For most of Golden State’s season, April 14 has been the date that could not come soon enough.
The Warriors look at the opening day of the 2018 playoffs like kids who have mastered their toys and video games and need Christmas to bring something that stokes their competitive juices.
Golden State started this season challenged only by extreme confidence, which stems from winning 84% of regular-season games, 76% of playoff games and 66.6% of NBA championships in the previous three seasons. With more confidence (and/or boredom), the turnovers increased.
Amid more dominance, Golden State coach Steve Kerr said he could not reach his team.
As the Warriors’ four All-Stars fell to injury one by one, the team even had a stretch when it lost four of six games (gasp!).
Still, the real challenge had to come from elsewhere.
Having a playoff path potentially going through red-hot Utah and Portland, or San Antonio with Kawhi Leonard possibly back, is not even the ultimate eyebrow-raiser.
No, the risk of complacency vanishes upon seeing Houston looking like your reflection in the mirror.
The Rockets boast some of the great characteristics of Golden State’s sensational run three years ago — an unexpected, unbelievable start, an unstoppable guard, an All-Star backcourt, an empowering coach and, now, a defense to back up the historical, flame-throwing offense.
Barring a two-week collapse, the Rockets will be the Western Conference’s No. 1 postseason seed and claim home-court advantage through the NBA Finals.
Take away a 2-7 stretch when Houston was hit with injuries to James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela, and the Rockets were a 56-7 team heading into Saturday night.
The Warriors can play numbers games with injuries, too. They have nearly as many losses (eight) in 21 games without Stephen Curry as they do (10) in the 51 games with him. He returned from a right ankle injury Friday with 29 points in 25 minutes against Atlanta before spraining a ligament in his left knee, apparently when teammate JaVale McGee’s arm hit Curry’s knee as McGee fell to the court.
Curry was the Warriors’ only All-Star to play Friday as Golden State cautiously pursues full health over the top seed, and now Curry is out at least three more weeks.
This season now has Golden State’s undivided attention.
“The main thing that helps our role players is the fact that we have great core players,” Kerr said. “I was a role player on my team my entire career, and it was a lot easier to play on great teams than mediocre ones. When you can play off of other people, the game becomes easier. So, for all of our role guys, it is easier to play off of Steph and off of Klay [Thompson] and off of Kevin [Durant].
“It is easy for me to play a lot of people because of that,” Kerr continued. “I think that combination and our affinity for strength in numbers and empowering everybody and playing everybody, that only works because we have great talent.”
Getting healthy is essential. Recapturing defensive intensity is needed. Fewer turnovers is desirable, but this still is the best assist-to-turnover team in the NBA and a remarkably more watchable offense than when the Warriors barely passed before Kerr arrived.
The reenergized focus began with injuries, challenging Draymond Green to be the team’s only All-Star and play more small forward until he was sidelined by a bruised pelvis.
“Resiliency,” Green said of what the Warriors are drawing from the way the regular season is finishing. “With so many guys out and to go through this right now, it builds character to not just go out and lay down every night.
“We’ve got every excuse in the world and every reason in the world to go out and say, ‘We’re missing all those guys and we’re probably going to be the No. 2 seed if we don’t do anything else and we’ll get them back.’ We can do that, but we’re not. We know that is championship culture. We love winning.”
That mentality becomes every team’s challenge in late April, May and June. The Warriors remain the ones with uber abilities and the most fearless star personalities.
This still is the team that went from a 73-9 season in which it outscored teams by more than 10 points a game to increasing its average point differential to 11.6 last season.
It is part of what prompted Houston general manager Daryl Morey to admit to ESPN Radio in December that his franchise is “obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’ ”
With Paul, Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker joining Capela, Houston’s defense has cracked the NBA’s top 10 and it better be at least that good to corral Curry, stick to Thompson, disturb Durant and unsettle Green.
A perfect defense can even fail against a quartet of All-Stars, especially with the off-ball distraction and contact that Golden State’s inclusive offense creates. The Warriors make about 7% fewer three-pointers when they lose. They have some of the greatest shooters in Curry, Thompson and Durant.
After an 82-game menu that makes it difficult to maintain the same appetite, it is hard to believe the Warriors would not be able to flip a switch if full health and vigor are restored.
“It is motivation for every team to play against us,” Warriors center Zaza Pachulia said. “We’ve been dealing with injuries and ups and downs through the regular season. It’s important to get everybody healthy and start playing our game once we get closer to the playoffs. I believe in momentum. You want to be feeling and playing the best basketball going into the playoffs.”
Curry’s knee could sideline him until the playoffs. Remember how Durant’s return from injury six days before the playoffs affected Golden State last season? The Warriors went 16-1 in the postseason.