Fans have long lamented the length of the NBA season. It starts sometime around Halloween and, aside from a few showcase games on Christmas and MLK Day, we don’t watch the league with any fervor until after the Super Bowl.
So imagine how the Golden State Warriors feel. Any other team with a record of 58-23 would be dancing in the locker room. But with one more loss, the Warriors will have as many losses this year as they had the last two seasons combined (24). Other than LeBron James, who’s been to seven straight NBA Finals, no one gets the frivolity of winter basketball like this fresh new dynasty from Oakland.
But after playing step-for-step with the Rockets (64-16), the Warriors have plunged 6.5 games behind Houston to the second seed in the Western Conference. Not a big deal when you’re as battle-hardened as the Warriors. Unless you read more into it than simply their wins and losses. They’ve split their last 10 games, and are 7-9 over their last 16 contests.
Steph Curry, the two-time NBA MVP and unofficial heartbeat of the franchise, has played in just 51 of 81 games, and is currently fighting a knee injury that has him shooting typically well before games, just not during games. His splash brother, Klay Thompson, can pick up some of the slack, as he did last night against the Phoenix Suns, but they are the Phoenix Suns (20-61), part of the tanking movement that has plagued the NBA for a few years now.
The other stars in the constellation of All-Stars dotting the roster have been a bit more durable. Thompson (72), Draymond Green (69), and Kevin Durant (67) have played a robust portion of the 82-game slate, which ends this week. But beyond injuries, there seems to be a simmering discontent among the Warriors, especially within the most important player not named Curry.
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Indeed, the MVP of last year’s NBA Finals — Kevin Durant — has been oddly assertive, if not downright angry, for much of this season. Durant has shed the low-key regularity that came to define him in Oklahoma City and is way more vocal and aggressive these days, getting tossed from games with troubling frequency. Durant has gone from modest to maniacal, at least when it comes to the rate of technical fouls whistled his way.
After getting tossed from a game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Durant blamed his growing irritation on his insatiable desire to win the NBA title. But Durant was able to do that last year without these verbal outbursts on the hardwood. He’s now been ejected from five games this season, while he was only removed from one game over the first 10 years of his career. The two technical fouls that got him bounced from the Bucks game were his 13th and 14th for the season, leaving him just two short of an automatic, one-game suspension.
Then we had the ugly loss last week, a woeful effort during a 126-106 drubbing at Indiana, a game head coach Steve Kerr called embarrassing, saying the club played like it didn’t care. (It was the second time this season Kerr made such an assertion.) Again making his opinion atypically loud, Durant publicly disagreed with Kerr.
These could all be the trivial machinations of a team that is just snoozing through the regular season, with its alarm set for the first night of the playoffs. If team sports have taught us anything, it’s that the only thing harder than winning a world championship is doing it again. Maybe the Warriors crave the infighting or adversity to keep them on edge, to remain the kind of hardwood carnivores that win consecutive NBA Finals.
But for the first time since this enchanted run started, the biggest threat to Golden State isn’t in Ohio, and isn’t wearing No. 23. Once Cleveland dealt Kyrie Irving, predictably straining to win just 49 games this season, King James isn’t the talk or chalk of the NBA. The Warriors have to worry about those pesky Rockets, who have already beat the Warriors twice out of three games. According to Vegasinsider.com, the Dubs are 6-5 favorites to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Rockets are a whisker behind, at 8-5.
By the time they reach the Western Conference Finals — presumably in Houston — the Warriors will be physically fit. Between the ears, they’d better flip the switch, or they may switch places with the Rockets in the new-world pecking order.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.