OAKLAND -- If you believe the Golden State Warriors are truly invulnerable, then Wednesday’s 113-93 muzzling at the hands of the Toronto Raptors was a fairly revolting performance all around, but hardly worth the worry.
Of course, there is the other possibility – that Toronto is really difficult for Golden State to play with or without Kawhi Leonard, which creates its own set of worries come money-in-the-pot time.
Either way, one of the most anticipated pre-Christmas games of the season ended up a flatline special. Leonard did not play and the Raptors were better than they were two weeks ago in Toronto, which is surely an anomaly. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green did play and the Warriors looked far worse, which is equally improbable.
Now it could be that the waxing crescent of the moon was just getting some of its own back after Curry decided to mock its role in the history of space exploration. But more likely, the Raptors just showed their undisputed quality; they hammered two of the best teams in the Western Conference (combined record, 36-18, 21-4 at home) by 44 points on back-to-back nights on the road without their best player.
Head coach Steve Kerr saw all of that and went to the place that ought to scare everyone involved with the defending champions – that there may be a new version of themselves in the argument.
“We’re now in a place where we’re defending a title,” Kerr said, “in a place where we’re defending a mantle that we’ve had for several years. It’s a different vibe than when you’re on the climb like Toronto is, like Milwaukee is, like we were a few years ago. It’s harder to get up for each game, and there are certain nights when you can just feel it. If you’ve played in this league or coached or followed it, sometimes you can just feel it.”
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He stayed for a few more questions, but in practical terms he had dropped the mic already. The Warriors have been served notice by the Raptors that their expertise in championship runs is being challenged by Toronto’s youth and hunger . . . and, if you want to be less granular, you can include Milwaukee and Philadelphia as well.
But motivation alone does not bell the cat, as people who puts bells on cats will tell you. The Warriors spent the first half Wednesday deciding whether it was worth it to them to play defense, and by the time they decided to give it a try, they were, in Kerr’s words, “swimming upstream.”
And offensively, they struggled to get their usual raft full of open looks. Fred Van Vleet defended Curry into near-invisibility and Klay Thompson never found a comfort level against an ever-changing set of defenders, predominantly Kyle Lowry. The Warriors committed 19 turnovers, were outrebounded at both ends (credit Raptors Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Jonas Valanciunas before he got hurt for that level of control), and in general found that most of their possessions were a thorough grind.
That explains Toronto, but the Warriors . . . well, their lack of energy speaks to the reality that not every game we think is a measure of their mettle is viewed with the same gravity by the players themselves. And it isn’t just being the hunted – they’ve been that for three consecutive seasons. It’s that they find urgency to be optional more often than they used to.
If there is a silver lining for Golden State, it is Kerr’s rhetorical attempt to steel his players’ spines.
“I would think we would have the edge (if the two teams reached the NBA Finals) in that they’ve kicked our butts twice,” he said, laying the task of motivation directly at the players’ locker stalls. He has made his view clear that the Warriors let this happen Wednesday night, and now they have given a team the kind of life they took for granted in 2015, when everything was energy and carbonation and fun and free chips from the dealer.
That should work, if only because the Warriors aren’t done yet. But they now see themselves as they once were, and teams emulating their path to glory. Toronto is but the best of the teams who can inspire that kind of nostalgia – the kind that could end up burning them in the end if they don’t recognize it for what it is.
A direct challenge from their own history.