Warriors must make NBA history to escape Play-In gauntlet, a task befitting of their turbulent season

Source: CBS
Golden State will look to become the first No. 10 seed to advance to the NBA playoffs

SAN FRANCISCO — Well, it’s not going to be easy. And with the way this Golden State Warriors season has gone, why would it be?

Before their 123-116 regular season finale win over the Utah Jazz even hit the fourth quarter on Sunday afternoon, the Warriors knew their fate: A No. 10 seed in the Western Conference — which wouldn’t have even made the postseason four years ago. But now, thanks to the Play-In Tournament wrinkle that made the final day of the 2023-24 NBA season so exhilarating, Golden State is Lloyd Christmas trying to convince itself, as much as anyone else, that there is indeed still a chance.

To pull off the impossible, the Warriors will have to do nothing less than make NBA history. Not only has a No. 10 seed never won a title — one has never even gotten out of the Play-In round. The journey begins on Tuesday with a trip across I-80 East to Sacramento to face a familiar but hobbled Kings squad. If they escape the raucous confines of the Golden 1 Center, it’s on to New Orleans or Los Angeles.

“When this team’s back is against the wall, I like how the group shows up,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said after Sunday’s win. “Not ideal, but it is what it is, and that’s what we’re faced with. We want to keep playing for much longer into the season, so just gotta go get a dub.”  

The final weekend of the regular season was a perfect microcosm of Golden State’s season. The Warriors led Friday’s home game against the Pelicans by double-digits before letting it slip through their fingers. Turns out, thanks to the Kings’ loss to the Suns that same night, that a win would have given Golden State the No. 8 seed. Instead, the loss took fate completely out of its hands and wins by the Kings and Lakers locked the Warriors’ feet into the cement shoes of the 10th seed.

Just like this weekend, the entire year has been characterized by moments of hope followed by crashes into disillusionment: Draymond Green’s lengthy suspension. Andrew Wiggins’ months-long disappearing act. Chris Paul’s hand injury. 

It’s been frustrating, to say the least, and that emotion came out at different times throughout the season — even the good times. After Stephen Curry hit a dagger 3-pointer to beat the Orlando Magic in a crucial road game a few weeks ago, the same game in which Green was ejected fewer than four minutes into the first quarter — the normally mild-mannered superstar kicked a chair into oblivion with equal parts elation and exasperation.

The Warriors’ slow start had them swimming upstream all season, and even their strong stretches saw them gain little ground in the brutal Western Conference standings. But, Golden State certainly has reasons for confidence heading into the most daunting postseason scenario they could possibly encounter.

The Warriors won 27 games after Jan. 30, the most by any NBA team not named the Boston Celtics. During that stretch, their offense and defense both ranked in the top 10. The run coincided with head coach Steve Kerr tweaking the starting lineup — putting Green at center and inserting rookie Brandin Podziemski for Klay Thompson, who has thrived in his new role off the bench, averaging 20 points on 42% 3-point shooting as a reserve. Since then, rookie Trayce Jackson-Davis has emerged as the team’s starting center, presenting a daunting defensive front next to Green.

And if anybody is going to win two straight elimination games on the road, it could be a Warriors team that went 25-16 away from home this season.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who have won championships, veteran players like Chris [Paul] who are unfazed by the road,” Kerr said. “We’re very confident heading out for these next couple of games, hopefully.”

They also start their potential run with a Kings team that has lost two important backcourt pieces in Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk. If they can manage to get past Sacramento and the loser of the Lakers-Pelicans matchup, the Warriors would boast a massive experience advantage against the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, whose starting lineup carries an average age lower than the North Carolina Tar Heels.

But, even with all the positives for the Warriors, just getting to the first round is still a monumental task — especially considering the number of devastating losses Golden State has suffered this season in close games. Kerr expressed optimism after earning the 10 seed on Sunday, but what choice does he have?

In a rare instance, the Warriors are the underdog, which should create a freedom and looseness that could propel them into the NBA history books as the first 10-seed to successfully navigate the Play-In gauntlet. If not, there will be even more questions to answer this offseason about the direction of the franchise moving forward.

“We were a little bit in disarray for a while early in the season, trying to find ourselves,” Kerr said. “A lot of guys really stepped up, not only on the court, but off the court and in the locker room. We have a really good connection on this team, good chemistry, guys pulling for each other, putting in the work. So I’ve got a good feeling about what’s ahead.”  

THE AUTHOR: Colin Ward-Henninger

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