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Warriors know playoff push, title repeat hopes are now or never

Injuries, defensive struggles and a poor road record have stymied sustained success for Golden State in 2022-23. Can it get things together in time for the playoffs?

The Warriors are hoping their outlook for the stretch run improves once Stephen Curry (right) and Gary Payton (2nd from right) return.

With 20 games left in a season where projections were hazy from the very start, the Golden State Warriors would love to know whether the championship champagne flute is half empty or half full.

Last June, inside a jubilant locker room where sweat mixed with bubbly, the Warriors were so busy celebrating a title that it’s possible someone snuck in and spiked their punch, based on what we’ve seen from this team since then.

Because, what else can possibly go wrong, or right, with the wobbly Warriors eight months later?

There are signs that the defending champs are in no shape to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. At least not at the moment and certainly not from where they currently sit. At 32-30, they are No. 5 in the Western Conference: trapped in the belly of the standings and unable to make a clean break toward the top.

It all depends on how the 2022-23 Warriors should/will be judged — as legit title contenders (questionable) or a team at best capable of winning a round or two in the playoffs (reasonable).

They’re now without Stephen Curry since early February (but he is reportedly hoping to return soon). Likewise, Andrew Wiggins has been away from the team for nearly two weeks as he tends to a family matter. Both will eventually return and that’s the good news (especially since the Warriors have avoided totally sinking during their absences), but what about their defense and inability to win on the road? Are those problematic issues here to stay?

Every game matters, but from here on out especially. The West is jam-packed right now. Every game from here on out is incredibly important.”

— Guard Klay Thompson, on Golden State’s playoff hopes

It all makes for a weird position for the fifth-place Warriors, who host the Clippers Thursday, and raises questions about their dynasty and whether it’s (unofficially) over. To be sure, as long as Curry is in his prime and restless when he makes his return, likely next week, feel free to dismiss the Warriors as a threat at your own risk.

“I still feel like we can do it,” said coach Steve Kerr, regarding a repeat. “I think our team is not afraid of anybody. I think given our experience and our history in the playoffs, our guys have a ton of confidence. That is absolutely something I believe.”

But, but, but …

Here’s what happened to a team fresh off its fourth championship in eight years:

• Gary Payton II, whose defensive chops were so instrumental in the post-season run, signed with the Blazers last July.

• Draymond Green gave Jordan Poole a knuckle sandwich in training camp, an act that invited questions about their ability to trust each other going forward.

• Entering the final year of his contract, Green didn’t get an extension.

• Entering the final year of his contract, neither did Warriors general manager Bob Myers.

• James Wiseman, the 7-foot center and No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft, was sent to the NBA G League in November.

• Ten games into the season, only the Houston Rockets had more losses than the Warriors in the West.

• Curry suffered a shoulder injury in December and missed 11 games; the Warriors went 5-6.

• The Warriors lost back-to-back home games to the Magic and Pistons in January. And then, on Jan. 10, the Warriors lost at home again to the Phoenix Suns, who were without Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton (and had just acquired ex-Warriors forward Kevin Durant via a trade).

• Curry suffered a left lower leg injury Feb. 4 and his recovery initially was projected to extend beyond the All-Star break. He’s still inactive.

• Wiseman was traded to the Pistons and Payton came back to the Warriors in that four-team deal. However, the guard returned as damaged goods, as a core muscle injury nearly held up the trade before it went through.

• Wiggins missed the Warriors’ final game before the All-Star break due to a family matter, an absence that continues.

• The Warriors lost in L.A. to the Lakers last week, dropping their road record to 7-23. Only the bottom-dwelling Rockets (6-26) and San Antonio Spurs (5-27) have fewer road wins.

You get the idea.

This isn’t the blueprint for June. This is a team with issues to clear up before the postseason, or else the rest of the top-heavy West will pass them by. And even then, you wonder: Have we already seen the best of the Curry-era Warriors?

The most ambitious portrayal of the Warriors is this: When Curry, Wiggins, Green and Payton are all finally healthy, the Warriors will begin to flex. Since Dec. 1, Klay Thompson is averaging 24.9 points per game and shooting 41.6% on 3-pointers, once again looking like a feared (and more consistent) shooter. Poole gives them another scorer who isn’t bashful about taking big shots (sometimes at the expense of the club, though). Championship pride shines through come the postseason, and all of that championship seasoning will give the Warriors at least one edge in any series.

“It just feels like we’re coming together,” said Kerr. “It feels like there’s some chemistry, some energy that’s forming. We’ve been battling all season and without Steph and Wiggs for so much of the season, these guys have one a great job just keeping our heads above water,” he said. “I think we can feel the finish line. We know Steph’s gonna be back before too long, hopefully Wiggs, hopefully Gary. So we got reinforcements coming.”

Except even when they won last season, Kerr confessed it was the least-likely of all the championship teams in the Curry era. Also keep in mind that the Denver Nuggets and LA Clippers weren’t at full strength then, the young Memphis Grizzlies weren’t ready and the Phoenix Suns had the misfortune of seeing Luka Doncic in Game 7 of the West semis.

And now? Well, let’s just say the landscape surrounding the Warriors is more treacherous.

Denver has Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back in the mix and in first place with Nikola Jokic possibly getting a third straight Kia MVP. Kawhi Leonard is finally healthy for the Clippers, who if nothing else are bringing a certified two-time Finals MVP and depth. The Grizzlies don’t fear anyone. Oh, also this: Phoenix added KD.

And this doesn’t even mention the plucky Sacramento Kings and maybe an upset-minded wild-card lurking the the weeds, such as the Dallas Mavericks with Kyrie Irving and/or the New Orleans Pelicans when Zion Williamson returns.

There’s barely enough time left for the Warriors to claim a favorable playoff seeding and address the biggest worries: Defense and road games.

I think our team is not afraid of anybody. I think given our experience and our history in the playoffs, our guys have a ton of confidence. That is absolutely something I believe.”

— Warriors coach Steve Kerr

To be blunt, the Warriors’ defense isn’t championship-worthy. They are tied for 16th in defensive rating (113.7) with the Los Angeles Lakers after ranking second in that stat (106.6) last season. They were nearly as good on defense in the 2022 playoffs (109.6) and at their best in the NBA Finals (105.6) as they handcuffed Jayson Tatum and spooked the Celtics.

The return of Wiggins will help, and presumably Payton as well, but the league as a whole is much more offensively-juiced this season. How many players are suddenly dropping 40 points in a game? How many teams are putting up 125 or 130 points a night?

“We’ve got to get stops,” Kerr said. “We’re getting beat on penetration … we’re fouling a lot. One of the reasons we made the trade for Gary is to shore up our perimeter defense.”

Thompson added: “If we want to get at championship-level, we gotta be a top-10 defense again.”

As for the road record, it’s also not in the recipe for sustainability in springtime. Seven wins in 30 tries is alarming. The have been injuries and other factors for that, but even those don’t justify it completely.

The Warriors will place a heavy degree of importance on the return of Curry, and understandably so. His worth, even after all these seasons, is immense. Curry’s scoring (29.4 ppg) this season comes with a high degree of efficiency, even in a 2022-23 campaign twice interrupted by injury. However, the Warriors are only 20-18 in games he plays, which means it will take more than him to scale the mountaintop once again.

“Every game matters, but from here on out especially,” Thompson said. “The West is jam-packed right now. Every game from here on out is incredibly important.”

The clock on the Warriors resets next week with the return of Curry, followed or preceded by the return of Wiggins. The Warriors are a few wins from moving up slightly in the standings, but just the same, a three-game losing streak could put them in Play-In Tournament territory.

That’s how tenuous it is for the defending champs, still wondering whether the glass they used to toast themselves eight months ago is half-empty or half-full. One thing is clear, though:

“It’s now or never,” Green said.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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