The NBA playoffs begin Saturday night for the Warriors, with Game 1 in their house, against a Houston Rockets team that has lost 28 of its last 31 games. They’ll be favored.
Win, and the faint pulse of their season gets perceptibly stronger.
Lose this game, fall to five below .500, and that fickle thing called hope has every right to throw up its hands and walk away until next season.
That’s the unstable ledge onto which the Warriors backed themselves Friday night with a 110-107 home loss to a Wizards team that had lost 12 of its last 16.
What was billed as the first game of a momentum-generating sprint to the finish began with the Warriors playing languid defense and ended with them stumbling over their sneakers in the final seconds at Chase Center.
At 24-28, the Warriors maintain a slippery grip on the 10th and final postseason berth in the Western Conference. They are closer to the 13th-place Oklahoma City Thunder than to the seventh-place Dallas Mavericks, closer to the 12th-place Sacramento Kings than to the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies.
Damion Lee blamed himself for the loss, a noble gesture not entirely accurate. His turnover, a botched pass with 1.2 seconds remaining, merely extinguished any realistic chance of a Warriors victory.
“I tried to make the right basketball play,” Lee said, correctly. “Turned it over. That’s totally on me. That’s completely on me. I’ve got to be better in those situations. I hold myself to a high standard, the team holds me to a high standard. I’ve got to be better in those situations.
“Can’t cost us the game.”
What Lee neglected to mention is that the Warriors were trailing when he committed the turnover.
Trailing because on Washington’s previous possession, Bradley Beal grabbed on offensive rebound and drained a 3-pointer while being fouled by Andrew Wiggins, leading to a four-point play that gave the Wizards a 108-107 lead with 6.1 seconds remaining.
Trailing largely because Washington’s centers, Robin Lopez and Alex Len, averaging a combined 16.0 points per game, rang up a combined 35 points, 26 of which came in a first half the Warriors spent trying and failing to catch up.
They were trailing most of the game because there was a distinct lack of the level of urgency expected of a team vowing to make a run to the real NBA postseason.
“Our defense was terrible, it was terrible,” coach Steve Kerr said. “That was the big issue in the first half, our lack of energy. We weren't pulling over from the weak side, we weren't playing with aggression, we weren't playing with any physicality, and yeah Lopez in particular really killed us.”
Oh, the second-half Warriors looked like a team worthy of a low-seed playoff spot. The interior defense picked up, as James Wiseman exhibited a stoutness and savvy missing in the first half.
“I made a lot of mistakes,” Wiseman conceded. “But I just kept my head up. Dray (Draymond Green) and Steph (Stephen Curry) got on me, but it was just something to gain my confidence. In the second half, I just brought the energy back and just tried my best to just keep the lead up.”
Most encouraging for the Warriors, the second unit – often a vulnerable group – opened the fourth quarter a sudden defensive savagery, forcing three turnovers and 1-of-4 shooting that turned a six-point deficit into a four-point lead in less than four minutes.
It didn’t hold up, as the Warriors were outscored by seven over the final eight minutes.
“It’s not just one play,” Kerr said, referring to the Lee turnover. “It’s a whole series of plays.”
The Warriors opened this game as if they’re five weeks into the season or in comfortable playoff position. The reality is five weeks remain in the regular season and they’re in precarious playoff position.
So here come the Rockets, a beatable bunch ill-suited to laying down. One team has to set a tone early, and it should be the one aiming for the playoffs.
If the Warriors can’t summon playoff energy Saturday night, it shoots a hole through any argument that they deserve to be in the real NBA postseason.