Steve Kerr

Like it or not, Warriors have earned their mediocre status

NBC Universal, Inc.

The pursuit of fifth or sixth place in the Western Conference, conceivable three weeks ago, has been torpedoed. Seventh or eighth remains attainable, but the Warriors are 10th because that’s what they’ve earned.

And the way the Houston Rockets are soaring, with nine consecutive wins putting them one-half game behind the Warriors, that No. 10 seed is in play.

Steve Kerr, glancing beyond inconvenient facts, still expresses hope. Stephen Curry, ever loyal, won’t surrender but feels walls closing in. Draymond Green gazes at the Warriors’ shortcomings, projects their future and does not blink.

“We keep losing,” Green told reporters Sunday night in Minnesota after a 114-110 loss to the Timberwolves. “That’s not encouraging.”

NBA teams experience at least five different varieties of defeat, and the Warriors, losing 34 of 70 games this season, are acquainted with all of them. Scheduled losses, expected losses, shocking losses, losses that defy logic and losses that reveal their ceiling.

It’s the fourth group – beaten by the San Antonio Spurs, the Atlanta Hawks, the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls, to name four – that has Golden State on the endangered list for the NBA playoffs.

Green offered a succinct and frank explanation for the unsatisfying season.

“Losing games – especially games that we should win,” he said. “We lose a lot of games that we should win. In this league you have to win the games you’re supposed to win, and steal a few that you’re not supposed to win.

“But if you lose the ones you’re supposed to win, you’re in for a long year.”

But it’s fifth group, the losses that reveal the Warriors’ ceiling, that hits even harder for a proud group and the decorated core – Kerr, Curry, Green and Klay Thompson – that has earned a combined 16 championship rings.

The Warriors are on the fringe because they’ve been inferior to the teams ahead of them in the West.

They are 5-16 against the top six: Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings. Golden State plays New Orleans on April 12 at Chase Center

The Warriors are a combined 1-5 against teams sixth through eighth place: Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns. They face the Mavericks twice more, April 2 at Chase, April 5 in Dallas.

Only against the ninth-place Lakers do the Warriors have an advantage (2-1), and the last meeting between the two is two weeks away in Los Angeles.

It’s a much different conference than the one the Warriors routinely dog-walked a few years ago. The 44-38 record that last season put the Warriors in sixth place with a guaranteed playoff berth might be enough this season for a lower-tier berth in the play-in tournament.

The West is deeper than it has been since 2013-14, when the Suns were 48-34 but missed the playoffs because that only got them ninth place (before the play-in tournament was implemented).

The quality depth in the West this season is real.

“For sure it is, from top to bottom,” Curry acknowledged. “You’ve got the defending champs. You got Minnesota, you got OKC, the young guys on the map. And then you got the that next tier, teams that have had playoff experience and are trying to get to that next level.

“You got us down the way, where we're surprised that we're here, but we still feel like we're capable of beating anybody.”

Curry’s faith comes mostly from his personal history and, also, that of the franchise that rose from the ashes of a 26-56 record in his rookie season to begin a dynastic run four years later.

Green, still raw from the loss to the Timberwolves, is not of a mind to avoid the harsh glare of the present.

“They’re an NBA team, too, and by the standings they’re a much better NBA team than us,” he said. “If you can't [avoid] breakdowns, you're going to lose. And if you play against a team that is technically better than you, and you have breakdowns, you're always going. And that's why we lose a lot right now.”

The main source of Golden State’s recent tailspin is its defense. It was the element behind the team’s 11-3 record last month, and its startling regression is largely responsible for the Warriors' 5-7 record this month.

Most visible is that the defensive play of the Warriors’ primary wings – Jonathan Kuminga, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins – generally is solid on the ball but far too negligent off it. There it was again on Sunday, which helped Minnesota find enough space to shoot 52.5 percent from distance.

“There were some breakdowns,” Kerr said.

It’s a comment the coach has uttered far too often this season. The defensive inconsistency is caused by a combination of overhelping, poor focus, failure to know opposing personnel and, in some cases, reluctant legs.

Which has the Warriors at 34-36, closer to the 11th-place Rockets than the ninth-place Lakers – the one team ahead of them they’ve beaten twice.

Even with the West's elite using the Warriors as a path to home-court advantage in the first round, Curry believes reaching the familiar territory of the playoffs would revivify the team.

“Everybody has talent,” he said. “Everybody has something that they've built their identity on and it’s a very competitive landscape. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

“But we want to be in that fight.”

Each of Golden State’s final 12 games represent a “fight.” They have little chance of winning most of them without greater intensity and sharper focus, and maybe some spiked gloves.

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