OAKLAND — Wednesday’s Game 5 wasn’t an opportunity for the Warriors — it was a test.
A test of their championship character; of their ability to grit their teeth and get a job done.
And they failed in spectacular fashion.
The Clippers had no business winning one game over the Warriors in the teams’ first-round NBA Playoff series, but after Wednesday’s 129-121 victory, they’ve now claimed two — at Oracle Arena, no less — and Golden State will have to head back to L.A. to play another game in a series that should be long over.
And while, yes, the Warriors should still be expected to advance past their Southland rivals — eventually — by failing their test Wednesday, they have now put themselves at a disadvantage heading into their inevitable rematch with the Houston Rockets, who advanced with a Game 5 victory of their own on Wednesday.
The Warriors could have taken a nice break, just like the Rockets, before a Sunday afternoon Game 1. Now, they’ll only get to determine who they play in that matinee — LA in a Game 7 or Houston for the first contest in what could be another epic showdown.
So while Wednesday’s Game 5 wasn’t a must-win — not in the technical sense — but with that context in mind, it was a should-win contest.
What does it say about this team that they lost such a contest?
OAKLAND, CA – APRIL 24: Golden State Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob, left, chats with Russian-Israeli venture capitalist Yuri Milner before the start of the Golden State Warriors game against the Los Angeles Clippers for Game 5 of their NBA first round playoff series at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
After the loss, Warriors coach Steve Kerr was asked what the identity of his team was. It was a surprisingly deep and borderline non-sequitur question for a post-game presser, but it clearly rubbed Kerr the wrong way.
“Back-to-back champions,” Kerr said. “I don’t know, like, we’re really good. I mean, we’re hanging banners.”
But that’s not an identity, that’s a legacy.
And if these 2018-19 Warriors view the two as one and the same — if they think the past performance equals future results — then this team, as talented as it might be, will not be hanging another banner.
Hubris, after all, is the leading cause of death of dynasties.
So what is the identity of this team?
What’s to say it wasn’t on display Wednesday?
After all, the script the Warriors read from in Game 5 was one they rehearsed time and time again in the regular season: Their overmatched opponent came to Oracle Arena and provided the Warriors with their best shot — scrapping and clawing and flopping and fighting for everything like their basketball lives depended it on it. Meanwhile, Golden State, up 3-1 in the series, sleepwalked on defense and attempted to take the path of least resistance on offense, running a motionless offense that resulted in a bunch of a ton of speculative long-distance shots.
There wasn’t so much one thing — one moment, one run, one matchup, one stat — that turned Game 5 in the Clippers favor, it was a bunch of little things:
Smaller players crashing the glass and taking away rebounds from the Warriors’ 7-footers. The Warriors not getting back on transition defense time and time again. A steady stream of defensive breakdowns. Shooting way too many deep, contested, off-balance shots instead of going to the basket, where they were sure to draw fouls.
The Warriors once again banked on their talent taking over — details and defense are for teams that don’t boast four All-Stars.
“We know what we’re supposed to do. We’ve got the gameplan,” Kevin Durant said. “This team has a habit — since I’ve been here, for sure — [of] when we have a nice lead, we tend to relax, just a little bit.”
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr talks to a referee in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of their NBA first round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)
Durant, to his credit, did his part Wednesday — he scored 45 points as an independent contractor carrying the load for an offense that was overall devoid of verve, aggression, and urgency. His effort was spectacular, but collectively, the Warriors didn’t do enough to win. That’s impressive.
Were they looking ahead to the Rockets? (It’d be hard to blame them, we all were too.)
Klay Thompson said they were — well, at least he was. Others in the Warriors locker room pushed back at that notion.
But it doesn’t matter — it was clear that their heads were not in Wednesday’s game.
This Golden State team spent all season messing around, playing down to competition and often self-sabotaging in challenging situations. They practiced it again and again — of course they developed a skill.
Of course, the Warriors have brushed off their intermittent focus and pervasive ennui off as inconsequential — a predictable and natural byproduct of meaningless regular season games amid a record five-year run.
But now we’re in the postseason, and those bad habits are still present. Perhaps the clear and present danger of the Rockets — a team that can actually beat them in a seven-game series without needing much help — in the second round might spark a fire the Clippers could never elicit in the Warriors. We certainly saw the Warriors get up for a few big games in the regular season.
But after two unacceptable losses, it’s fair to question if this is all really just a phase for these Warriors.
And if it’s not, this team can’t waste another moment to prove it.