OAKLAND – The Warriors wouldn’t ever acknowledge that they have reached the point of desperation in a first-round series. Too proud. Too accomplished.
But that’s where they are as they approach Game 6 against the Clippers, who have lost three of the first five games but never once shown any sign of surrender.
The Warriors are not necessarily desperate to win Game 6 because, should they lose, they still have Game 7.
They have to be desperate to reestablish the identity they have forged over the vast majority of Steve Kerr’s five-year run as head coach. Talented, skilled, smart, unified and ruthless.
They’re still talented and skilled. They’re generally smart. The unity has become uneven. That ruthless thing, however, has never been more elusive than this season – and it has carried over into the first five games of these playoffs.
So, on Thursday, before the team left Oakland for Los Angeles -- where Game 6 will be played on Friday -- Kerr uttered phrases that serve as euphemisms for desperation.
“Everything’s always on the table,” Kerr said. “Every playoff game, everything is always on the table. We consider everything. We go over every possibility. We hash it out. We ask the players their opinions on stuff and we make adjustments.
“That’s how the playoffs work.”
Kerr said the staff is evaluating rotations and units. Asked about a possible change in the starting lineup, he played coy.
“We could,” he said. “You never know.”
If there is a change, it will come at center. Andrew Bogut, who played so well in Games 3 and 4, struggled in the 129-121 loss in Game 5 on Wednesday. He had six points, five rebounds and two assists. He played 17 minutes and was minus-15 in the plus/minus.
Backup Kevon Looney was, by contrast, effective, as he has been for most of the series. Playing 22 minutes, he scored five points and grabbed seven rebounds, finishing a team-best plus-15.
But the issues with this team run deeper than can be solved with a single change. The Warriors have not been able to sustain the “killer instinct” required on championship teams. They’ve had it in the past, so it’s still somewhere within their collective DNA
They’re often playing it cool, even as LA is running hot. And they’re no more tired, at least physically, than the Clippers.
“I didn’t see fatigue (in Game 5),” Kerr said. “I just saw a lack of urgency, and you can’t win a playoff game without urgency. It’s not that easy.”
The first indicator of ruthlessness is effort. The Warriors brought it in Game 1 and for the better part of Game 2, before they completely and inexplicably lost it – and the game. They hit 10 on the ruthless meter in Game 3 and brought enough of it to squash a Clippers rally and prevail in Game 4.
It never appeared in Game 5.
“When we get a nice lead, we just tend to relax a little bit,” Kevin Durant said after Game 5, which the Warriors never led by more than four. “I’ve said it before, teams are looking for something just to get them back into the game.”
The Clippers didn’t so much as look for something in Game 5 as come and take it.
“More than anything, they played harder than we did,” Kerr said. “Schemes go out the window when a team plays harder than you. Schemes don’t matter unless you compete. I always say it, every year, that the first adjustment you have to make is to playing harder. And then you can get into switching rotations and matchups.
“In LA, we played really hard. In our last two home games, we let our guard down. The one thing you should know from watching the Clippers all years is that this is a competitive, fun team that enjoys playing together. They’re not going to go away. You’ve got to put them away by competing.”
The Warriors in Game 5 met most of their offensive goals. They had 31 assists and eight turnovers. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Durant combined for 91 points on 49.1-percent shooting. They know they have the Curry/Durant pick-and-roll, and they’ll use it if a boost is needed. But the problem in Game 5, as well as the pivotal portion of Game 2, was an utter lack of defensive focus, execution and effort.
They fixed it last postseason and won a championship.
The Warriors know the formula. Desperate times in the NBA playoffs call for an inspired defense. Without it, even the Warriors are vulnerable.