Nobody Collapses Like The Warriors
1:42 PM EST on December 3, 2023
Late in Saturday's Clippers-Warriors game, L.A.'s Kawhi Leonard threw a bad pass to Golden State's Moses Moody, who drew a clear-path foul and put his team up five with one minute left. In the moment, it felt like the Warriors had done just enough to keep themselves from another embarrassment. All the Dubs needed to do to earn their first .500 record since Draymond Green went nuts and choked out Rudy Gobert was secure one stop or get one bucket in the final minute. Instead, as usual, they fucked it.
For the second time in three games, the Warriors bombed their way out to a 20-point lead, only to watch, apparently powerless against their own entropic tendency, as their opponents stormed back and won by a single point.
Golden State is mounting a desperate struggle to regain normalcy through a deeply wonky first quarter of the season and it isn't working. The two recent blown leads—the Warriors led by 22 early in the third quarter against the Clippers and 24 late in the second quarter against the Kings last week—are merely the latest and worst examples of a pattern that's defined their season thus far, as they also blew it against Minnesota and Oklahoma City earlier this year. They reliably lose their minds in critical, late-game situations. They're 9-11 now, which puts them at the bottom of a ludicrously competitive 11-team dogpile out west.
Now that NBA offenses are fully unshackled and everyone shoots threes, teams blow leads more often than ever, but there's a meaningful flimsiness to the way the Warriors have gone about giving away games. Something is off with this team.
This raises a reasonable counter: Doesn't a team have to be worth a shit to build up big leads against good teams in the first place? That's what's so maddening about the Warriors. Their peak level is still extremely high, Steph Curry is as deadly as ever, yet they can't help but fall apart in the most critical moments. Consider the Kings loss. Golden State spent the first 40 minutes just destroying the Kings on their home court, holding at one point a 16-5 rebounding edge, confidently sprinting at the Kings in transition, and playing a smarter, burlier game than their playoff foils. Sacramento looked totally overwhelmed in Green's first game back, as they've tended to do against the Warriors. The two teams play such similar styles at such similar paces, and while De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are capable of playing at a super-mega-turbo gear that basically nobody else in the league can reach, the dynamic is mostly two teams trying to do the same stuff and the original outshining the newcomer. Andrew Wiggins had what felt like his first good game of the season, Green was connecting everything, and Gary Payton and Chris Paul were swarming the Kings when Curry rested.
And then it came: an unstoppable flood of stupid shit and bad fortune. Both Paul and Payton got hurt, the Warriors gave up 19 free throws in the third quarter (speaking of stupid shit, the Kings missed 15 free throws in the game, with Fox going 9-for-17), and slowly but steadily the lead evaporated. Sacramento took and gave back a brief lead, and Curry's pair of free throws to make it a six-point game with 91 seconds left should have been enough. What followed was the Warriors coughing up the most brutal pair of turnovers I've seen all year.
Facing full-court pressure, Curry casually lobbed an errant pass directly to Fox, who worked it around to Monk for a three. On the following play, Green drove at Sacramento's Kevin Huerter, forcing him to defend a two-on-one with Klay Thompson. Huerter stood his ground and Thompson popped out to his left, into space—just as Green threw a bounce pass to Thompson's right, straight into his own bench. Monk instantly hit the dumbest game-winner you'll ever see, before Curry got bottled up and missed a shot at the buzzer. It was reminiscent of last year's Game 4 Warriors win, which Curry almost lost for his team by calling a timeout when he had none left.
This was a meltdown game, and the Warriors knew it. "In my experience in this league, you have one gut-punch loss a year where you go into the locker room and cannot believe you just lost the game," coach Steve Kerr said. "Last year we had one of those in Utah. This one felt like that." Kerr had to deny that his team was in free-fall afterward, despite clear signs of exactly that.
He's been scrambling all year, constantly toggling Dario Saric, Paul, and Moody into and out of the starting lineup, changing his mind about whether he trusts Jonathan Kuminga on a day-to-day basis, and making weird rotation decisions like benching Moody when he was putting that work in on Sasha Vezenkov. Kerr's had bad injury luck thus far, though he's clearly flailing around for solutions in a way that prolongs the circumstances of his team's inconsistency.
Against Sacramento, Golden State was in control until they started committing increasingly nonsensical fouls, flinging the ball out of bounds, and giving Sacramento free momentum by way of yet another Draymond meltdown. Green, who was playing extremely well on both ends of the court, got all fired up after successfully playing dead against Trey Lyles, instantly got a technical foul on the next play after yelling at the referee, yelled at an assistant coach on the bench, and ran to the locker room to cool off before coming back out to, eventually, give the game away. Monk said after the win that the Green meltdown "was definitely the momentum we needed."
Green was fantastic against the Clippers on Saturday (the Warriors beat L.A. last Thursday, thanks largely to a great bench performance), hitting four threes in the first quarter and setting the stage for Klay Thompson to get a tech for taunting the Clippers' bench. Again, the Warriors built up a lead heading into the third quarter, and again, they fouled their way out of it. “If you want to nitpick something, we could have did a better job defending without fouling in the third quarter," Green said. "In the third quarter, we stopped the game a little bit. And, you know, not only are you putting them at the foul line, but they got three titans and you’re allowing them the rest. You allow those guys to rest and get their legs and it’s a different beast you have to deal with then." Here is what that means in practical visual terms:
Given fresh life, Paul George, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard went to work, and gouged the small Warriors closing lineup. Wiggins had followed up his triumphant game against the Kings—29 and 10 on good shooting with, critically, the first normal-looking shot diet of the season—by slamming his finger in the door of his car and missing the Clips game, so Kerr closed with Moody, Green, Thompson, Curry, and rookie standout Brandin Podziemski. That's a skilled but tiny group—which nevertheless is somehow larger than the version with Paul in there that saw them struggle on the glass in early-season losses to Minnesota and Phoenix—and they couldn't hang with L.A.'s huge wing scorers. When Paul George hit the game-winning three in transition, he capped off a comeback that started to feel inevitable once his team began dictating terms in the third quarter.
Kerr was calmer after the second loss. "It’s way easier to accept a loss as a coach and as a team when you don’t feel like you handed them the game," Kerr said. "The Sacramento game, we handed them the game. … This is different. Our guys were poised, stuck together." He's right, weirdly, though that shouldn't be reassuring. Even when they aren't making a baffling flurry of bad decisions, the Warriors are still capable of choking.