Driven last April by an intense desire to etch their names in the NBA record book, the Warriors closed out this regular season with very different sources of motivation.
This time, it’s wrath and substantiation.
The wrath stems from the anger that has been sitting in their collective gut for nearly 10 months, since they frittered away a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals and stumbled away their chance to win back-to-back championships.
And there is, no less, the acute need to substantiate the acquisition of Kevin Durant.
The real season begins Thursday morning, after the Warriors spent Wednesday night subduing the Suns in Phoenix. Three games remain in the regular season, and Durant is expected to receive medical clearance Thursday, participate in a full practice Friday and take the court Saturday night against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Here’s what the Warriors are looking at: Nine days of vital preparation, including a three-game dress rehearsal, before taking the postseason stage on April 15 or 16.
“Hopefully we can just finish the regular season well and healthy and get rolling in the playoffs,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters in Phoenix.
“With three games left we still can’t have any slipups,” Stephen Curry said. “We need to continue to build momentum and do it smartly so we can go into the playoffs fresh and ready to go.”
Rather than thinking about winning regular-season games for the sake of posterity, the Warriors are paying attention to the details, particularly on defense. When Durant went down with a knee injury on Feb. 28, they struggled to make the adjustment while in the midst of their toughest travel stretch of the season.
The Warriors may have sharpened their focus regardless, but losing Durant for six weeks made it a requirement for getting on track while chasing the No. 1 seed. It’s how they’ve won 13 consecutive games.
And now they can march forward, toward the second season. Late Wednesday night, on the flight from Phoenix to Oakland, Kerr and his staff began finalizing their plan to reintegrate Durant, who has missed 20 games.
“If all goes well the next couple days, he’ll play and we’ll try to manage our minutes and not overload anybody but try to maintain rhythm,” Kerr said. “That’s the balance we’re looking for.
“We’ll ease Kevin back and try to incorporate him and get everybody comfortable. We’re gaining a lot of firepower, getting him back.”
Rookie Pat McCaw and veteran Matt Barnes will see a decrease in playing time. There will be a period of adjustment as Durant regains the feel of competitive NBA basketball.
“He just wants to get his rhythm back and with three games to do that, it’s a great opportunity to break a sweat and find his timing,” Curry said. “He’s been obviously locked in on every game when we’re playing, understanding the things that we’ve been doing well and better than earlier in the season and he’s going to fit right in to what that is.”
It’s conceivable the Warriors could close the season on a 16-game win streak. More likely, they will do some self-regulating. They’ll be more occupied with monitoring minutes while also determining rotations, with executing game plans while also keeping the swagger they’ve gained the past three weeks.
There is no pursuit of 73. There is no MVP award for Curry to lock up. There is no satisfaction to be gained in victory, unless there is contentment with the process.
From the moment Durant agreed on July 4 to join the Warriors, this was, first and last and unquestionably about winning the NBA Championship. Anything short of that would be failure of a magnitude felt last June against LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
As much as the Warriors crave a rematch with Cleveland, they’ve also made it clear this season has not been spent in pursuit of a specific opponent.
So whether it’s Cleveland or Boston or Washington or Toronto or any other team that comes out of the Eastern Conference, all that matters is bringing the trophy back to Oakland.
The Warriors have 73 days to make the only history they care about.