Over a 72-game season, the Warriors lost 18 by double-digit margins. They were clobbered by at least 20 in 11 games, by at least 30 in five and by fifty flipping three to a Toronto Raptors team that finished 18 games below .500 while playing home games 1,100 miles south of Toronto.
And yet here the Warriors stand, facing the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night in the marquee play-in game after surviving the worst of themselves and eventually finding a way to unveil the best.
All of which was discussed with four members of their coaching staff at various points during the season. Conversations focused mostly on defense because that’s the element cited, from the first day of training camp, by head coach Steve Kerr as essential to success.
It is evident that the 2020-21 Warriors have displayed two distinctly different personalities: Fierce and Docile. Which is why they’re as likely to be playing well into June as they are of losing consecutive games this week and heading for the offseason by the weekend.
Docile: 119-104 home loss to the New York Knicks on Jan. 21
“I felt they were getting into the teeth or our defense and we weren’t fundamentally handling it well, nor were we physically handling it well,” assistant coach Mike Brown recalled. “They were not known for their shooting. We knew they wanted to play pick-and-roll, knew they wanted to get to the teeth of our defense and we knew that the Robinson kid was a lob guy. And we still let them have their way with us.”
New York hung 40 points in the first quarter, shooting 54.5 percent from the field and making 6-of-9 from distance. The Knicks had 15 fast-break points in 12 minutes. RJ Barrett scored 14 points in 10 minutes. The Warriors never led after halftime.
“That game, from a defensive standpoint, really stung,” Brown said.
Fierce: 120-112 home win, in overtime, vs. the Miami Heat on Feb. 17
Assistant coach Ron Adams was talking about how the great Warriors teams of 2014-19 initially played terrific defense before realizing they were so good they could save their best for the postseason. This team is not as good, and understood as much.
“This team has had consistency about them, when I contrast it with those teams, that’s probably better,” Adams recalled. “To be fair to all, that’s how it should be. We’re scrappy. We’re trying to do something. We were trying to be above average, be a playoff team. You’re going to have to do that to reach that level with the guys we have.
“Take the Miami game. It wasn’t looking too good, and then it did. They showed great resiliency and tenacity. On a night when that team wanted to win, they needed a win, we found a way. That was a very satisfying game.”
After the Heat shot 55.8 percent in the first half to lead by as much as 19, the Warriors recovered at halftime and turned stingy. They outscored the Heat 74-51 in the second half, with Miami shooting 37.0 percent from the field.
“No one on our roster doesn’t make a good attempt at playing defense,” Adams said. “We have a really nice defensive tenacity. We’ve grown some because of that.”
Docile: 133-103 home loss to the Dallas Mavericks on April 27
“The Dallas game at home a few weeks ago is probably one that I really remember in terms of how we can’t play, not being engaged, not playing with great energy,” Kerr said.
The Warriors still were in range of the No. 6 seed, which from the start of the season was their most realistic goal. It would allow them to bypass the play-in tournament. The Mavericks were in sixth place and this game represented the season tiebreaker and an opportunity to gain a game.
Golden State entered the second quarter down 24 (36-12) and there was no slowing the rout. The Mavericks shot 69.6 percent in the third quarter, pushing the lead to 39 and burying the Warriors. Given the implications, it was their most disappointing performance of the season.
“Any time you play a small lineup, you have to be flying all over the place,” Kerr recalled. “That night, our energy and our effort were not there. That might be the only game in the last 20 that I could point to.”
The Warriors were 8-7 in February, which isn’t impressive at all insofar as they were 11-9 entering the month. What was impressive was the evolution of the defense coordinated by assistant coach Jarron Collins.
“The whole month of February, other than two games, was pretty good,” Collins recalled. “Going back to that trip in Texas, minus the second game in Dallas, we were stringing good games together. We showed progress, aside from that Lakers game.”
The Warriors trailed by as much as 16 in a 134-132 loss to the Mavericks on Feb. 6 and ended the month with a 117-91 loss in LA, with the Lakers piling up 41 points, on 60 percent shooting, in the first quarter.
Those games aside, the Warriors were finding their defense. Credit the absence of rookie center James Wiseman, who defended with the awkwardness of a typical 7-foot 19-year-old trying to run in the NBA. But that’s too simple.
The numbers make a point. The Warriors’ 108.0 defensive rating in February was fifth in the league. Moreover, they were second in fourth-quarter defensive rating at 96.1
“We give ourselves a chance in every single game when we defend like we’re capable of defending and we take care of the ball,” Collins said. “It’s difficult to defend off live-ball turnovers. And we just can’t foul.
“We’re a really good defensive team. When teams try to score against our half-court defense, we make it tough.”
Though these Warriors are equally capable of being fierce or docile, they were much more of the former over the final five weeks. Their 106.6 defensive rating during that span was the best in the league and was crucial to winning 15 of their last 20 games.
Which personality will show up Wednesday night at Staples Center?
If it’s Fierce, the underdog Warriors will take the fight to the Lakers.
If it’s Docile, well, it’s a movie we’ve seen before.