After months of anxious waiting, enduring baffling performances, heartbreaking losses, horrific play on the road, injuries and a general confounding sense of how this championship-defending season has unfolded (with lots of spectacular games sprinkled in) everyone was asking the same question this time last week, after the Golden State Warriors completed a perfect five-game homestand: Had the Dubs finally turned a corner? Had something shifted? Had all that heartache been building into a crescendoing redemption, with a deep playoff run on the horizon, and for those of us who dare to dream, yet another ring destined for the Warriors' already bejeweled fingers?
That was last week, anyway. Then came a three-game, three-loss road trip which concluded last night in Memphis.
It's felt like the Dubs have turned a corner several different times this season, only to turn three more and arrive right back at the same this-is-where-we-finally-turn-things-around point yet again. Deja vu abounds.
In our last Warriors' check-in in early January, Golden State was coming off a sensational homestand where they'd won five in a row — a season best — with several gritty, come-from-behind victories. It was Klay Thompson, Kevon Looney, Draymond Green and the Warriors' much-improved bench who'd been getting it done, as Stephen Curry cheered his team on from the sidelines while recovering from an injury. Andrew Wiggins had also missed a prolonged stretch of games with an injury at the start of the New Year.
Last week, when the Warriors seemed to turn a corner yet again, Gary Payton II (who's a Warrior again, but injured), was also in street clothes along with Steph, cheering from the bench. The Warriors had multiple amazing, record-setting comebacks in a row. Wiggins has now missed the last 10 games because of a family matter. (It's not clear when he'll return.) The Warriors achieved a dubious milestone a week ago when they ascended to three games over .500 for the first time this season.
Surely, that was the real corner. Surely, the epic road slump wouldn't last forever.
"It's been exciting to see our team — I think — turn a corner, but we still need to go out and win on the road," head coach Steve Kerr said, almost ominously, after the Dubs beat the New Orleans Pelicans on March 3 to cap off the perfect homestand. The loss to the Lakers on Sunday was close, the loss to the Thunder on Tuesday had hurt, and the loss last night to Memphis was brutal.
Maybe rather than corners, a better analogy is steps forward (home games) and backward (road games). The Warriors are still very much in the playoff hunt, but unless there's a seismic shift in their play on the road, will making the playoffs as a lower-seed (assuming they do) even matter?
And yet, it still feels like the Warriors can turn it around whenever they want. It's almost as if they've been paying their dues with all this road-based suffering. Don't forget that the Warriors set an NBA record last year with 27-consecutive road wins in a playoff series. This team knows how to win on the road. It can't last forever, right?
"To be as great as we are at home, and as bad as we are on the road … it just does not make sense," Draymond Green said on his podcast. "It's weird, man. It's weird. Every time you feel like you're taking that next step, it's kind of two steps back.
On Sunday, Stephen Curry made yet another comeback from injury, and has played brilliantly from the second he hit the floor. But even his return hasn't translated into road wins. Curry missed 11 games starting on February 4; he'd missed the same number of games starting in mid-December 2022 with a shoulder subluxation. The Warriors were 7-4 during Steph's most recent absence. Before Sunday's game against the Lakers, ABC's Lisa Salters asked Steph if his return might mess with the Warriors' winning mojo from their undefeated homestand. He said something to the effect of, "Maybe. That's why I came back while we're on the road where we've already been struggling."
Curry scored 27 points against the Lakers (with most of that total in the fourth quarter), 40 points against the Thunder with 10 made three-pointers, and 29 last night in Memphis. "When you get such a big force back, it does take time filling back in around that and kind of feeling your way through it," Draymond said on his podcast. "In saying that, I'm not sure it should have equaled to losses, especially the way [Steph's] been playing in his return.
"It's unfortunate. It's very frustrating."
So let's get into why the Warriors' have such a problem on the road. Draymond? "A commonly asked question is: 'Why can't you guys win on the road?'" Green said on his podcast. "And a common answer I give is, 'If I knew that, don't you think I'd correct that?'" Fair enough.
Coach Kerr: Why have the Warriors been giving up double-digit leads early in the game, forcing them to play from behind? (A reporter asked Kerr that question at the postgame press conference on Tuesday in OKC.) "I wish I knew. If I knew, I would obviously tell the team what was happening. The slow starts have been really consistent. We changed the starting lineup, but we still fell behind." The Warriors have been down by at least 10 points in the first quarter in something like nine-straight games.
Last night against Memphis, the Dubs came back from a 20-point deficit against the Grizzlies not once, but twice, to make it a four- or five-point game, only to fall apart and eventually lose 131-110.
The Warriors have been two different teams at home and on the road — especially the defense. At home, Golden State has the 5th best defense; on the road, they're 27th. The Dubs allow an average of 111.6 points at home and 123.6 on the road. They have the 3rd best defensed in opponent field-goal percentage allowed at home; they're 25th on the road. The Warriors have the best defense in the league in three-pointers allowed at home; they're 29th, or second-to-last, on the road.
Sometimes, the Warriors seem like they're two different teams in the same quarter.
It's as if they're shuffling through the multiverse during a game and being several versions of themselves — both good and bad. They're either staking huge comebacks or melting down completely. On Tuesday, the Warriors hardly committed any fouls against the Thunder in the first half, then racked up double-digit whistles in no time in the second half. After one of their 20-ish point comebacks last night, the Dubs turned the ball over four times in a row near the end of the first half.
I've always thought one way (the silver-est lining-est way) to describe the Warriors' turnovers is that they're sometimes one step, or one millimeter, behind an amazing pass. The Dubs play at such a high frequency that sometimes it takes a minute for everyone to vibrate in unison, and once they do, it's pure magic. (Last year, the Warriors were famous for their slow starts, followed by dominant third quarters.) But sometimes, the Dubs never find the same beat, and it can get ugly.
Case in point:
A frustrated Draymond appears to give up on the play which resulted in a turnover … pic.twitter.com/uemOduLvG6— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) March 8, 2023
I would give you the Western Conference playoff picture, but it's changed as I've been writing this sentence. The playoffs have essentially already begun. Every game moves the needle; every game is crucial, especially for the forever-floating-around-.500 Golden State Warriors. After last night's loss (and however many other permutations), the Warriors dropped to sixth place — the cut-off point for a playoff berth the dreaded play-in tournament.
With 15 games left in their season — seven at home, eight in the road — the Warriors have time to climb (or fall) in the standings, and to take steps forward (or back) toward the monumental task of climbing to the NBA's mountaintop.
Top Image: Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images