Warriors riding rocky road on path to three-peat

While the Golden State Warriors have meandered through an up-and-down season, head coach Steve Kerr’s message to his team has remained consistent: Winning a championship is difficult. Attempting to go to five straight NBA Finals is an arduous road not for the faint of heart. Trying to win an NBA championship for the fourth time in five years? The process is much more challenging than most understand.

As the Warriors try to add to the list of incredible feats they’ve already accomplished, Kerr’s message has proved prescient. The coach understood from the beginning that winning another title was never going to be as simple as running out an All-Star-laden lineup while adding DeMarcus Cousins to the mix. The basketball lifer knew that the process would be more arduous, but it would be worth it come June.

“When you go through the difficulty, it makes things that much sweeter in the end,” Kerr said. “And so it’s not just the idea of getting a ring, hanging a banner. It’s the memory of all that went into it. You put a lot of effort in to achieve that. And it’s a lot more than a ring or a banner signifies. It’s what you know you had to endure.”

As the Warriors get set for another showdown against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night, they do so having endured one of the most intriguing seasons in recent memory, a season cloaked in drama and subplots that have tested the fabric of a proud team, starting from the very beginning.

The Warriors opened their final regular season at Oracle Arena in style with a win over Kevin Durant’s old team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. But that wasn’t the most memorable moment from the night.

As has been an ongoing theme since before the season began, Durant’s future with the Warriors hovered over everything — even in celebration. As Warriors owner Joe Lacob handed Durant his new ring, cameras caught him motioning to Durant to sign a contract extension with a big smile on his face. Durant, who was introduced last to the crowd, a spot usually reserved for Stephen Curry, smiled back but downplayed the placement of his introduction after the game. The tenor for the rest of the season was set in that moment: The Warriors want to make Durant feel as comfortable as possible and are hopeful he will decide to re-sign after the season, but nobody in the organization knows for sure what he will decide to do.

As the season got rolling, both Curry and Klay Thompson offered early reminders of just how much talent Kerr has at his disposal. Curry scored 51 points and knocked down 11 3-pointers in just 32 minutes in a win over the Washington Wizards on Oct. 24. Thompson followed that up less than a week later by draining a league record 14 3-pointers and scoring 52 points in 27 minutes in a blowout win over the Chicago Bulls on Oct. 29.

The good times appeared to be rolling for a Warriors team that completed its annual trip to New York City and watched as Durant deflected questions about a future with the Knicks. The Warriors won 10 of 11 heading into a Nov. 8 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, but that game altered the course of the season. In the midst of getting blown out by Giannis Antetokounmpo & Co., Curry left the game with a groin injury and did not return.

Curry’s absence is always felt on the floor, but his absence off the court became even more tangible during a Nov. 12 overtime loss to the LA Clippers. At the end of regulation, cameras caught close friends Durant and Draymond Green in the midst of a heated argument, one that spilled over into the postgame locker room, where Green openly questioned Durant’s long-term future with the team.

The Warriors tried to downplay the incident after the game, but once details of the exchange became public, the organization suspended Green for the following night’s game against the Atlanta Hawks for “conduct detrimental to the team.” Without Curry, who was at home rehabbing, Thompson tried to settle down the tension with a simple message.

“This time does not last forever,” Thompson would say later. “These four years have already gone by so fast. We’ve been to the mountaintop, we’ve been at the bottom as far as I’ve been at the bottom, winning 23 games. I’ve been at the top. And I’ve also been at the top and fallen to the bottom, frickin’ losing 3-1 in the Finals, so a couple bad weeks during the regular season doesn’t really faze me.”

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, it took a few days for Durant and Green to start speaking again, but once they did the iciness surrounding the Warriors locker room started to thaw. While Durant and Green came to an understanding about the events, what irritated both men and the rest of the players and coaches was having to repeatedly address questions about the episode, especially in the aftermath of a four-game losing streak, the longest the team had suffered under Kerr.

“This is the real NBA,” Kerr said after a loss to the San Antonio Spurs a few days after the blowup. “We haven’t been in the real NBA the last few years. We’ve been in this dream. And so now we’re facing real adversity and we got to get out of it ourselves.”

Kerr implored his team to start finding its collective joy again, but fans and media began to wonder if the cracks that were showing in the Warriors’ dynasty would break the team apart.

Curry finally returned on Dec. 1, after missing 11 games because of the groin injury, and the Warriors proceeded to win 21 of their next 27 games. They found the rhythm that eluded them earlier in the season as Green, who was hampered for much of the first couple of months by a toe injury, gave the group a needed boost.

In the midst of the Warriors’ best stretch of the season, Cousins was inserted into the starting lineup during a Jan. 18 win against the Clippers after missing almost a year while rehabbing a left Achilles injury. Kerr noted that Cousins gave the Warriors a presence they haven’t had before down low. The veteran coach also credited Cousins for reinvigorating the group during what would normally be a boring part of the season.

But as their journey played out, the Warriors were anything but boring, especially off the floor.

After a Feb. 6 blowout win over the Spurs, Durant stepped to the postgame lecturn following nearly a week of not speaking to beat reporters — a week that coincided with the New York Knicks trading Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks to clear out enough cap space to potentially sign Durant and another star over the summer.

As Durant broke his silence following the Spurs game, he specifically called out The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss for a column about Durant’s potential future in New York. Durant, who went on to say he doesn’t trust anyone in the media, had his comments played on repeat for days, only adding to the drama.

While the Warriors’ front office has understood all along that Durant could leave at season’s end, the frustration felt in that moment offered another reminder of just how uneasy the situation remains. Warriors players didn’t seem affected by Durant’s comments, winning five of six games before the All-Star break, but the entire scene hovered over the group.

Coming out of the break with the off-court drama behind them, an on-court issue began to develop. After promising returns for Cousins in short minutes during his first few games, it became clear that teams were attacking him each night. Subsequently, Cousins became a scapegoat for the group’s glaring defensive flaws and mounting losses. The team went 3-4 in the seven games following the All-Star break. But after getting blown out by the Boston Celtics by 33 points at Oracle, the worst home loss of the Kerr era, the Warriors regrouped for a convincing win over the Denver Nuggets, offering Green the chance to stand up for Cousins.

“Everybody wants to talk s— about DeMarcus’ defense,” Green said. “I told y’all last game, we haven’t played with energy — or at practice. Everybody wanna [say], ‘It’s a problem when DeMarcus is out there.’ Yet everyone picked the energy up, all of a sudden no one is talking about DeMarcus’ problems defensively. Now it’s a good matchup for him. That’s bulls— to me.”

Cousins, who has been professional and cordial during his brief stint with the Warriors, declined to address reporters after playing arguably his best game of the season. The Warriors were convinced that this win would get them back on track as they look to build momentum heading into the last month of the regular season — but as has been the case throughout the season, the good times didn’t last long.

Just two days later, the Warriors blew a 16-point first-half lead to the lowly Phoenix Suns and ended up losing to a team that hadn’t beaten a Western Conference opponent on the road all season. After Durant left the game early with an ankle injury, Thompson said after the game that the group needed more support from the Oracle crowd. But all of those things were overshadowed by a clip from the end of the game that quickly went viral of Kerr saying he is “so f—ing tired of Draymond’s s—.”

Kerr tried to downplay the incident the next day with humor by saying that lip readers got it wrong, but the damage was already done. Like the other episodes before it, the clip, and the interpretation of it, were replayed constantly.

Both Kerr and his players have discussed how much of a grind it is at times to keep pushing toward another championship. Despite the latest public distraction, Curry remains confident this latest setback will not derail his team.

“We’re champions, man,” Curry said. “We got to keep the right perspective about where we are. We’re not going to win a championship right now in March, but the fact that we’re not happy with how we’re playing and yet we care about that … is why you walk in the locker room and the vibe was the way it was. We hold ourselves to a high standard, and when we don’t get there and don’t play that way it’s not a good feeling.”

Both Kerr and Curry are buoyed by the belief that as bad as this year’s struggles have been, they haven’t been as difficult as the ones from last season, which ended with another Warriors title. A year later, the storylines are similar and the Warriors’ belief in themselves remains unchanged. They still believe they will be at their best when it matters most, even if they wear the look of a group that is just worn out after all the pressure that comes with being under the spotlight for so many years in a row. “I think every team is a little different,” Kerr said, while comparing the Warriors’ group to the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty that won six titles in eight years in the 1990s. “Every team has a different set of circumstances. Even within the same organization, last year’s team to this year’s team, we’ve got some different dynamics. Rosters were different, circumstances were different, and so the challenges are there no matter what. The ’98 Bulls, we had a lot of adversity, a lot of ups and downs. If you ask me, we hung on for dear life to beat Utah in the Finals that year. Scottie Pippen’s riding a bike during Game 6 in the hallway of the Delta Center because his back seized up. We’re down 17 or whatever in the second quarter, we were gasping for air, so that did not come easy.

“I go back to that line: There’s a reason you pour champagne on each other. Man, is it difficult, and it takes a tremendous amount of energy, physically and emotionally, to stay connected, to put forth the effort and the energy that it takes to achieve your goal. It just gets harder each year.”

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