Breaking down Warriors' competitors in the new-look Western Conference

Breaking down Warriors' competitors in the new-look Western Conference

The Warriors, for the first time in franchise history, have won four consecutive Western Conference championships, which somewhat justifies their relative inertia toward making high-impact moves this offseason.

Remember, DeMarcus Cousins reached out to them.

The rest of the West, however, has been a hive of upheaval, not all of it logical. Nothing over the past couple weeks has been more riveting than watching those chasing the defending champs.

Here are some of the key changes, with assessments, for five retooling challengers hoping to make a deep playoff run:

ROCKETS: After earning the overall No. 1 seed by finishing with the best record in the NBA last season, the Rockers have spent the first 32 days of the offseason tinkering with the roster.

Their best wing defender, Trevor Ariza, is gone, off to the Suns after four years in the starting lineup. Also gone is key reserve Luc Mbah a Moute, their No. 2 wing defender -- and someone capable of guarding some centers. He’s now a Clipper.

The Rockets did, however, retain Chris Paul, overlooking his injury history to sign him to a max deal. They re-signed Gerald Green, who is as inconsistent as he is electrifying. They added in Michael Carter-Williams an awful shooter they hope can be an effective wing defender.

Better or worse: Worse, considerably so if Clint Capela doesn’t return.

THUNDER: Oklahoma City was starting to find its rhythm when elite wing defender Andre Roberson sustained a season-ending knee injury on Jan 27. Still, OKC rallied well enough to earn a No. 4 seed.

To the surprise of many, they were able to re-sign Paul George. They also brought back key reserve Jerami Grant. In addition, they’re bringing in free agent Nerlens Noel, a terrific rim protector, if engaged, behind big Steven Adams.

Yet the most important factors for the Thunder may be the futures of Carmelo Anthony and Andre Roberson. They’d like to unload Melo, whose All-Star ability is gone. His departure would amount to addition by subtraction. Roberson is a crucial asset. His absence stung, as OKC’s defense dropped from top-5 to ordinary.

Better or worse: Better, if Roberson meets his timetable and is ready for opening night.

PELICANS: Thanks to a sizzling second half by Anthony Davis, the Pelicans finished with the No. 6 seed and proceeded to demolish Portland in a first-round sweep.

New Orleans has replaced Cousins with Lakers free agent big man Julius Randle, who was recruited by Davis and would seem to be a better fit for this fast-paced offense. They’ll also have sharpshooter Nikola Mirotic for a full season.

But losing Rajon Rondo, along with Cousins, should take some of the bite out of the offense. As a replacement, Elfrid Payton brings better scoring ability but lacks Rondo’s floor command.

Better or worse: Potentially better, as long as Jrue Holiday is healthy and productive.

BLAZERS: Behind guards Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and a crew of mostly nondescript characters, Portland played itself into a No. 3 seed. It was surprising then and would be downright shocking if it were repeated in 2019.

To a team featuring two star guards, the Blazers added . . . more guards: Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas through free agency, and Gary Trent Jr. in the draft.

And while the Blazers have agreed to a new deal with center Jusuf Nurkic, they let rugged rebounder Ed Davis walk for an affordable $4.4 million from the Nets. Davis will be missed.

Better or worse: Worse, unless Nurkic brings his “A-plus-plus” game.

LAKERS: After finishing 11th in the West at 35-47 and missing the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, the Lakers knew what they had to do. And they did it.

They underwent a major overhaul, bringing in veteran free agents Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Rondo and a superstar named LeBron James. They also re-signed starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Fans are dancing on freeways in Hollywood.

Though James and Rondo might be a load for coach Luke Walton and his staff, the vets should complement youngsters Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball. Don’t be surprised if, at times, they miss Randle.

Better or worse: Better. They’ll make the playoffs, but don’t yet have enough proven shooters to be a championship contender.

Warriors' promised focus yet to arrive as bad habits linger in playoffs

Warriors' promised focus yet to arrive as bad habits linger in playoffs

OAKLAND -- They shrugged off those spasms of regular-season lethargy resulting in several puzzling losses, usually at Oracle Arena, with the same message, sometimes literally, other times implicitly.

We know what’s important to win, and it’s not the regular season. We’ll be fine.

The playoffs. Yes, the playoffs. That’s what matters, they said, vowing to be better.

The playoffs arrived 12 days ago. The Warriors, however, are still in transit.

And Oracle does not provide the shift into overdrive it once did.

That much was abundantly evident Wednesday night, when the defending NBA champs took the floor at Oracle for Game 5 with a chance to oust the Los Angeles Clippers and got precisely what their half-hearted effort earned, a 129-121 loss that extends the first-round series to Game 6 on Friday in LA.

This falls squarely on the defense, which all too often was a collective yawn. The Warriors gave up 37 points in the first quarter, 34 more in the second and spent the rest of the evening trying to use offense to catch up. They did, ever so briefly, though LA never really stopped scoring, shooting 56.0 percent in the first half and 51.4 in the second.

“It’s very disappointing, and that falls on me,” Draymond Green said. “If I bring the intensity from the start, everybody else usually falls in line on that side of the ball. That’s my fault. I’ve got to do better.”

Well, actually, there was plenty of fault to go around. Aside from Kevin Durant’s sizzling 45-point night, not much else went well for the Warriors.

Asked if he put some of the responsibility on himself, Stephen Curry said, “For sure.”

Klay Thompson also pointed at himself, conceding that he was looking past the Clippers to the next series, with the Warriors learning before tipoff that the Houston Rockets will be waiting.

[RELATED: Rockets' Capela declares he wants Warriors in second round]

“Start with me. I was,” he said. “I thought we were going to come out and win tonight, but sometimes life doesn’t go as planned.”

That also applies to this postseason, in which the Warriors, hard as this is to believe, have stumbled into by losing two of three to the No. 8 seed in the building that has been such an advantage in recent postseasons. In their first four postseasons under coach Steve Kerr, they were 39-6 at Oracle.

They’re now 40-8, which still is impressive, but the losses have come in back-to-back games, the first with the Warriors blowing a 31-point third-quarter lead and the second with them watching a parade of Clippers blow by them to the basket.

“I just think we let our guard down,” Kerr said. “I didn’t have them ready to fight, obviously, because we didn’t fight.”

Only once before under Kerr have the Warriors lost back-to-back playoff games at home. That was in the 2016 Finals, which ended with LeBron James orchestrating a championship parade through the streets of Cleveland.

This is different, though. Those Warriors were hungry but hampered by the suspension of Green. These Warriors seem more, well, comfortable. They most certainly are not as hungry as the Clippers, who are driven as much by desire as talent.

“Everything we did in LA, we did not do tonight,” Kerr said, referring to victories in Games 3 and 4 at Staples Center. “We sort of seemed to take it for granted that we were going to be OK. But I said it before the game, that this Clippers team has been scrapping and clawing all year.”

There was a time when the Warriors scratched and clawed, when it was a part of their identity. It was visible last postseason, never more than in the Finals, when they swept the Cavaliers, with three of the four wins by double digits.

The Warriors say they still have that in them. They’re confident they’ll respond Friday. And maybe they will.

But after so many uneven performances, this one in the playoffs, nothing is certain anymore.

Warriors' identity is their defense, and it abandoned them in Game 5 loss

Warriors' identity is their defense, and it abandoned them in Game 5 loss

OAKLAND — Minutes after his team blew Game 5 to the Clippers on Wednesday night, Warriors coach Steve Kerr walked into his league-mandated press conference seething, holding back anger at another subpar defensive performance by the defending NBA champs. 

"Not good," Kerr said following the 129-121 loss at Oracle Arena.

Since training camp opened in September, Golden State's quest for a third consecutive title has been marred by inconsistency, uncertainty and a promise that a championship switch could be flipped. After two image-restoring wins in Los Angeles, the Warriors had a chance to rectify their consistency problems, but like much of the regular season, they failed to finish the job. 

In a game where the Warriors needed superior energy, they came out flat, allowing the Clippers to shoot 54.1 percent from the field. Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari and Montrezl Harrell combined for 83 points. 

The performance was reminiscent of the sleepwalking act Golden State displayed in the second half of the Game 2 loss,?when the Warriors were outscored 85-58, squandering a 31-point lead. In Game 5, they were outscored 34-22 in the second quarter, and falling behind by as many as 15 points in the second half.  

Wednesday's performance seemed curious, considering the Warriors dominated the Clippers in Games 3 and 4, holding Williams to 28 percent shooting from the field over that stretch. On Sunday, they even overcame a Clippers third-quarter burst to take control of the best-of-seven playoff series. 

"Everything we did in L.A. we did not do tonight," Kerr said. "... And you knew they weren't going to go down without a fight."

Seeds of Wednesday's performance have been sprinkled throughout the season. Following a 10-1 start, the Warriors finished the month of November 7-7. After the All-Star break, they stumbled again, with curious home losses to the Boston Celtics and the Phoenix Suns, who finished their season with the worst record in the league. Each curious loss was met with the promise the Warriors will turn it around, that a switch could be flipped, that they've done this before and turned out OK. 

But Wednesday’s loss again proved that the Warriors, while great, aren't invincible.

"When we get a nice lead, we just tend to relax a little bit," said Kevin Durant, who finished with 45 points, six rebounds and six assists. "I said it before, teams are looking for something just to get them back into the game. If we foul a 3-point shooter or turn the rock over or we shoot a few bad shots in a row, teams get going, they'll build some confidence." 

Prior to the game, a television tucked away inside the Warriors’ training room had the channel turned to Game 5 of the Rockets-Jazz first-round series with a number of players intently watching. For much of the season, the Rockets and Warriors have been destined to collide in the postseason. The Warriors know this and, while not outright admitting it, have looked ahead to the potential second-round matchup. 

"Yup, start with me, I was," Warriors guard Klay Thompson admitted. "I thought we were going to come out and win tonight, but sometimes life doesn't go as planned. We're still in a great position with hopefully only 48 minutes left to close these guys out."

But before a second-round series can commence, the Warriors have to find a consistent focus that has eluded them this season. Just before Kerr walked off the podium late Wednesday night, he was asked by a reporter what the identity of his team is going into Game 6.

Kerr, almost taken aback, let out the frustration he'd been holding for much of the session. 

"What's the identity of our club?" Kerr asked back. "Back-to-back champions.

[RELATED: Bad habits linger in the playoffs]

"Like, we're really good. I mean, we're hanging banners. What's our identity? We play fast. We play defense. I don't know. Maybe we should do an instructional video later, and we'll send it to you."

With the Warriors now on the ropes, it's time for Kerr and his team to follow their own credo.