SAN FRANCISCO – After 71 games, 47 of which they won, the Warriors still have no idea how good they’d be if every member of their primary rotation were healthy. With the four crucial thirtysomethings yet to play together, there is no proof to show.
The next six-to-10 games, however, will unravel a mystery no less important: How well will the Warriors hold up without Stephen Curry?
It matters, and not only for the purpose of playoff seeding.
It matters because the two teams ahead of them in the Western Conference, the first-place Suns and the Grizzlies, have managed quite well without their respective catalysts.
With Chris Paul in the starting lineup for the first 58 games, Phoenix posted a league-best 48-10 record, practically securing the overall No. 1 seed. Insofar as Paul is their veteran leader and primary playmaker, it was fair to wonder how the youngish Suns would respond after learning he’d miss at least six weeks after fracturing his right thumb on Feb. 16.
They’ve since gone 10-4. What was a 6.5-game lead when Paul last appeared in a game is now a nine-game lead. Phoenix, whose 30-8 home record is tops in the NBA, needs only two wins to clinch the No. 1 overall seed and homecourt advantage throughout the postseason.
In the final lap of the regular season, where nouveau contenders often falter – see Bulls, Chicago – the Suns are proving it can win at a high rate without CP3.
Memphis, meanwhile, already has proven it is much more than dynamic point guard Ja Morant and a bunch of role-playing tyros.
The Grizzlies are 35-21 when Morant plays. Good, but hardly imposing. Morant has missed 16 games, most recently with a tender right knee. Their record in those games: 14-2.
They walloped the Pacers by 33 points last Tuesday without Morant, lost by 15 in Atlanta three days later with Morant and then spanked the Rockets by 24 on Sunday without Ja.
This is not to imply they’re a better team without their leader, but to offer proof that they have reason to be confident even when he’s not available.
The Warriors might have similar faith when Curry is sidelined, but they have no proof to support it. Their record in the seven games without him this season: 2-5.
With Curry out for at least another six games but possibly the 11 that remain in the regular season, the Warriors on Sunday came up short in their first opportunity to prove they can succeed without him.
There were, however, a few kernels of encouragement that might – might – be taken from that painful 110-108 loss to the Spurs.
After blasé first quarter, when their defense rarely appeared while San Antonio shooting 59.1 percent and building a double-digit lead, the Warriors outscored the Spurs 86-74 over the final three quarters, limiting them to 32.9-percent shooting from the field.
“We haven’t really played healthy all year,” said Otto Porter Jr., who scored 16 points and snagged a career-high 16 rebounds in 29 minutes off the bench. “So, when one person goes down, everybody’s got to step up. Especially, defensively we’ve got to lock in. Offensively, the way we move the ball that’s going to come.”
The Warriors woke up and dug in and discovered the defensive disposition required to compete without Curry. The Spurs are not a playoff team, but Golden State’s intensity after the first 12 minutes rose dramatically and remained high even after Draymond Green was ejected midway through the third quarter.
The Jordan Poole/Klay Thompson starting backcourt that combined for six points in the first quarter, came together for 46 over the final three. Jonathan Kuminga and Nemanja Bjelica were effective off the bench. Andrew Wiggins had some assertive moments.
“I love the way our team responded when we felt the pressure to respond,” coach Steve Kerr said. “I didn't love the way we played in the first half without a sense of urgency.
“We have to understand . . . we're undermanned. There are 12 games left, now 11 games left. We're looking at the playoffs. There's got to be a sense of urgency. There's got to be a sense of competitive fight that we take to the other team from the very beginning of the game.”
The Warriors are seeking the kind of edge Phoenix and Memphis have shown even without the leaders who run their offenses.
Unless they find it, beginning with their five-game road trip that begins Tuesday in Orlando, Golden State is more likely to drop to fourth or fifth place than to stay in third.