The most damaging road trip of the season ended Sunday in Atlanta with the Warriors barely clinging to the 10th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference but also forced to accept this might be as good as it gets.
Insofar as they have lost seven of the eight games and 12 of the last 16, falling a season-low four games under .500, it’s absolutely what they’ve earned.
“We all had higher expectations for where we’re supposed to be this season,” Stephen Curry said after scoring 37 points in a 117-111 loss to a Hawks team with appreciably more depth, savvy and firepower.
The Warriors can blame this loss on their reckless fouling, their curious rotations and their abysmal deep shooting. It’s valid. All of it played a part.
But the brunt of this one lands squarely on a bench that didn’t – and could not reasonably be expected to – measure up.
Longtime NBA scorer-for-hire Lou Williams is superior to any guard the Warriors roll off the bench. Longtime scorer-for-hire Danilo Gallinari is a much more accomplished bucket-getter than any forward on the Golden State roster, starter or backup.
With Gallinari and Williams combining for 40 points, the Hawks rang up a 55-19 advantage in bench scoring.
Furthermore, both members of the 30-and-over club took full advantage of their broad assortment of clever moves that Golden State reserves, mostly young and too undisciplined to thrive in high-stakes games, couldn’t help being tricked.
With Gallo and Lou-Will marching to the line for a combined 18 free throws, Warriors reserves were routed 27-2 in that category.
“We talk about it every day,” coach Steve Kerr said. “We talked about it before the game. We talked about it at halftime. But it’s as simple as that: We lost the game because we fouled over and over and over again.”
The Warriors committed 26 fouls, with backups accounting for 16. Kent Bazemore caught four whistles in 16 minutes. Damion Lee caught four in 23 minutes, Jordan Poole three in 16 minutes and Juan Toscano-Anderson three in six minutes.
This game was illustrative of a silly-foul pattern that has afflicted the Warriors all season.
Why does this continue? Some of it can be traced to inexperience, as Poole has played 85 NBA games, Toscano-Anderson 47. But Lee (144 games) should know better and Bazemore (598 games) definitely should know better.
Another factor is defensive positioning. Many costly fouls are the result of poor off-ball awareness, which causes late reaction, which leave defenders vulnerable to pump fakes if not outright reaching or hacking. It’s incredibly difficult to go from a flat-footed posture, and there is way too much of that, to successful team defense.
The reserves are particularly guilty of this, but it also happens surprisingly often with Andrew Wiggins and occasionally Kelly Oubre Jr.
Then there are the detail errors. Countless times this season, including this game, one of the Warriors will leave a dangerous shooter to double-team a mediocre shooter. It’s a mistake that ignores what was seen on video and discussed as part of the game plan.
What’s scary for the Warriors is that there has been so little progress. Asked what could be done to put an end to these destructive acts, Curry had nothing.
“I don’t know, man,” he said. “It’s like the 20th time we get asked that question and we haven’t figured it out yet.”
When a team is making the same mistakes in the fourth month of the season as it made in the first, it’s revealing. Almost always, it means that team is no better than the evidence.
That’s the Warriors as they approach the final 22 games.
The starters on most nights can play with any starting five. The reserves are an adventure, OK against some teams but flirting with disaster against most.
As seen Sunday, the last game of an 0-3 trip, it’s a matter of personnel not effort. Expecting much more from this group now requires a measure of denial.
“We cannot play the way that we’ve played the last significant stretch and expect things to change,” Curry said, with no hint of denial.