quickly below you that the speed can be overwhelming."
Kerr called Wiseman talented, committed and willing to learn. "Modern life is unforgiving. People don't take into account organic growth. Everyone wants results right now. It's not gonna be that way, even for a guy who's a great athlete like James."
For all the justifiable chatter about the bench, no one mentions their game against the New Orleans Pelicans on November 4, the last game of The Road Trip from Hell, where Steph, Draymond, Klay and Wiggins sat. Led by Jordan Poole, Moses Mooney, Jonathan Kuminga, Anthony Lamb (all of whom scored in double figures) and ironman Kevon Looney, the "Baby Dubs" held their own. Sure, they made some "rookie mistakes," like turning the ball over 22-15, but the bench — including Ty Jerome, who has been rock steady in replacing the injured Donte DiVincenzo — did a lot of things well before dropping the game 114-105.
The 4-7 Warriors face the 8-3 Cleveland Cavaliers tonight at Chase Center, then travel to Sacramento on Sunday to play the Kings.
Top Image: Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images