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Developing Warriors still have eyes on making postseason push

The former champs remain confident that they can make some noise in the playoffs.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

The Warriors are grooming their young players with the hope that they can contribute in the playoffs.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it” – Yogi Berra.

Golden State very much is at a crossroads in this 2020-21 season, except it lately has rolled a little farther down one path than the other. With its dismal 141-119 loss to Sacramento Thursday night, it slipped below .500 (22-23) for the first time since the schedule’s fifth game.

After peaking a month ago at 19-15, good enough for fifth place in the Western Conference following a stretch of seven victories in 10 games, the Warriors have dropped eight of their past 11. They woke up Friday in 10th place, just two games in front of the Kings that dismantled them the night before.

Star Stephen Curry remains one of the most potent weapons in the NBA, averaging 29 points per game, leading the league in 3-pointers and, at age 33, still elusive and explosive enough to take over games by himself. The franchise’s winning “culture” – second in self-promotion maybe only to Miami’s, yet quite real – is strong despite the absence of key contributors such as Kevin Durant (free agency in 2019) and Klay Thompson (two season-zapping injuries).

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And even the Warriors’ results at home, 13-8 compared to 9-15 on the road, suggested that they could be trouble if they could lock into a best-of-seven series as, say, the No. 6 seed vs. a No. 3 that might be flawed or hurting or overconfident. Open up Chase Center to a sizable number of Warriors fans, long among the league’s savviest and most boisterous, and the experience might validate this challenging season for them all.

Except that Curry has missed the past four games with an inflamed tailbone and is expected to miss at least two more. Golden State is 1-5 without him this season, including the current three-game skid.

With each passing game, the Warriors look to be caught in the switches. They have been using the present season for future development, working in the deep end of the pool with young players such as center James Wiseman, wing Jordan Poole and point guard Nico Mannion. Yet veteran voices and the sheer competitiveness and muscle memory from the top down from owner Joe Lacob, president of basketball operations Bob Myers, coach Steve Kerr and the rest still have them pushing to snag a playoff spot.

With fewer opportunities to actually do it. The Warriors rank ninth in defensive efficiency (109.6) but 22nd in offensive (108.8). Even the return of live bodies in the stands of their gorgeous arena has been held up by San Francisco mandates and lockdown limitations.

Two weeks ago, Thompson – stuck on the sideline in rehab after surgery on his right Achilles tendon – said he has high expectations, not just for after his return, but now.

“Although our record doesn’t reflect how good I think we are, I think we will still make a run here and finish with a solid record and make a push in the playoffs,” he said.

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His dad Mychal, a former champion and current broadcaster with the Lakers, had been equally optimistic shortly before that. “If they step up and be more consistent from 3 and Draymond [Green] keeps doing his Swiss [Army] knife job, doing everything for the team, the Warriors are going to be a threat,” the senior Thompson said. “They’re going to be scary in the playoffs.”

Green echoed that view a couple weeks back, too, calculating that the young guys’ learning would keep pace with the team’s ability to win games. “The true mark of a young team, not executing down the stretch … as we continue to spend more and more time together, that gets better,” the Warriors’ defensive leader said. “I think this team is poised to put a run together.

“And I think if we get into the playoffs, not many people are going to want to see us in the first round.”

A lot can happen in a couple weeks. “Getting in” from 10th place via the Play-In mechanism is a far different reality, with one or two games on the road just to glimpse a best-of-seven opportunity.

It’s hard to imagine Golden State, after winning three NBA championships and representing the West in five consecutive Finals from 2015 through 2019, feeling much satisfaction over a Play-In berth.

Then again, when a team is trying to serve two masters – the present and the future – some compromise usually is inevitable.

“We’re trying to win and develop our young players at the same time. It’s our job to figure out what that means day to day,” Kerr told reporters Wednesday. “It’s not always simple and clear-cut what the obvious solution is.

“I do know that James Wiseman needs to play. He needs to play more. That’s why we’re gonna start him and commit to playing him as many minutes as we can over the [remaining] games. We think we can win within all that.”

Wiseman, an immensely talented but raw 7-footer, was Golden State’s choice with the No. 2 pick in the November Draft (yes, one spot ahead of Charlotte rookie sensation LaMelo Ball). His early performances showed both his potential and his inexperience, sometimes on consecutive trips up the floor. But there was time, and patience, and a sense that he and the Warriors would move rather quickly along his learning curve.

A sprained wrist and later a layoff due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols cost Wiseman 14 games since Feb. 1. Now the player that Kerr and his staff are feeding minutes is rusty, inconsistent, less sure of himself and exhibiting body language that doesn’t scream playoff contributor. Through 31 appearances, he was averaging 11.6 points and 6.0 rebounds in 21.3 minutes, with little impact on the bottom line. The Warriors are 15-16 when he has played, 7-7 when he hasn’t.

Poole and Mannion are showing more progress from newfound opportunities, though it’s still early to know if theirs and Wiseman’s maturation as players will sync up with Curry’s, Green’s and Thompson’s remaining prime.

After the blowout loss Thursday, which some of Golden State’s closest observers labeled a low point this season, the head coach tried to take a half-full view. “I still really believe,” Kerr said, “this team is going to make a run down the stretch.”

This week began with some Warriors controversy, with Kerr being asked about the difficulty of the title-run’s end in 2018-19 vs. the freedom to learn-and-lose-a-lot in 2019-20. By the time the coach and his crew get to May, Kerr might have another tough one to fit into his rankings.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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