There are very rational explanations to account for the cloud that suddenly hangs over the league’s overwhelming preseason favorites heading into the start of the 2018 playoffs.
Stephen Curry, the two-time M.V.P. guard, played in only one of Golden State’s final 17 games after suffering a knee sprain just as he’d recovered from a sprained ankle. Curry’s absence, combined with a nagging flurry of injuries around him, rendered the Warriors’ last dozen or so games meaningless; catching Houston in the race for the West’s No. 1 overall seed was, realistically, out of reach. Those factors inevitably combined to chip away at the Warriors’ intensity, discipline and focus and, by season’s end, dropped them from their customary top-five slot in defensive efficiency all the way down to No. 9.
Golden State’s hope is that a return to high-stakes basketball, after grinding through a seemingly interminable regular season to get there, will usher this team back to its usual standards and thus back to its happy place. But a measure of gloom, for all the rationalizations, has been hard for the Warriors to shake as Saturday’s Game 1 against the pesky San Antonio Spurs — sans Curry — draws near.
For the past few years, Golden State seemed to be the one powerhouse impervious to the seminal claim of Pat Riley, the legendary coach and executive, that winning or misery were the only state-of-mind options for the N.B.A. elite. It was just two short years ago that the Warriors defied conventional wisdom and relentlessly chased a record 73 wins in the regular season, finding great enjoyment in their quest amid the incessant chatter of naysayers who insisted that the extra gas guzzled to get there would lead to a fatal fuel shortage in the postseason.
This, however, is Year 4 of Golden State’s run as the N.B.A.’s modern-day version of the Beatles. Kerr remembers how mentally draining it was just to drag through three seasons like this as a player, specifically as a teammate to Michael Jordan before Jordan’s second retirement from the Chicago Bulls. He has, for months, been warning anyone who would listen about how hard it would be to keep this group consistently plugged in — even with a shot to win the first back-to-back titles in the Warriors’ evolution.
Kerr was right. Bliss is not a given, even with a roster like this.
How joyful can the Warriors really be, for that matter, when the prime supplier of their let-it-fly frolic — Curry — is out of the lineup?
The only real surprise here, according to the former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin, is that the Warriors dodged such a malaise for as long as they did.
“It’s very predictable,” said Griffin, who has been working as an analyst for NBA TV and Sirius XM Radio as he awaits his eventual return to front-office work after his own tension-filled stint in charge of the Cavaliers.
“I was amazed that they found a way to remain the joy engine they were for the previous three years of the run. But when you have the shortest turnaround in league history and hear all off-season that you can’t be beaten, you’re going to have to battle complacency.
“They have been together longer than any other group and have been grinding longer mentally than everyone other than Cleveland. It all compounds further when you endure injuries and turmoil.”
None of this, of course, is exclusive to the Warriors. Griffin’s old team practically bathes in torment, perhaps because LeBron James, after spending four years in Miami, seems to have adopted the Riley way as his own.
Over in Houston, meanwhile, the Rockets general manager Daryl Morey inspired a lengthy story this week in The Houston Chronicle about his inability to stomach watching games in person, even though he assembled the Rockets squad that just won a franchise-record 65 games and has been picked in some corners to unseat Golden State as the Western Conference champion.
In the wake of the Chronicle story, I asked Morey why it’s so hard for even the best teams to have fun. It is sports, after all.
“I’m not sure how to explain it well,” Morey said. “The only analogy I can think of is how people feel when they are close to something they have worked for and wanted for a very long time. It is stressful. Add in that the odds are long every year, and you get pain as the dominant feeling.”
No one, mind you, is ever going to feel sorry for a juggernaut like the Warriors, after two championships in the past three seasons and given the talent Myers has assembled. That’s especially true when San Antonio has only had the All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard in uniform for nine games all season and when the two biggest threats to the Warriors besides Houston — Oklahoma City and Utah — are on the Rockets’ side of the playoff bracket. Golden State may not have Curry back until Round 2, and it faces uncertainty about the reliability of its bench, but it will only have to face one of those three troublesome teams to get back to a fourth successive N.B.A. finals.
Not that the Warriors can dare to assume anything. They haven’t played well enough in the season’s second half, and certainly haven’t been healthy enough, to avoid being questioned, psychoanalyzed and doubted like never before in this four-season stretch. And just imagine what happens if Leonard makes an unexpected comeback in this series.
So for his own reassurance, Myers turns to Kerr.
“Steve’s probably the best person in the world to try to navigate a team through what we’ve experienced, because he’s actually lived it as a player,” Myers said. “To be honest, I’m always asking him what we should expect.
“But the reason sports generates so much passion is because we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not scripted. Nobody can spoil the movie for you because nobody knows how the movie is going to end.”
Even if you ask the director.
“All I got from Steve at the start of the season was kind of a preview,” Myers said. “I asked him what this movie was going to look like, and he said, ‘Well, I can tell you it’s a drama with a lot of twists and turns.’ I’ve kind of leaned on that, and now here we are.
“I get to watch the movie now. It’s about to start.”
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