It has been a staple of all Warrior-based analysis that there is a point at which the Warriors should be playing their best basketball in preparation for the postseason grind. That much is true. There is a point.
And the Warriors have passed it.
Even with Sunday’s 117-100 win over the spectacularly inert Phoenix Suns, the Warriors are a substandard-by-any-standard 7-9 in the last month, and while the ziggurat of injuries out back is an impressive one and Steve Kerr has soothed over and injured feelings by re-defining the word “care,” nobody trying to beat the Warriors cares about the Warriors. That would match the number of condolences the Warriors sent the rest of the league in 2015, 2016 and 2017, when they were the fourth-healthiest team in the game by games-missed-to-injury.
Still, only one other playoff-bound team has a worse record in the last month, the 5-10 Washington Wizards, and nobody has empowered them with championship aspirations at any point.
Even more daunting, only two teams that finished below .500 in the last month of the regular season went on to win the championship, and that goes back to 1975, which as we all know is the first year the NBA existed.
It is also the first Golden State championship team, which is why you can tell we have phrased it the way in which we have.
Only the 1985 Houston Rockets and 1996 Miami Heat, both of whom finished the regular season 7-9, rallied in the real season, and both those teams were filling voids left by vacated powerhouses – the first Chicago Jordan in the case of the Rockets, and the demise of the Lakers, Spurs and Celtics in the case of the Heat.
Indeed, the average last-month record of the champions in those 43 years is roughly 11-5, which means that yes, one of the helpful if not necessarily foolproof predictors of a deep playoff run is indeed a strong regular season close. The last two Warrior champions finished 15-2 and 15-4, and the 2016 team that stopped being the Warriors for the worst five minutes of the season finished 14-3.
This explains why Kerr has been so insistent about focus and emotion and effort, and why the team’s continued erratic behavior has so widely broadened the team’s playoff possibilities from second-round loser to imperious victors. And no, this will not be another tedious polemic on their wasteful level of play in March and April, or their intermittent indifference to defense. That particular dog has been hunted out, and the Warriors are at the point where they and only they will decide just who they are and who they don’t want to be.
Put another way, the teams who people mention most frequently as potential successors to the Golden State throne – Houston, Toronto, Cleveland and Philadelphia – have been acting like it. Philly (admittedly a longshot still, but an increasingly charming one) is 15-2, Houston 14-2, Utah (no on a title but yes on great botheration of anyone who might) is 12-3, Cleveland is 12-5 and Toronto is 12-5. Boston, 9-7, will have to do what damage it can without Kyrie Irving, so we have chosen not to include them.
But the point remains the same – you are how you finish in today’s NBA, and ascribe whatever reasons you wish, but the Golden State Warriors closed the last three regular seasons by going 59-12 after March 1. If they want this season not to be forgettable, they will have to figure a way to make people forget that March and April actually do matter, and a lot.