SAN FRANCISCO -- Through the litany of injuries, lineup changes and embarrassing performances, the Warriors on Sunday reached the end of the regular-season road looking very much like the squad they’ve spent five months hoping to become.
They’re profoundly defective, comically small yet, even beyond the enduring majesty of Steph Curry and Draymond Green, much too dangerous for any team to dismiss.
With a 113-101 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies at Chase Center, the Warriors closed the season with a six-game win streak and secured the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. They’ll face the Lakers in Los Angeles or the Trail Blazers in Portland on Wednesday in the 7/8 play-in game.
“I kept telling you over the last six weeks that we were going to go on a run,” coach Steve Kerr said.
“We could feel our team improving and coming together a couple months back. We knew that the schedule would start to shift and favor us. We had some really difficult stretches, like everybody does, every year, but we just felt like if we could hang in there that these last 20 games would be a chance for us to make a real push.”
The Warriors finished 15-5 over their last 20 games. What makes them formidable is not the offense, though it has evolved to the point that it is considerably more than Curry or a shout for help.
It’s the defense that has been -- and will be -- the factor that determines the length of their stay in the NBA playoffs.
The defense has traveled a bumpy path, solid to fantastic to ordinary to negligent and back to solid with flashes of fantastic. It was all of the above in this game. The Warriors fell behind by nine when the Grizzlies made six of their first 10 shots, but recovered by forcing misses on three of the next four possessions.
By applying ferocious defense to limit Memphis to 34.0 percent shooting over the second and third quarters, Golden State took an 86-69 lead into the fourth. The Warriors turned docile long enough in the fourth to blow it all, falling behind by two inside the final five minutes, before cobbling together enough grit and intellect to prevail.
The Warriors outscored the Grizzlies 18-4 over the final 4:49, limiting Memphis to 2-of-10 shooting, both field goals coming within inches of the rim by 7-foot Memphis center Jonas Valanciunas.
“Defensively, that’s how you win games,” said Curry, whose first-quarter block of a shot by Valanciunas shocked the room. “Even a night like tonight, where you give up a huge lead like that, you buckle down and get three or four stops down the stretch and the game opens back up.
“We’ve got to find a way to do that these next couple games and into a playoff series and take it from there.”
Inconsistent defense that turns stingy at times is enough to for the Warriors to beat good teams, such as the Grizzlies. Fantastic defense is what can lift them over better teams, such as those they will see Wednesday and beyond.
Even during this wildly uneven season, the Warriors have beaten the Lakers and the LA Clippers, the Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz, the Denver Nuggets and the New York Knicks. Even the Philadephia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Warriors are five days removed from their regular-season apex, beating the Jazz and the Suns -- the top two teams in West -- on consecutive nights.
That, folks, is a glimpse of their ceiling.
“Phoenix and Utah, that was a big back-to-back stretch,” Curry said. “That was just gutsy, defensive, toughness and what Draymond brings to us. He lit a fire with his presence and his voice going into those two games and, obviously, tonight.”
Curry is the clear catalyst on offense, but he’s getting competent support from Wiggins in the starting lineup and Jordan Poole off the bench. Green is the clear defensive agitator, but he’s getting competent support from Wiggins and top-shelf help from Juan Toscano-Anderson.
The grit is coming from all corners. It’s Kevon Looney gobbling rebounds and loose balls. It’s Wiggins crashing into scorer’s table trying to save a ball. It’s JTA limping off and returning. It’s Poole limping off and also returning.
The Warriors are where they need to be, and about as good as they’re going to be.
“Steve has been saying all year that we’re due for a run,” Toscano-Anderson said. “I’m on Twitter and Instagram, so I see everybody saying, ‘Well, when? Well, when?’ ”
Now. And for as long as they bring enough defense to keep playing.