By Matthew Ajaj
Scandal’s 1984 song “The Warrior” begs the question, “Who’s the hunter, who’s the game?” This inquiry finds its way into modern relevance, since the reigning-champion Golden State Warriors are starting to show signs of weakness as the playoffs draw near.
In a nail-biting Friday night fight to the finish, the Warriors fell to the Boston Celtics on Friday, April 1, in their home court, Oracle Arena, effectively ending the title defenders’ NBA record 54-game home win-streak for the regular season. Golden State was plagued by turnovers all night long, producing an uneven effort that made for its sloppiest affair of the season. The Celtics looked much more determined and poised, causing the ordinarily aggressive and unstoppable Warriors to appear timid and vulnerable.
First and foremost, the Warriors deserve a congratulatory pat on the back for such an implausible run — they had not lost a home game since January 2015. Since then, the team has won a championship and reigning MVP Stephen Curry has developed into almost inarguably the best basketball player in the world.
With an NBA-best 68-8 record, Golden State is still sitting pretty at the top of the Western Conference. There remains the strong possibility that the team surpasses the best regular season record of all-time, an achievement currently held by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who were led by the great Michael Jordan to a 72-10 record. Yet, despite all of this success, there seems to be trouble brewing in Golden State’s basketball paradise.
This is not the same Golden State team that started off the season 24-0. Since losing sixth man Andre Iguodala from the bench due to an ankle injury in mid-March, the team’s play has visibly faltered. They are not blowing opponents away like they did earlier in the season and are instead letting teams stick around until the game’s final minutes before squeaking out their victories.
Their “struggles” were emphasized in the Thursday, March 19, loss to their most formidable foe, the San Antonio Spurs, as the Warriors only managed a meager, season-low 79 points. Ian Clark and Brandon Rush — the primary inheritors of Iguodala’s missed minutes — are simply not filling in the sixth man’s shoes well enough.
Another noteworthy deficiency has been power forward Draymond Green’s play since head coach Steve Kerr fully recovered from surgery and took back his coaching duties from the interim man Luke Walton in late January. Green was a dark horse candidate for the MVP in the early going, but simply has not played to the same effectiveness since.
Of course, these revelations are somewhat underwhelming seeing how the Warriors are the NBA’s best team regardless. Iguodala will be back before the playoffs begin and Green has still been playing like an All-Star although to less of an extent than before.
Still, a championship repeat will be tough. It sounds crazy considering that the Warriors have only gotten better since last season, but winning a title this year will be much tougher for the Warriors than it was for them in 2015.
One factor for this tough time is the fact that they were a lucky team last year. The Warriors were fortunate to not experience any injuries down the stretch in 2015, while many of their adversaries found themselves hobbled and hampered.
It can be argued that the Warriors created their own “luck” in the sense that management had assembled a younger, historically-healthier team. However, it cannot be debated that the Warriors lucked out with an easy playoff schedule. Thanks to some strange upsets, they managed to avoid both the Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers — conceivably their two biggest threats. The good fortune factor was most evident in the NBA Finals, where the healthy Golden State team managed to overcome the Kevin Love-less Cleveland Cavaliers — the Cavs were also without Kyrie Irving after Game 1 of the series due to another injury.
By the law of averages, one may figure that the Warriors’s injury and competition luck will have to run out soon enough. The opposition will undoubtedly be better in 2016-2017. The Warriors appear poised to face either the Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, two teams that are arguably the most capable to push the Warriors into a deep series. If Golden State faces off against Cleveland in the Finals once again, it is unlikely that Love and Irving will not be on the court.
However, the greatest threat to Golden State’s championship defense run is themselves. The tension is mounting as the young squad tries to make NBA history with the best regular season record of all-time and, at the same time, meeting the nationwide expectation for them to win it all once again. The Warriors have a target on their backs as every playoff team will be eager and on the prowl to take down the former champs. If they become caught up in the pressure, the Warriors might soon find themselves shooting at walls of heartache.