It’s been seven years since the Warriors have been the hunter in the NBA playoffs.
The last time the Warriors were on the prowl was the 2013-14 playoffs, when they pulled up an upset victory over the Denver Nuggets in six games in the first round. The year after that, the Warriors won the NBA title. Then they made it back to the Finals the next four years, winning two more rings while they were at it. Last season was a dud. This brings us to the present.
“It’s a totally different kind of season,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday afternoon. “So you celebrate the smaller victories in a season like this. I think that’s really healthy. When you got five straight years or win the championship or bust, it’s incredibly stressful. It’s exciting and you wouldn’t want it any other way, but it adds up. So I think this year has been refreshing in a lot of ways. It’s been a really meaningful season for our franchise in a lot of ways.”
On the eve of their first-ever play-in game against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Warriors are the clear underdogs. After all, the Lakers — also known as the defending NBA champs — aren’t supposed to be here. They are “supposed” to be at the top of the standings, but injuries caused them to fall.
Los Angeles is healthy now. And on paper, this looks like the worst-case scenario for the Warriors. The size alone that the Lakers have is enough to make you want to count out the Warriors. Yet, they’re remaining confident in what they’ve found through the final 20 games of the season heading into Wednesday’s game.
“The Lakers are a very good team. They have undeniable talent on their team. But I think everybody feels like we can win this game,” Juan Toscano-Anderson said.
The Warriors are a different team than they were when they faced the Lakers just before All-Star weekend in February, and then in March, just after the break.
At that point, the Warriors didn’t have an identity. They were still figuring out their rotation, trying to find scoring from anyone not named Steph Curry, and their defense was still in flux.
Heading into Wednesday’s play-in game, the Warriors know exactly who they are. The Warriors’ increased shooting and, as a result, floor spacing allows them to play an offense more similar to what they had during their dynastic run. No, it’s not to the same level, but it’s closer to the offensive system they’ve built around Curry to best utilize him.
Their defense is top-5 in the NBA, and they’ve found a rotation that has allowed them to win 15 of their last 20 games.
“They haven’t seen this group of eight that have been out playing at a high level and playing a different style,” Curry said. “We haven’t seen them healthy since we came down here earlier in the season back in January. It’ll be about who can study up the best and who can know what certain patterns are. We know we’re undersized, we got to play physical, got to play smart. And lock up that paint to give ourselves and chance and let our speed take over. Make our style win the night.”
If the Warriors can impose their will on the Lakers, they should feel confident about their chances. If it were a seven-game series, that’s another conversation. But, it’s not.
“It’s who’s the better team that night,” Curry said. “A seven-game series, obviously every game can take a different shape … but when it comes to a one-game, whoever plays better tomorrow night should win. That comes down to execution and how locked in you are mentally at the task at hand knowing the other team’s strengths. Because you won’t have as much time to adjust without games coming behind it. They are at home, that does matter, but I feel like we can come in guns slinging, ready to start the game off hot and carry the momentum that we’ve had over the last 20 or so games.”
If the Warriors lose to the Lakers on Wednesday, they still have another chance to make the playoffs. The loser of this matchup will play the winner of the Memphis-San Antonio play-in game, and the winner of that will secure the eighth spot in the playoffs.
But Golden State isn’t considering that as an option right now.
“We know it’s there, but that is our mentality: We must win this game,” Toscano-Anderson said. “Everybody wants to win this game and everything that comes with it. We want to win the game for what the game is itself, but then playing at Staples, playing the Lakers, it’s a play-in game. Those are all of the things that make it more enticing to win. We’re locked in. We want to win this game. We’re going to compete our asses off.”
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The Warriors understand how tall the task is against the Lakers — literally. And they know that if they commit the same mistakes that have cost them games in the past, they will fall to the defending champs. The Warriors know that nearly everyone is picking Los Angeles to win this game. After all, the Lakers weren’t supposed to be here.
But in some ways, the Warriors weren’t either. And that’s why they believe they have a shot at a win.
“Nobody thought we were going to even be in this position,” Curry said. “A lot of people had us way way way down in the standings coming in after Klay (Thompson) got hurt. So there’s a lot of things that we’ve already flipped on its head to this point. Might as well keep going.”
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