SAN JOSE, Calif. (TNS) — The Warriors were supposed to coast to a second straight championship and their third title in four years this season.
Things haven't gone exactly to plan.
Injury, disengagement, and improved competition around the league resulted in the worst regular season in coach Steve Kerr's four years in charge of Golden State, and for the first time since Kerr took over before the 2014-15 season, the Warriors will not enter the playoffs with the best record in the NBA. In fact, they won't even have the best record in the Western Conference.
Only four teams have ever made the NBA Finals in four straight seasons — the Warriors are looking to be the fifth team to do so and the first team since the 1960 Boston Celtics to claim three titles in that four-year stretch. But with the postseason set to get underway Saturday, it's clear that this will be the Warriors' toughest run to the Finals — and the title — yet.
Last year the Warriors rolled into the playoffs healthy and on a streak where they won 14 of their last 15 games. This year, they enter the postseason having lost 10 of their last 17 games with a minor-league call-up as the team's starting point guard.
And that has given the Warriors something they haven't had going into the playoffs since Kerr's first year: doubt.
"We didn't picture it this way. We wanted to be healthy the last 20 games, win our last 10, and roll into the playoffs and let everybody know that we're coming — it's been the opposite of that... We haven't played particularly well, and yet here we are," Kerr said on Tuesday. "We have a chance to do something special, and we know how to do that. We've been in that situation now three years in a row. It's not the ideal set of circumstances, but it could be a lot worse."
Nothing has dampened the mood around the Warriors — nothing has sowed more doubt around this team heading into the postseason — than the injury to point guard and two-time league MVP Stephen Curry.
When Curry has been on the court this season, the Warriors have averaged 13 more points than opponents per 100 possessions — a massive margin. When he's off the court, that average is 1 point per 100 possession in the Warriors' favor.
But the Warriors will be without Curry for the start of the playoffs after he sprained the MCL in his left knee two weeks ago. The injury could force him to miss the entire first round of the postseason and perhaps some of the second, should the Warriors even advance that far.
There are no guarantees in this year's postseason for the Warriors. Every team in the Western Conference playoffs has beaten the Warriors at least one time this year, and the team's first-round matchup, the San Antonio Spurs, is one of the most stingy defensive teams in the NBA. The Warriors have dominated San Antonio in recent years, but the Spurs beat Golden State 89-75 on March 19. A first-round win is no guarantee.
The Warriors have three All-Stars and a former NBA Finals MVP on their roster without Curry in the lineup _ there's a ton of talent remaining _ but Golden State's end-of-season struggles, highlighted by the team's embarrassing 119-79 loss to the Jazz in the regular-season finale, raises questions.
And while those questions — that doubt — could create anxiety for Warriors fans, it also creates intrigue heading into the playoffs. That's something last year's postseason sorely lacked and few expected to exist this season.
In the preseason, if you had put $120 down on the Warriors to win the title before the season, you would have only stood to make $50 this June, should they complete the task (the team with the best odds, the Cavs, were paying 4-to-1 in the preseason), and 93 percent of surveyed NBA general managers picked the Warriors to win the title.
Now, for the first time since this Warriors' team's first title run in 2015, Golden State is the co-favorite, tied with the Houston Rockets, who had an all-time great season, winning 65 games behind the stellar play of presumptive MVP James Harden.
Still, when the Warriors are at their best, the Rockets — or any other team in the NBA — are no match.
But it's been so long since we've seen the Warriors at their best that it's fair to wonder if that level of play is still accessible.
Can the Warriors' offense, which has struggled over the last few weeks, keep up with a loaded Western Conference playoff field if Curry — whose long-range shooting stretches defenses and spaces the court in ways previously unseen on an NBA court — isn't on the court?
Can the Warriors' defense, which has been inconsistent all season _ a byproduct of aloofness _ play the engaged, consistent, championship-caliber defense now that the "real season" is starting?
Can the Warriors "flip the switch"?
We won't really know until Saturday.