Kawakami: The fading Warriors, the signs of futility and maybe one last rally … next season

Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Steve Kerr are very proud, positive, accomplished people and pretty stubborn, too. They’re not going to give up on any season with weeks left to play and mathematical chances still on the table.

Even after Sunday’s late-fade 114-110 loss to the Timberwolves in Minneapolis, which dropped Golden State’s lead for the final Play-In spot to just a game over the charging Houston Rockets, the Warriors aren’t in the business of making public lamentations about their ever-dwindling hopes to contend for a fifth championship of this era. They will keep fighting until there’s nothing left to fight for. They will say it and they will do it.

There’s also nothing too shameful about losing a fourth-quarter game to the Timberwolves, who raised their home record to 25-9 and remain nip and tuck with the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder for the ordering of the top three playoff seeds in the Western Conference. The Warriors’ home loss to the Indiana Pacers on Friday was embarrassing. Sunday’s loss, to kick off the toughest road trip of the season, was just a routine NBA defeat to a better team. You don’t toss away a season over losses like this.

However … you can tell that some of this is piling up on Curry & Co. You could hear it in the tired tone of their voices after this loss. You’ve felt it this season in the later stages of games, when the older Warriors seem to hit a wall and younger teams like the Timberwolves and Pacers just go racing on by. You can just feel this entire franchise sagging a bit — or more than a bit — from the accumulation of losses, years, triumphs, controversies, injuries and everything else over the last decade-plus.

“We keep losing games,” Draymond told reporters in Minneapolis. “Especially games we should win. We lose a lot of games that we should win.”

That’s been the most exhausting and aggravating part of this season for the Warriors, that they can play well enough to contend with just about anybody for three or so quarters, but they’ve failed to finish in too many instances. Just like Sunday. Their old players are just a touch too old to consistently pull this off. Their young players are just a touch too inexperienced to fill in that gap. And the players who should be in the prime of their careers have sort of all disappeared in the past two seasons.

The Warriors are living through this every game now, winning some, losing more than they should. It’s draining. It’s all so draining.

And maybe you could see a sign of a new reality in Kerr’s use of Curry on Sunday, which sure didn’t seem to match the general feeling that this was a game the Warriors absolutely had to win to maintain any semblance of Play-In positioning.

Kerr only played Curry 30 minutes, including resting him in the first 5:06 of the fourth quarter, when the Warriors were outscored 19-8, which turned their small lead after three quarters into a 97-89 Minnesota advantage. Even more specifically, after a timeout at the 8:56 mark with the Timberwolves just squeezing out to 90-86 lead, Curry remained on the bench for another 2:02. In that last span, Minnesota extended the lead four more points.

Even by the standards of a coach who has always been convinced that the Warriors get the best out of Curry by not overplaying him, and even for a guy who has been proven mostly right over the years, this seemed extremely conservative.

Did Kerr think the game might’ve been decided in that extra two-minute span with Curry sitting?

“We’ve got Chris Paul out there,” Kerr said. “We’ve got Klay. We’ve got Draymond. We’ve got great players out there. We can’t expect to just ride Steph game after game after game. These last few weeks have been really tough on him. We’ve put the burden of this franchise on his shoulders for … 15 years? We can’t expect him to play 35 minutes. We’ve got five games in seven days on this road trip. If you want to say that him playing 30 minutes instead of 32 was the difference between the win and the loss, I totally disagree with that. We’re trying to win the game. We’re trying to keep them fresh, too.”

Kerr noted that Curry has gone through a lot in recent weeks, from his All-Star duties to his three-game absence after tweaking his ankle to his 35-minute stint Friday against the Pacers. The Warriors do put a lot of weight on his 36-year-old shoulders.

In his 15th NBA season, Stephen Curry is averaging just 32.7 minutes as the Warriors’ hopes at even the Play-In Tournament are in jeopardy. (Brad Rempel / USA Today)

And I wonder if Sunday night’s long Curry rest was a sign that Kerr is consciously or subconsciously beginning to pull some chips out of the pot this season. That maybe this isn’t the season to push Curry (who is averaging just 32.7 minutes) to the limits. That if the sixth seed was in realistic reach, which seemed possible three or four losses ago, then the Warriors could logically burn everything they had for that quest, which would’ve given them some shot at a couple of playoff upsets, like last season’s victory as a 6 seed over 3-seed Sacramento and at least a competitive series against the 7-seed Lakers in the second round.

But the Warriors are now 5.5 games behind 6-seed Phoenix and facing a back-to-back in Miami and Orlando on Tuesday and Wednesday, a game in Charlotte on Friday, another in San Antonio on Sunday, and then back home against Dallas on Tuesday, April 2, and a back-to-back in Houston and Dallas the following Thursday and Friday.

By the time the Warriors play that game in Houston, which has won 10 of its last 11 games, I think the Warriors will be trailing the Rockets in the standings, though they do hold the tiebreaker advantage. So the Warriors might face a semi-elimination game on April 4 — just in the race for 10th.

If the Warriors get the 10th seed, they’d have to play a do-or-die Play-In game on the road against the 9 seed, and if the Warriors win that, they’d have to play another elimination game on the road against the loser of the 7-8 Play-In game. And if the Warriors win that one, they’d be the eighth seed and would have to immediately fly to the home court of the No. 1 seed to start the first round of the playoffs. That’s a draining thing just to contemplate.

And that’s if everything goes well. Any stumble along the way and the Warriors either don’t make the Play-In at all or they lose in the Play-In and are on vacation.

Does that sound worth pressing the emergency button with Curry’s minutes, possibly at the expense of what he can bring to next season? Maybe, maybe not. I think Curry will have a say in this and he might win out and get back to 34-36 minutes a game in the next week or so. Maybe Draymond will, too. But if the Warriors keep losing games, I think we’ve seen that Kerr might start to play the very long game — try to save some of Curry and Draymond’s best energy for next season instead of messing up the true last dance of the Warriors in a vain effort over the next 12 games.

Really, I think Curry’s injury, which contributed heavily to the end-game give-away to the Bulls and then led to the Warriors going 1-2 in games he missed entirely, changed the scope of this. If the Warriors had gone 3-1 in that stretch instead of 1-3, they’d be safely inside the Play-In, with some chance at the 7 or 8 seed. That’s nothing regal, but it was something better than what they’ve got. And it’s all mostly gone now.

To be clear, again: I’m not saying Kerr or anybody else on the team is waving off this season. But Kerr is signed for two more lucrative years and has a proven history of playing the long game. And Curry, Draymond, Klay and the rest surely are starting to feel the futility right now. They’ll try to get into the Play-In. But they likely won’t put themselves at major risk of exhaustion and injury to do it.

They will keep fighting. They might even pull off a surprise victory here or there, maybe starting Tuesday in Miami. But the Warriors have told us who they are through 70 games this season, and they’re also starting to tell us that their best shot at changing the story probably won’t come until next season.



Warriors let possible win in Minnesota slip while Steph Curry rests at crucial time

(Photo of Stephen Curry during Sunday’s loss in Minnesota: Brad Rempel / USA Today)

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