Why Warriors' game vs. Thunder in OKC starts important stretch


The Warriors, without playing a game the previous day, woke up Monday out of the NBA play-in tournament and as the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. This season, that's how the standings have gone. 

Only the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies have separated themselves in the West. Catching them isn't an impossible task. They're just not in the same boat as literally every other team from the No. 3 seed to the No. 13 seed. And with that, the Warriors' game Monday against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Paycom Center starts a very important stretch for the defending champions. 

Starting Monday night in OKC, the Warriors play seven straight games against Western Conference opponents. Eight of their nine games before the NBA All-Star break also are against teams out West. Coming out of the All-Star break, Golden State plays nine straight games against Western Conference foes before going to Milwaukee to take on the Bucks. 

Here's where things get really interesting. 

Golden State going into Monday's slate of games is 25-24 after winning two straight home games. That puts them two-and-a-half games back of the No. 3 seed Sacramento Kings. At the same time, the Warriors also are only a game back of the No. 11 seed Thunder, pushing them out of the play-in tournament.

There's the wild, wild West and then there's the tornado of teams hovering just above or just below a winning record in what has been basketball's best conference for years. 

Now, let's get back to the schedule. The Warriors' 18-game stretch that features one Eastern Conference team, the Washington Wizards on Feb. 13, has them playing 14 games against West teams that are within two games of the Dubs. Prior to the All-Star break, the Warriors play the Thunder (No. 11 seed), Minnesota Timberwolves (No. 5 seed), Nuggets (No. 1 seed), Portland Trail Blazers (No. 12 seed) and Los Angeles Clippers (No. 4 seed) on the road. The Blazers are the lowest seed, yet they're only two games behind the Warriors. 

After the break, they play the Los Angeles Lakers (No. 13 seed) twice, Thunder once and Grizzlies (No. 2 seed) once on the road before that 18-game stretch ends. Highlighting the Warriors' road struggles is pointless by now. They're 19-6 at home and 6-18 away from Chase Center. Road wins have to start now, beginning Monday night against the Thunder. 

Home games in this 18-game span that goes through March 9 include the Dallas Mavericks (No. 7 seed), Thunder, Lakers, Houston Rockets (No. 15 seed), Wolves, Blazers, Clippers and Pelicans (No. 8 seed). The Warriors longest road trip in this period is three games (twice) and their longest homestand is five straight from Feb. 24 through March 5. 

"Just continued improvement," Steve Kerr told reporters Sunday after Warriors practice when asked what he's looking for in the Warriors' upcoming road trip, starting Monday night. "We know the areas we need to get better with. I think each individual player understands what he can do better, and how that contributes to the team's success and the team goal.

"We've been in this situation several times where we have a little bit of momentum. It's got to carry through." 

What makes Monday significant too is the return of Andrew Wiggins. The only player on the Warriors' injury report is Andre Iguodala, who will miss his eighth straight game to a right hip strain. Wiggins wasn't able to play in the Warriors' last two games while dealing with his third non-COVID illness this season. 

Kerr on Sunday said Wiggins was a full participant in practice and looked great back on the court. Since returning from a 15-game absence, the longest of his career, to a right adductor strain and those previous two illnesses, Wiggins has struggled. Especially with his shot. 

In the seven games he has played in 2023, Wiggins is averaging 12.4 points while shooting 34 percent from the field and 22.7 percent on 3-point attempts. Before being sidelined, he was averaging 19.1 points to the tune of a 51.1 shooting percentage and a career-best 45.0 percent from deep. 

"Oh for sure, for sure," Wiggins said Sunday when asked if he has been dealing with a level of frustration. "I feel like I was out for a long time already with the adductor injury. Just being out with this is kind of annoying not being out there with my guys." 

RELATED: Sensing confusion, Kerr has one-on-one chat with Wiseman

How does Wiggins get through everything mentally? Watching the Warriors win. 

He was able to do so from afar in the last two games, and the Warriors closed their three-game homestand strong with a season-high 40 assists in a 129-117 win over the Toronto Raptors. The time is now for the Warriors to find those kinds of wins on the road. 

They're as healthy as they have been all season. It's only Jan. 30, and there still are 33 regular-season games to go. However, waiting is becoming less and less of an option. Stacking wins for once this season will have the Warriors climbing the Western Conference standings, and they can taste the opportunity in front of them.

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