The Warriors are who we thought they were

Overreacting to one game is a mug’s game. Overreacting to two games, on the other hand, is a sign of maturity and grace.

To paraphrase Maya Angelou, when an NBA basketball team shows you over and over again who they are over the course of 82 games, you should believe them the first time. Monday night, the Golden State Warriors yet again showed us who they are when they fell to the Sacramento Kings, 114-106, in Game 2 of their first-round series. They just couldn’t shake a sloppy and all-too-familiar half-competent, half-drunk first half, even as they made a mad rush late.

Now, staring down the heretofore unknown abyss of 0-2, the Warriors are on the brink. Not playoff elimination quite yet (not until one more loss!) but the brink of something. A reckoning with a truth they’ve held sacred for the entirety of their run: They had another gear when the moment demanded it. Another level of intensity to call upon when necessary.

Because we’ve seen it so much over the years, we believed it, to some extent at least. They’d flip the switch, the team assured us, and many pundits agreed. Once the games started to count, not the kids’ table that is the regular season, we’d see a different version of the lackadaisical, mismatched group we’ve been watching bumble around all year. Only, much like the emperor and his new clothes, maybe there was no switch to flip. This is just what they are now. Don’t hold it against them. They told us already! Again, and again and again. Don’t overthink this.

We clung to the “flip the switch” theorem so ferociously because, well, We Believe. That’s carved into our bones as shameless Warriors partisans. But We Believe was always about being the giant-slayer, not the giant, let alone the old, irritable giant that the Warriors have become. Believing hasn’t felt as aspirational and affirming since Golden State became the Manchester City of the NBA. We love them still, obviously, and want a dozen more championship banners, but the world has turned and left us weird. Regardless of the seed, regardless of the regular season record, the Kings are clearly the giant-slayers, clearly the team that Believes. The Warriors are the team that expects.

The Warriors have been a very, very good basketball team for several years now. They’ve kicked a lot of asses and been better than enough of the other great teams and lucky enough when it mattered to ruthlessly go for the prize. It wasn’t because they were a team of destiny or had the Mandate of Heaven. We don’t have to confuse greatness with inviolability; that’s a disservice to the work they put in. They were who they were and now they are who they are. That’s all there is to it. That’s why they’ve lost two straight playoff games to a team that hadn’t sniffed the playoffs since “Borat” came out.

Warriors forward Draymond Green was ejected from Monday night’s Game 2 in Sacramento.

Randall Benton/AP

This is not meant to take anything from the Kings, who deserved those wins. They went at the jugular of the defending champs with no fear and protected their homecourt and gave their city the gift of two additional beam lightings. These Kings remind me of the Warriors that took down the Denver Nuggets in 2013, complete with a taciturn, hardworking Harrison Barnes. In one way, they’re a team too young and dumb to be scared off by conventional wisdom. In another, they’re the team that has played like veterans, especially in the big moments, especially in the clutch. As the Warriors wilt, the Kings grow.

Sacramento plays like a group who trust each other. They earned that trust over the course of a long slog of a season in which they could have given up and packed it in several times over but didn’t.

The Warriors’ celebrated “experience” has amounted to nothing but two losses — albeit close-ish ones — and Draymond Green stomping on Domantas Sabonis’ ribs. Yes, Sabonis baited a volatile dude in the heat of a tense moment, but so what? The most important game of the season thus far, a game that was very much in reach, and Green’s “flip the switch” instinct was to step on a guy’s lungs? I love Draymond, all of us do I’m sure, but that was a brutal moment. Forget about the ethics of angrily stepping on a man whilst on his back (you don’t have to forget about the ethics if you don’t want to), but Draymond is aware that he is being filmed right? Optics and whatnot? Live by the sword, die by the sword, all that.

Green having a bit of a meltdown in a big moment is not exactly shocking, not exactly a surprise. Nothing is a surprise, really. The Bummer Prophecy that was foretold in the 2022-23 season has come to pass. The Warriors were awful on the road in the regular season and wow, shockingly, now they’re down 0-2 for the first time in the Steph Curry era. You can’t flip a switch for such a fundamental weakness it turns out. But hey, there’s so much blame to go around, no one should hoard it! Joe Lacob and Bob Myers let Golden State’s perfect role players walk and decided to bet everything on Moses Moody and James Wiseman. Fine. But then Steve Kerr’s philosophy clashed with the whole youth movement thing, opting instead for playing problematic fringe talent.

Now the preamble is over and still this team is so clearly out of sorts. Especially after losing a close Game 1, you’d expect the team to come out with a vengeance, come out imposing their will. They did that for moments, for stretches, but it was a far cry from their former flip-the-switch heyday. Even when they had the lead, they never really felt ahead. The good parts of Game 2 felt like treading water. The bad parts felt like drowning.

Sure, Andrew Wiggins has only been back for two games, so no blame should fall on him, yet. But the other major commitment of the offseason, Jordan “Sicko” Poole, has shown us who he is again and again. No one should be surprised at what we’re seeing now. Furthermore, should we be surprised that a team with no size, no size at all, is being abused, that the only serviceable bigs are running out of fouls before the second half? Alex Len’s height is swinging this series. The Warriors are tiny and desperately need both of their functioning bigs. Just remember: It was a conscious choice not to find more size. Because you know what’s more important than size in basketball? Veteran know-how. The time-honored skill of flipping that switch.

At this point I’m just waiting to see if Steve Kerr reaches the end of his frayed rope and reveals his inner Dennis Green in a barn burner of a Game 4 postgame press conference. His team? His mediocre, aging team who have been great but maybe aren’t now? They are who you thought they were, even though they all said they weren’t. Even though they assured us things would change in the playoffs. But of course, they’d say that. It’s important to have faith in yourself. You can’t operate at this level without an almost psychopathic confidence. But that has to be tempered with realism at some point. You can’t blame the Warriors for leaning on that confidence and the huge pile of victories that made this mind set possible. They’ve won so much, gutted so many doubters and haters over the years, thrown naysayers into dungeons and kept every single receipt. It’s not Golden State’s fault for believing their past could save their present. It’s our fault for not believing our eyes when we saw what we saw.


Warriors in 7.

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